Thursday, March 03, 2011

some comments of mine on Rutt

allow me to say that my purpose in this review is not to slam Rutt, not to attempt to make everything Rutt says or concludes wrong.  instead, my conversation is to discuss the value of Richard Rutt's books as a source.  Richard Rutt, it would appear, took a bunch of books, primarily written in English, and read them and made his notes in the margins and his wife encouraged him to publish his conclusions. 

he reached some good conclusions, he reached some questionable conclusions, and unfortunately for us, there is no way to tell from his book, which are which.  His book is helpful in that it brings up the questions about naalbinding, that hadn't been asked by the general knitter before.  I don't like or dislike the book--i find it irritating that Rutt didn't bother to make this book valuable.

Most random knitters would never read this book cover to cover.  and moreover, they would simply assume that since Rutt got it published and he states things so authoritatively and has so many sources, etc, that he must be right.  so, his book got some people interested in the history of knitting--and in the process gave plenty of information--which may or may not be true.

the vast majority of people who would really READ this book would actually be interested in an authoritative source.  and if it were an authoritative source it would have more value to everyone. if Rutt had given sources, (author and page) people who wanted to know could check those sources.  instead, the book is a series of conclusory comments that no one but Rutt knows precisely why or how he came to. 

is this the best we've got?  probably in a single source.  in some ways.  What Rutt's book needs is a disclaim in bold capital letters on the first page of text (not in the introduction at the very end).  It needs to say:  this book is an amateur bit of research.  it is not the be all end all of knitting history information.  it is actually a long ways from that.  it is not authoritative.  if i turned this book in as a high school research paper, i'd fail.

is Rutt at fault?  not at all.  he wrote what he wrote, and managed to get it published.  more power to him.  the problem is that people are using it as the "bible of knitting history".  instead it is at best a tertiary source of information.  it does not appear, for the most part, that Rutt went and looked at the textiles that he describes in such detail.  had he done so, there wouldn't be mistakes in describing color.  Hell, if he had bothered to look at his own book he wouldn't have.  in my particular copy of the book there is a color plate of the swiss pouch in the last post i made.  this type of "research" isn't research. 

I suspect that Rutt read a bunch of books--assumed those books were telling the truth as they knew it--and published his own comments on those books.  a lot like these blog posts.  only he got them published as an authoratitive bit or research.  it is clear that he intends it to be authoritative.  he got it published.  (if he thought he was mistaken it's unlikely he would have published it, and even if he did, he wanted poeple to read and believe what he said).  now, how authoritative is he when there is easier research to be done?  (in the Victorian age and later) i've no idea... i've not read those chapters with an eye for mistakes yet. 

in the end, the flaw in Rutt is two fold--first Rutt himself is a lazy academic.  he makes too many conclusory statements without any source to back him up--and in many cases he doesn't even bother to explain his own thought process.  the second problem is in the use it is being put to--which Rutt, to some degree or another intended.  this is not the final authority on knitting history.  and yet, when people propose alternative possibilities and theories, they are most often met with "but Rutt says...".  i've encountered on numerous occasions.  the words are not always "but Rutt says...", but the meaning is clear.  no other book puts forth the claims that Rutt does, and Rutt's theories have, for the most part, been accepted, whole cloth, as the TRUTH.  as such, anyone working outside the confines of what Rutt proposes, is considered wrong by many people.  and that is unfortunate, and far from encouraging further scholarship, it has apparently been heralded as the be all, end all... and so no further research is needed. 

so, my point.... read Rutt, but read it knowing that it is a tertiary source and that Rutt's conclusions are not the only conclusion that could be reached from the information.  take it with a grain of salt...and don't slam people who assume there is much more to learn, because even Rutt says he asks more questions than he answers and that further research is needed and necessary.

4 comments:

Chris Laning said...

You say you aren't out to slam Rutt, but when you say things like "lazy academic," "failure to seek out.." "self-importance," and "doesn't even bother", that does not sound to me like you are commenting neutrally.

I think you are also noticing all the places where Rutt does not cite his sources, but ignoring all the places where he does -- and there are many of them.

I will also point out that you don't *know* what other sources he consulted other than the ones in the bibliography. For instance, he has clearly consulted some of the primary literature (academic papers, not books) and some sources in languages other than English (German and French, at least). You say you are assuming he read "a bunch of books, primarily written in English" and I think there is evidence otherwise.

Also, in the cases where I actually know more than what he puts in the book, he is generally right about what he's saying. This inclines me to trust him more when I don't actually know more than what's in the book.

For instance, he has more reasons than vague resemblance or the absence of other examples for saying that the Sion/Chur purses may have all come from one source: they are all made in the exact same type of silk thread, the colors of the silks all match (i.e. all the purples are the same color, as far as we can tell with the fading that's happened), there is good evidence they were all worked using the same tools (specifically a knitting frame rather than needles), and together with some embroidered purses they form a clear group using a specific type of decorative motifs, all from the same general geographic area. Some of this information is in Schmedding (his German source, and the ONLY other published description of these purses) even though he does not say it all in this book. Art historians attribute paintings to specific painters on exactly this sort of evidence. Of course such a conclusion is an educated guess, and of course he's generalizing on very little evidence, but so do we all, and he says so.

This is intended to be a book for a popular audience, and it has been and continues to be popular, as witnessed by the steadily rising prices for it on eBay and the popular pressure put on Interweave that convinced them to reprint it in 2003, despite the publisher previously saying she would never reprint. So I don't think you are correct that a popular audience wouldn't read it. I therefore disagree with your conclusion that those who would read it would expect it to be an authoritative reference. I think its use as one has surpised him considerably, and I don't think he envisioned when he published it that it would become a reference book, so he didn't write it as one -- and I think that's quite sufficient as an explanation of why he did not footnote or explain every conclusion.

As I think I've said, I think you're right in saying that people misuse this book and take it as a reference in ways the book itself doesn't support. I think you're equally right in saying that those who need a reference wish that Rutt had written a different kind of book. But he didn't, and we use what we have.

rita n/ said...

i do say lazy academic. what else would you call it when i don't know all the sources of his research? who does that?

he does cite sources occassionally. i would hardly call it often however.

sure, it's intended to appeal to a wide audience. are you seriously suggesting that including a full bibliography and footnotes would have changed that?

do i find Rutt useful? sure thing. do i find him to be less than an adequate researcher? absolutely.

Chris Laning said...

You wrote:
sure, it's intended to appeal to a wide audience. are you seriously suggesting that including a full bibliography and footnotes would have changed that?

I am saying that giving all sources for all statements would likely have meant the book would not have found a publisher.

Publishers of popular books very strongly resist including footnotes, endnotes or long bibliographies. They feel that these turn readers off because they are "long" and "dull." And they add pages to the book that (the publishers believe) don't produce an obvious return in greater sales. They put a great deal of pressure on authors to *not* have detailed footnotes or bibliographies. Even academic writers working with academic presses sometimes have to fight to get their notes included.

rita n/ said...

that's fine. that does not make it less than adequate scholarship. Rutt may have intended well, and he certainly got some people more interested. he also gave misinformation in what he left out or represented in ways that he liked.

i do not believe that rutt went into the writing of the book with no preconceived ideas. unfortunately in order to do good research, one must be willing to admit that they are wrong. that their hypothesis may have been in error, etc. rutt appears to me to have gone into this book with what he wanted to be true, and then he simply wrote off any scholarship that predated him and disagreed as "wrong" with very little explanation.