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'Understanding Revolution,' Patrick Van Inwegen 

A Whitworth prof’s new book on political upheaval bogs down its theories in heavy prose.

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Whitworth professor Patrick Van Inwegen couldn’t have asked for better timing for the release of his book, Understanding Revolution. It came out just as the Middle East combusted in political flames.

Suddenly, revolution wasn’t an artifact of history. It was the driving force for the present.

Which makes it unfortunate that Understanding Revolution is merely a textbook, with all the inherent flaws that plague textbooks.

Most textbooks sag with the weaknesses of academic writing, shunning flavor and seeming to fear that any kind of flair will undermine the seriousness of their subjects.

In Understanding Revolution, you won’t find contractions or sentence variety or any of the literary devices that make reading enjoyable. Instead you’ll find: “A number of structurally oriented works have integrated the analysis of state, class, and international structures with concepts such as culture and history to provide as holistic an explanation of [revolution] as possible.”

That’s a typical sentence: important-sounding enough for students to mark with a highlighter, but dry and dense enough that reading feels like homework.

It’s too bad. Revolution is a topic that begs for verbs that come drenched in blood and reek of gunpowder.

Meanwhile, because Understanding Revolution is meant to be an evenhanded undergraduate textbook, it lacks the strong thesis and intense focus of academic papers. Come in wondering things like, “Why do revolutions happen?” and invariably you’ll receive the anticlimactic answer, “Well, there are many different views …” The opening chapters here defining revolution are organized hap-haphazardly and punctuated by charts that confuse more than clarify. But the subsequent chapters, like one that categorizes roles that students, workers, clergy, and intellectuals take in revolutions, are fascinating. There, the information is compelling enough that you’re engaged despite the dry writing.

But there’s no need for Understanding Revolution, or any textbook, to handicap itself with textbook-style writing. Sure, students will be required to read this. But shouldn’t they want to read it?

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