The Lacking instead of Looming Tower?
Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower is a populist account of the formation of Al-Qaeda, and in particular, the ascent of Osama bin-Laden as terrorist figure. The work is populist in so far as it at times reads as a work of fiction along the lines of Tom Clancy: whereas Wright is providing valuable information on the subject matter, he nevertheless garbs his prose in a non-academic style and narrative that detracts from the work’s value to the political scientist. In this regard, the book’s main merit for the academic and student is that it may serve as an introduction to the subject matter. However, as a source for academic literature, such a writing style ultimately detracts from the work’s relevance outside the sphere of popular non-fiction literature.
Wright’s work from another perspective reminds the student of political science that novelizations or popular accounts of historical events are to be viewed with suspicion when academically treating a subject matter. The intent of these works is primarily to entertain: they do not pass through the scientific rigors of academic publishing, such as the peer-review system. Accordingly, such works should not find themselves in the bibliographies of academic articles and monographs.
It could be argued that such works do have a value to the extent that they provide, although in a popularized form, historical data to the reader. The danger, however, is that the naïve reader will take such an account as definitive. When a reader takes up a book of fiction, he or she knows it is fiction: when such popular history is read, perhaps many readers think they are getting an academically rigorous account. The usage of such texts as foundational stones for any type of serious debate is thus negligible because of their lack of rigor.