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The cover of Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby, showing Prince's iconic purple symbol guitar with a black top hat

Penguin Random House

Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius by Nick Hornby

Published in November 2022

From 1978 to 2015, Prince released 49 albums. Since Prince’s death in 2016, there have been 11 posthumous album releases.

Charles Dickens, who like Prince died at 58, published 15 novels and hundreds of other shorter pieces in his life.

We learn how Prince and Dickens generated this extraordinary level of productive output in Nick Hornby’s super-fun and blessedly short (the audiobook clocks in just over three hours) book.

For Hornby, what ties Prince and Dickens together is not biography or cultural impact. Instead, what united these two geniuses was a way of working in which creation, sharing and experimentation are optimized over caution and perfectionism.

Prince’s output was only possible because he was willing to record constantly and quickly release his music. Dickens could have never written nearly four million words across his novels if he spent much time rewriting.

Hornby is clear that it would be a mistake for almost every creative professional to follow the examples of Prince and Dickens. In a world awash with mediocre writing and forgettable music, the last thing the world needs is more content.

It is also clear from reading Dickens and Prince that elevating creative productivity above all other endeavors is not a recipe for personal happiness.

Still, I think there are some academic career lessons to be drawn from this entertaining book. For those in higher ed whose grad school completion and promotion path depend on scholarly productivity, one could do worse than to adopt Prince or Dickens as role models.

Despite what we learned from Malcolm Gladwell, the road to accomplishment and expertise in academic work does not come through 10,000 hours of practice. Instead, we get good at whatever we do in our academic jobs by creating and sharing and then doing it all over again and again.

Doing good work over the course of a career in academia requires that we mostly be okay with “good enough.” That is not a lesson I think they teach in grad school.

Perhaps Dickens and Prince should be on every grad student’s reading list.

What are you reading?

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