The public controversy over Randall Kennedy's new book began months before it was even published; The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and others devoted lengthy, high-profile articles to Kennedy's politics and thesis. Blame the book's title. If it had been called The N-Word, the media's preferred euphemism for what Kennedy calls "the paradigmatic slur," the debate over the Harvard law professor's latest (his second, after Race, Crime And The Law) would certainly have been less opprobrious and self-conscious. But part of Kennedy's intention with Nigger: The Strange Career Of A Troublesome Word was to get readers to address their knee-jerk reactions to the titular epithet, which is harder to do when they're trying to pretend it doesn't exist. For all the exploitative, confrontational qualities of its title, Nigger is a gentle, non-inflammatory, even-keeled book that reads like a well-conceived term paper, right down to the "in the pages that follow, I will discuss these questions" topic sentence at the beginning. Kennedy breaks his thesis down into four parts: In "The Protean N-Word," he offers a brief history of the term and shows the different forms it's taken in America. "Nigger In Court" discusses types of legal cases that turn on the use of the word, from tort law to diminished-capacity defenses. "Pitfalls In Fighting Nigger" discusses reactions and (in Kennedy's opinion) overreactions to the word where it's entered public debate. And in "How Are We Doing With Nigger?" he succinctly discusses the present. That's a lot to fit into 176 pages, and Kennedy manages by writing briefly and anecdotally rather than comprehensively. His concision can be frustrating, as he lets unsupported value judgments, delivered briefly in passing, stand in for analysis: He paternally refers to court decisions or precedents as "wise," "correct," or, most uselessly, "good." Given the overarching scale and controversial nature of some of Kennedy's pronouncements, more detail and more reasoned investigation seem called for. But his willingness to face the ugliness of the word (in a lengthy series of riveting, horrifying stories and examples) and still defend it against a total ban is noteworthy, and his arguments on its behalf, while not universally convincing, are intellectually challenging. Kennedy's book isn't the definitive scholarly work on what Christopher Darden called the "filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language," but it may be the most daring, for reasons that go far beyond the aggressive title.