… university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas — whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism — when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority. Think of the University of Illinois Press and its Mathematical Theory of Communication, still in print today. Commercial publishers, except for those who produce scientific and technical books, generally don’t traffic in hard ideas. They’re too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor’s recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.
Hard ideas define a culture — that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores “the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing — and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share.” The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.
This is the lead-in to a manifesto asking publishers of scholarly books “to be more creative by introducing new subjects into our existing lists,” leading to a “hybrid vigor” that “will put us on a stronger course and renew the place of books in the world of ideas.” This is a great plan, but as I review the piles of books are really want, possibly need, to read but can’t make time for, I wonder if we have to pursue an academic career to do serious reading – to justify the commitment of time, to make it a priority. Maybe we need a complementary project to assert that priority in the lives of ordinary working people. Turn off the television set, bang your head into a challenging book filled with hard ideas.