This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Association of American University Presses, of which we’re a proud member. To note the occasion we’re joining the rest of AAUP in celebrating university presses all this week with, among other exciting things, a University Press Week blog tour. This morning we’re happy to be serve as the tour’s first stop, and very pleased to offer a post from Anthony Grafton, past president of the American Historical Association and longtime HUP-author. Below, Grafton recalls how university press books introduced him to a world of discovery and argument as a young man, and explains how the importance of UPs in that process of discovery has only grown. After reading of Grafton’s “blue-bound loves,” head on over to the Duke University Press blog for the tour’s next stop, a post from the great Jack Halberstam.
The first university press whose books I fell in love with was Oxford (the one in Oxford). As a teenager learning Latin and Greek in the 1960s, I used and loved slim, handsome Oxford Classical Texts. They looked like no other books. Their austere Latin title pages and severe dark blue bindings, so plain they were almost ostentatious, surely enclosed mysteries. In fact, they did: Virgil and Catullus, Tacitus and Homer. It wasn’t easy, in those days, to collect OCTs. Amazon was not even a gleam in a science fiction writer’s eye, and Blackwell’s seemed unimaginably distant. But somewhere there must be a realm where these treasures were more commonplace.
When I became an undergraduate, OCTs were suddenly available, in libraries and academic bookshops. But so were the products of dozens of other university presses, American as well as British. They revealed a whole world of discovery and argument. Looks still mattered, to a young reader. Happily, each great press had a visual as well as an intellectual style—from Harvard’s handsome, erudite studies in literature and intellectual history to Chicago’s raucous, generously illustrated investigations of popular culture. Every month, the new books multiplied. The new book table at the Seminary Co-Op in Hyde Park was a sight to make the bibliophile shudder with desire—and with panic, when several of these presses ran into financial crisis around 1970, and it looked as if some of them might close.
Happily, they survived. You can still find me, a couple of times a week, going through the new offerings at our local academic bookshop—and, more often than I should, carrying a pile of them to the cashier. And you can still accuse me, with perfect justice, of taking more interest than I should in their physical beauty. It’s true, I still love university press books for their bodies as well as their minds.
But university presses matter to me now for other, deeper reasons as well. First of all, they play a more distinctive role now than they did back in the day. In the Sixties and Seventies, trade presses took chances on erudition. Pantheon brought demanding, radical thinkers and writers like Michel Foucault and Eric Hobsbawm to the American market. Most of the university press books that I could afford were Torchbooks: paperback reprints, produced by a single commercial press, Harper.
The university presses formed one continent of a larger world of serious publishing. This was financed by the expanding libraries and course enrollments of the sixties, but also driven by ideals. Over the last thirty years or so, the universities have continued to grow, but the ideals seem to have shrunk—or at least migrated. Harvard, Chicago and MIT now print most of the high-risk titles. They bring European and Asian scholars and thinkers to the English-speaking world, and take chances on new writers in English as well. We need university presses because they refresh the wells of learning.
Second, the university presses matter because they keep up the Slow Food methods that make books that will last for generations. Back in the day, editors at every good house did more than acquire manuscripts. They knew their authors, suggested topics, offered criticism, underlined the purple passages that had to go and fought for the footnotes that had to stay. By doing so they kept up a tradition that began hundreds of years before, when Aldus Manutius and Johann Amerbach, the experimental scholar printers of the exciting years around 1500, realized that they had to hire highly educated staffers who could edit texts before they were printed.
Some few trade publishers—Basic, Norton, Penguin—still produce their books in the old artisanal way. But all the editors I know at university presses still do the old artisanal jobs: they not only acquire finished books by big names, but also develop manuscripts into books and maintain standards in copy-editing and production. In the last few years, I’ve been privileged to watch first books by friends go through the presses at Harvard and Chicago, Cambridge and Yale, Princeton and Oxford. In every case, the manuscript was excellent. These days, manuscripts that aren’t very good don’t make it into print at all. But in every case, the editor treated the manuscript the way mother bears legendarily treated their cubs: as things of beauty that still needed to be licked into shape. Referees and copy-editors, designers and proofreaders all helped. Each book became more shapely and more readable, shorter and sharper, than the manuscript chrysalis it emerged from.
Third, and most important: university presses, with small exceptions there is no need to name, are still serious. “The trouble,” said George Bernard Shaw to George Goldwyn, “is that you are only interested in art and I am only interested in money.” Academic authors are mostly not too interested in money: scholar doesn’t rhyme with dollar. But academic editors are interested in art—and literature, and science. Their eyes light up when they hear about a brilliant assistant professor at Dismal Seepage who has found a new approach to Pindar or a new take on the classical tradition in the eighteenth century. They welcome books that attack hard subjects, that develop complex arguments, that mine deeply where others have only scratched the surface. For they see themselves as in business for the long, the very long term: producing books that will matter in thirty years, maybe more than they do now.
University press editors will boldly go where their counterparts in trade publishing could not tread. And boldness can be rewarding, in more ways than one. I write from experience. Harvard University Press has allowed, and even encouraged me, to write book after book about the lives and works of European scholars, whose names are not household words even in the most learned households. But Harvard also seized upon a plan that I and two friends had made, to compile an enormous guide to the classical tradition—and produced a gorgeous book that sold far more copies, and reached far more readers, than we had dared to hope. It’s this expert blend of idealism with practicality that makes everything possible. But it’s the passion and the desire to print big, demanding books about the self and Paradise Lost and late antique Christianity that abide and inspire.
All around us, traditional publishers, newspapers and magazines are struggling, if not going under for the third time. Much of the energy in our culture flows to digital media, and much of that to enterprises characterized by speed: the quick blog post or dazzling tweet that says it all in 140 characters. The university presses are taking part in this shift. More and more scholarly writing will migrate from paper to digital platforms. But the editors will shape their eBooks as they have always shaped their books on paper: as works of craft, like Camembert or cabinet work, that require thought, time and the best workmanship. They’ll still be things that last. And they’ll still be pretty, and they’ll still dazzle and seduce young men and women into becoming thinkers, scholars and writers.
Next stop: Duke University Press