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"We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit"

Posted by Christopher Shea  June 9, 2009 02:51 PM

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University press director: textbooks need not be cookie-cutter projects

Peter J. Dougherty, director of the Princeton University Press, presents a "Manifesto for Scholarly Publishing" in the latest Chronicle Review (the magazine of ideas inside the Chronicle of Higher Education). Outlets for publication may well be flourishing today, Dougherty concedes -- how could he not? -- but that's not the case if your goal is to wrestle with hard ideas. In that realm, the university press remains an oasis. Commercial presses, he writes,

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.

Why does this matter? "Hard ideas define a culture -- that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself."

Dougherty goes on to argue, however, that there is room for improvement:

He'd like to see university presses publish more titles from the "burgeoning professional disciplines," which remain in the shadow of the liberal arts, at least in the eyes of editors. And too many editors, he thinks, look down on textbooks and other synthetic, summing-up works, deeming them cookie-cutter projects. Yet when Dougherty began his career as a sales rep for the college division of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, in 1972, among the broad-gauge titles he pitched were Noam Chomsky's "Language and Mind," Walter Jackson Bate's "Criticism: The Major Texts," and Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's "Modern Rhetoric."

"If that's cookie cutter," Dougherty concludes, "please sign me up for some shares of Pepperidge Farm."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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