Roundtable: Academic Book Week—What’s an Academic Book Anyway?

Silent SpringIs Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring an academic book? Is Mary Wollestonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman? The list of twenty nominees for “the academic book that has most changed the world,” part of the UK’s Academic Book Week, is a pretty confusing collection. Plato’s Republic is a product of the academy, sure, but is George Orwell’s 1984? In the US, we’re in the middle of University Press Week, which is a much more easily-identifiable category. We should all celebrate the important role of university presses in preserving scholarly endeavour from the rapacious maw of the market. In the face of ever-deeper cuts, they deserve our vigilant support.

But if every university press book is, in some sense at least, an academic book, it doesn’t work the other way around. Some of the books that have influenced me most have been published by trade and independent presses. Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, rightly mentioned by one of our commenters on Chris’s post, was published by W.W. Norton and Co. Jill Lepore’s intellectually inspiring biography of Jane Franklin Mecom, Book of Ages, was published by Alfred A. Knopf. Those are both venerable, high-status imprints that frequently publish scholarship for a wide audience. Norton, by the way, also happens to be employee-owned, which is pretty neat.

Regular readers may not be surprised to learn that, scanning my own shelves, the left-leaning independent publisher Verso—once upon a time the publishing arm of the New Left Review—is well represented. Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism and Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century have both influenced the direction and underlying shape of my own work, while Louis Althusser remains forlornly unread, forever holding the promise of unexplored intellectual horizons. Verso’s books are often academic in tone, by which I suppose I mean they are the kind of non-fiction that doesn’t get carried away with its own sense of style. These books have footnotes and they’re not afraid to use them, which is more than could be said for Shakespeare, another entry in the Academic Book Week list.

Are we to understand that academic books are those read only by academics and their ever-diligent, hardworking, curious students? That’s one possible explanation for such a list, but if it were true, it would be a tragedy. University presses can and frequently do publish work that has a general reader foremost in mind. I’m a big fan of William Hogeland’s Founding Finance, published by the University of Texas Press. Oxford University Press has put out accessible work like Anthony Pagden’s The Enlightenment (distributed by Random House in the US) and Patrick Griffin’s brilliant America’s Revolution. It also publishes Very Short Introductions such as Richard Bernstein’s on The Founding Fathers. Harvard University Press, meanwhile, has had its share of bestsellers.

I hold out some hope that there’s a better meaning behind the weird vagueness of this list and its titular category—that the line between an “academic” book and just a book might actually be disappearing. It’s long past the time when academics (at least, those worth caring about) sought to wall themselves off from the rest of the world, maintaining a monopolistic grip on knowledge, like some sort of earth-bound Foundation. Some books are about ideas and evidence and argument and information; some aren’t. That’s a distinction I can accept. But beyond that? Long live the university press; so long, academic books.

7 comments on “Roundtable: Academic Book Week—What’s an Academic Book Anyway?

  1. danallosso says:

    Maybe that list should be titled “Books mostly read for class assignments.”

    But on the wider issue, we all recognize an academic book, don’t we? It has a particular pace and uses a less conversational vocabulary. Often employs field-specific technical jargon. Engages with the “literature” of its genre to a much greater extent than popular writing. And often avoids broad syntheses in favor of deep but narrow analysis (which I throw in partly because I was once accused of being “light on analysis” in this blog).

    In my field, it’s pretty clear Ted Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated is academic, and Charles C. Mann’s 1493 is popular. But I think that distinction is less about the credentials of the author or the rigor of data and argument than we might think. Nor, in the age of Amazon, is it about shelf-space in particular libraries or bookstores. I think it’s more about who you perceive your audience to be.

  2. Marie says:

    This is a side issue, and I hate to nitpick. But Book of Ages is an amazing book about Jane Franklin.

  3. Your well-placed reference to the Foundation trilogy brings up another point worth considering when we think about academic books: some of the best and most enduring non-academic books have been written by academics (like Isaac Asimov), but is the reverse true? Does a person have to hold a Ph.D. (or equivalent terminal degree) to be able to write an academic book? I can’t think of any examples offhand, but I’m sure some must exist. This might get perilously closer to trying to define what an “academic” is than you intended to with this post, but it struck me as an interesting corollary to your engaging discussion of academic books and presses.

    • Brad Hansen says:

      Stephanie Coontz is well published in the history of the family and does not have a terminal degree. I don’t think E.P Thompson had a terminal degree. In economics the Nobel prize winner Ronald Coase only had an undergraduate degree. I think it is becoming less and less common to find books aimed primarily aimed at academics that are not written by people with terminal degrees since you need the degree to get an academic job

  4. […] I read and write American history. Over the past few days, we’ve lauded new writing blueprints, parsed the definition of an academic book, and even made good sport of the whole reading selection process. So, in the […]

  5. […] Graphic History, Digital Pedagogy, The Origins of the American Revolution, Narrative History, and Academic Book Week. There were also a record number of guest posts this year (30), including posts by founders of […]

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