Take Time to Ask a Tortoise

Keeping it simple seems to be sound advice for a variety of settings. Simple connotes pastoral. Simple seems to be associated with a different time when technology didn’t gum up the works. Simple was when people held a tool and knew what resulted at the other end. Part of what occupies the modern psyche is the belief that the world is more confusing than ever.  

As a director of a university press, I hear the moans about how technology has changed everything. Everyone can be a publisher with a computer and some software. Some publishing experts still wish libraries would buy more books. The world would then be sane again.  People who say this aren’t.

One issue that always surfaces about scholarly publishing is its ponderous nature. As good writing becomes less of a priority and science and math rise as areas of importance, materials that come to university presses need more editing. We could all toss in the towel and communicate via twitter and text messaging. Of course, the permanency of that legacy might be lost in unprecedented sunspot activity or some unknown computer malady set off a flawed iPad app.  

In the late 1800s, William Guthrie, reviewing a book of French fiction noted “we can only confess that here is a scholarly book, a vigorous book, a witty book, a whimsical book, one that will not only ‘repay a reading’—that is, discharge the principal of its debt as an honest book—but generously count out in good gold a larger interest than even a usurer could have expected.”  It was the gay nineties after all, but how could anyone pass on such a tome after plodding through the review.

Amelia Mason who wrote a social history of the French Salon culture was inclined “to wonder if these noble cavaliers and high-born women did not yawn occasionally over the scholarly discourse of Corneille and Balzac upon the Romans, the endless disputes about rival sonnets, and the long discussions on the value of a word.” I’m sure a bottle or two of Bordeaux was passed around to ease the pain. But words do have meaning especially for golfers who need the confidence to play “at their highest level weather [emphasis added] trying to clear a water hazard off the tee or hit the high soft lob shot around the greens.” Weather must be forecasted differently where “Nitro” golf balls are manufactured.

Or maybe we should take the A. Melvile Bell 1886 suggestion: “[B]etter is an inferior address, vitalized by eloquence, than scholarly discourse that falls dead from lips of dullness.” Obviously Bell understood that good delivery can overcome many shortcomings. However, flowery speech can’t cover-up failures in investigators’  data manipulations like the famous academic paper often used to make the case for austerity by two eminent Harvard professors which was debunked by a graduate student doing his homework.

Maybe University presses could get better coverage for their plights by offering prizes to prospective authors. The field seems to be wide open for this kind of initiative as long as the whole process is handled above boards. In 1898, I’m sure some enterprising director spent a good deal of time deciding on a good topic for a competition before coming up with the idea to give out two prizes for the best manuscripts on the psychological, physiological, and pathological effect of celibacy on women.  

University presses, rightly or wrongly, are viewed as the tortoises of publishing. Slow. Ponderous. Stuffy.  However, paying some attention to detail may not gratify the masses, but it only takes one bad result, quoted repeatedly, to misinform generations.  

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