Ancient Near Eastern studies, where my academic work has the widest recognition, is still an area of fascination. I have to hold myself back when I see a new book published in the area. You see, I learned when I researched in this field that there is little academic opportunity in it. As per usual, the public seems quite interested so academia is not. A few practitioners, however, have been able to break through. One of them is Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum. He’s been writing popular books about ancient ideas and getting respectable press for doing so. His most recent book (The First Ghosts), as described in an article in the Smithsonian, deals with the earliest depiction of a ghost.
Perhaps because of copyright complications, his book on the subject doesn’t seem to be widely available in the United States, despite having been published by a trade house. It could be that the publishers don’t think anyone will be interested. Hello? Ghosts and Mesopotamia? Haven’t you been paying attention? This is part and parcel of the academic publishing world. The editorial board has to decide which books see the light of day and which won’t. And how to price them. Is this primarily a library book or can it somehow claw over into the crossover market? Academic publishers will casually add five or ten dollars to the price, assuming it won’t hurt sales. Guess what? It does. As much as I’d like to read Finkel’s book, my interest doesn’t hover around the 60 dollar range.
When I first studied Hebrew I wanted to buy a textbook my professor mentioned, but it cost nearly $100 in the US. This was back in the 1980s, so that really was steep. When we moved to Scotland I discovered the same book was available there is paperback for a reasonable price, so I bought it. That’s when I began to realize copyright laws direct the shape of scholarship. Publishers decide what makes it into reputable book form and who will be able to afford it. That’s power. You see, people have believed in ghosts from as long as we could convey the idea. The dead never really leave us. Finkel’s book examines a clay tablet used to exorcise ghosts and may contain a line drawing of a spirit. Who wouldn’t want to read such a book? It’s getting press coverage but those who make such decisions have decided, apparently, there’s no market for it. When that happens a book hasn’t a ghost of a chance.
Postscript: Checking Amazon one last time before clicking “publish,” I see the book has now come down to the $30 range. I can’t take credit for that, but my point still stands.