Working in publishing has its perils. One from my personal experience is that you run into many books you just have to read. Not necessarily for work, but because you want to. This varies from publisher to publisher, of course. There weren’t too many Gorgias Press titles I felt compelled to read, although there were a few. Since then, however, my employers have transported me back to that kid in a candy store feeling time and again. Friends will sometimes send me book recommendations—I always appreciate that. Often the books are from the very publisher for whom I work. In some cases I was actually in the editorial board meeting where the book was approved. It makes me feel like my small contribution matters when someone recommends a book on which I voiced an opinion.
In these days when thoughtful approaches to life are under constant duress, it’s nice to be reminded that people pay attention to books. Relatively few buy them, of course, but books are the storehouse of our knowledge. We all turn to the internet to get information quickly. If you linger, however, you find that much of the web fall into the “opinion” column rather than that of factual reporting. Books from established publishers are vetted on at least one or two levels before a press makes a commitment to print them. Self-publishing has muddied those clear waters a bit, but the seal of approval of a reputable publisher is what makes a book. For example, if a publisher discovers a serious error in a work it will often be pulled from the market. We don’t like to spread errors.
The problem is volume. We long ago surpassed the point during which one individual could read every known book in her or his lifetime. In fact, those who were credited with doing so in the past are given a pass because many ancient texts lay undiscovered under the soil during their times. For all our foibles we are a prolific species when it comes to writing things down. For academics, publishing is often a requirement for tenure and promotion. There are a lot of books out there. This is one surplus, however, that isn’t as celebrated as it should be. I have had people suggest we have too many books in our home. Unlike too much food in the fridge, however, these pieces of intellectual nourishment don’t go bad. And if you point me to a book about which I’m already aware, I always appreciate the conversation anyway. Of some good things you can’t have too much.
So now it’s got a stain on the cover. And it didn’t even come with a book jacket. Perhaps it’s symbolic? The year was 1993. I’d finished my doctorate at Edinburgh the year before, and, against all odds, had landed a full-time teaching position. That position was at Nashotah House, but never mind. Like all doctoral students I’d sent out my dissertation for publication. It’d been accepted by the prestigious series Alter Orient und Altes Testament, produced by the dual publisher Verlag Butzon & Bercker and Neukirchener Verlag. Most European houses print these books cloth-bound (mine in blue!), no dust jacket, straight to the library market. I was proud. I had my first copy in hand in time to show around at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. There I spied William Holladay, my Hebrew teacher, now deceased. He was sitting on the floor in a corridor, eating his lunch. I joined him and showed him my book. In his inimitable way, he snatched it (leaving a grease stain on the cover) and within seconds said, “there’s a word misspelled in your title.”
Crestfallen, I took my first copy back. I wrote to the publisher, but these things only ever receive one printing and I never heard back. How embarrassing! Your first foray into academic publishing, and you look like an idiot who can’t spel. Now, in my defense, the cover is simply what I thought was a photomechanical replication of the the title page. The world “Millennia” was spelled correctly where I’d proofed it inside. How they left out an “n” on the binding die is a mystery. I never got proofs of the cover. Besides, a book’s title is on the title page, right? Never judge a book by it’s cover! Mine has a stain on it.
The book, although on Asherah, never got much notice. It’s still routinely overlooked. One of the truly sad things, though, came from a senior scholar in the field, nameless here, who did mention my work. In his book he put a [sic] after the ailing word on the cover. That was an intentional slight. Had he looked at the title page—from which I’d been taught to take bibliographic references—he would’ve found the word spelled correctly. Many publishers do not let authors proof the binding die for their cloth-stamped covers. A senior scholar knocking down a struggling junior with an obscure three-letter word. Welcome to academia. The book did get a kind of second life when Gorgias Press reprinted it, with additional material. I still sometimes pull that first copy off the shelf, however, and wonder what can take the stain out of blue canvas. As long as someone can feel superior citing a mistake beyond a young colleague’s control, I suspect it will remain.
Posted in Asherah, Books, Goddesses, Higher Education, Memoirs, Posts, Publishing
Tagged Alter Orient und Altes Testament, American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature, Asherah, Edinburgh University, Gorgias Press, Nashotah House, Neukirchener Verlag, Verlag Butzon & Bercker, William Holladay
I’m cleaning out the closet at work. I doubt that either J. C. L. Gibson or Nicolas Wyatt envisioned my future thus. Edinburgh University was exotic and optimistic, designed to make my curriculum vitae stand out. More like standing out in the rain. “We have to ask what’s best for the company,” I’m told. I’m not a proud person, but earning a Ph.D. to take out the trash seems like a strange allocation of resources to me. “Take one for the team,” we’re told, since we’re part of a company and when the company prospers, we prosper. On a pro-rated scale, of course. It’s not that taking out the trash is beneath me. I willingly do it at home; my first career aspiration was to be a janitor. Only now I’m dressed in work clothes for the City. And I spent nine years in higher education to get here.
Lately I’ve been pondering how this “for the company” trope is a one-way street. Knowing in advance that Nashotah House could be a Hindenburg career for a liberal, I gave it the old college try. Writing about 90 pages of class notes a week for my first year of teaching, attending mandatory chapel twice a day, I tried not to step on any toes. Even though the theology over which I was forced to chew smelled a bit like this garbage I am now carrying, I made no fuss. Don’t rock the boat, especially if it’s a garbage scow. Take one for the team. After fourteen years of not making a fuss, I was summarily dismissed. I found out, literally, how hard it is to get a job as a garbage man.
Portrait of a livelihood about to end.
Eventually I landed a job at Gorgias Press. Neither prestigious nor lucrative, it was a job and I had already proven I could take one for the team. Positions evaporate around here like dribbles from a spilled cup of coffee. So I found myself at Routledge, jetting around the country, spending long hours on the bus, being told to think what was best for the company. Only don’t expect the company to do the same for you. Stoking egos, I tried to get people with qualifications I could match to write a book for me. At Nashotah House I played on the football team (don’t laugh, it’s true). We had only one game a year, against our rival—the now defunct Seabury-Western in Chicago. During practice one day, one of my students blocked me with a forearm to the chin that left me on my back, seeing stars. I can take one for the team. But sometimes the company needs someone to take out the garbage. Ask the guy with a doctorate in rubbish removal. He always thinks about the company.
In front of my desk at home sits a chair. That chair came to me when Gorgias Press was subleasing some of its office space and was necessarily divesting itself of unnecessary furnishings. Gorgias Press came to inherit the chair with the closing of the for-profit Katherine Gibbs School of Business, a branch of which leased half of the building. I sit in that chair, contemplating the future of education. I have just finished reading Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities (as recommended by my friend Marvin). Despite the fact that it is the first academic book I can recall leaving me in tears, it is a book every Ph.D. and potential Ph.D. in the Humanities should read and/or be forced to read. Buck the trend! Buy a book! Donoghue is a rare individual who actually takes time to research what is going on in higher education and who has the courage to report it directly. My regular readers will know that for nearly two decades I worked in higher education, spending every one of those years hoping that the next year things would get better. Thank you, Dr. Donoghue, for speaking the truth.
I didn’t enter higher education as a child of privilege. My career ambitions in high school were to be a janitor. Encouraged along the way by well-meaning teachers and professors, I eventually found a job (lackluster as it was) in higher education. What I didn’t realize is that the game had been rigged. I recall being told with crystalline clarity that college and university positions were headed for a vast turn-over in the 1990s and jobs would be abundant. Donoghue heard that story too. His research shows that the writing had been inscribed on the wall as early as the 1970’s (before I reached high school) that this would not happen. This is not hindsight either; studies were already indicating that higher education was going after the vaunted business model of the glitzy for-profit world. Shiny baubles. Worse yet, the roots of this inevitable transformation reached back to the Civil War and the nation that emerged from it—replace the dead on the battlefield with the dead in the factory. Only only method of judging value existed: money.
The most disturbing aspect of all of this is the irreversibility of this trend: in today’s world only one value system is admitted, and it is purely material. No other way in higher education is capable of assessing worth. Rather, the alternate ways are being ruthlessly silenced by the transformation of university to corporation. That transformation was well underway long before the 1970’s, of course. I had recognized at a young age that capitalism is a cancer that eats away the soul of people, convincing them that financial success is the only goal worth pursuing. I protested. I spent years earning a doctorate in the Humanities to show that other values still throbbed away in the hearts of those who weren’t taken in by shiny baubles. If you have any interest in resuscitating the human spirit, read Donoghue and weep with me. The only consolation that I have is that I am sitting on a chair of a for-profit school that fell victim to the value system it once supported. Capital and cannibal are too close for comfort.
There I was, some 3000 miles from home, in the office of a professor I’d never met before. On her desk a Gorgias Press catalogue. In that catalogue a miniscule picture with my diminutive face. Such are the little ironies of life. My ric rac career began when others started making suggestions about how being a janitor might not be living up to my full potential. Sometimes, often, I wonder if they were correct. Cleaning up after other people’s messes in the halls of our educational system seems like an incredibly honest career to me. Instead I have steered a course between the halls of academia and the halls of commerce. It is easy to suppose that I’m not really in control since even if I choose the general direction, I haven’t selected the specific circumstances. Recently I attended a conference where Gorgias Press had a booth. I looked over the tables, spying names of authors whom I had given their first start in publishing. With books struggling for elbow room in my own head, it is a bittersweet experience.
Watching the glacial ballet of higher education unfold, it often occurs to me that universities are not smart. Many brilliant minds work in them, and much light shines from them, but on an institutional level decisions are often made that jeopardize the entire enterprise. Over-emphasis on sports, over-utilization of adjuncts, over-payment of administrators—these are not signs of soaring intelligence. They are signs of institutions in a muddle as to their true identity. Are they businesses or centers of creativity and education? The basic business model is not “one size fits all,” and universities managed to maintain an enviable idealism until they began to emulate the corporate world. The tattered results lie all around us.
All through my educational journey, there was no guiding light. In my experience, higher education was a wondrous journey that suddenly terminated when I didn’t measure up to someone else’s standard of Christianity. By that point, I was ill-prepared for the savage politics of higher education. The transition from author to editor may sound simple enough, but things are seldom what they seem. Education may not make one smart, but it sure puts ideas in one’s head. Sometimes I reflect on those books that will never be written. I’ve never been any publisher’s darling, but here I am staring at a little picture of a little man. I’m sure there must be a lesson here somewhere, but I’m not smart enough to figure out what it might be.