Roundup of new university press books on intellectual vitality (opinion)

Several titles in this spring’s university press catalogs seem linked, as if by an invisible thread. Here they are in a sequence that may reveal their interconnections.

The papers in Curiosity Studies: A New Ecology of Knowledge (University of Minnesota Press, April), edited by Perry Zurn and Arjun Shankar, ask “what curiosity is and what resources it holds for human and ecological flourishing,” including “its role in technological advancement and global citizenship.” (Quotations in this article are taken from the catalog descriptions.) Instead of treating curiosity as a perennial human drive, contributors see its future as requiring “a new ecosystem [in which] knowledge production can flourish, driven by real-world problems and a commitment to solve them in collaboration.”

By contrast, Renata Salecl treats A Passion for Ignorance: What We Choose Not to Know and Why (Princeton University Press, September) as the natural and perhaps salutary response to “our post-truth, postindustrial world,” with its “constant flood of information and misinformation,” making it sometimes “impossible to differentiate between truth and falsehood.” Too fatigued by the effort, some people opt out of trying. The author considers how “the passion for ignorance plays out in many different aspects of life today, from love, illness, trauma, and the fear of failure to genetics, forensic science, big data, and the Incel movement” and makes a case that, for all its ill effects, “there may also be a positive side to ignorance.”

Standing at the intersection of curiosity and ignorance is the figure James W. Parkinson depicts in Autodidactic: Self-Taught (University of Kentucky Press, January). With a culture largely organized around a “spectator mentality and an obsession with instant gratification,” the United States has “more than 30 million adults in the United States today who cannot read,” despite the best efforts of teachers “to excite students about learning to read and write.” The author, a lawyer, recounts “his inability to engage intellectually in his youth and his efforts to educate himself over a span of 40 years — all to remind readers that education is a lifelong challenge.” I say this in all seriousness: the publisher needs to make it a priority that this volume be released as an audiobook.

If ever an activity had continuous self-education as a prerequisite, it’s that of setting thoughts down into words. Thus Nicholas Delbanco’s Why Writing Matters (Yale University Press, March) and Amitava Kumar’s Every Day I Write the Book (Duke University Press, March) are destined to find many of the same readers. Recalling “his own experience with mentors such as John Updike, John Gardner and James Baldwin,” Delbanco takes up “questions of influence and the contradictory, simultaneous impulses toward imitation and originality.” Kumar’s essays draw on “interviews with an array of scholars whose distinct writing offers inspiring examples for students and academics alike,” while also offering advice on such nuts-and-bolts questions as “making use of a kitchen timer.”

Having written, one publishes, or tries anyway. Michael Chibnik, former editor in chief of American Anthropologist, describes the view from the other side of the process in Scholarship, Money, and Prose: Behind the Scenes at an Academic Journal (University of Pennsylvania Press, May). Chibnik reveals how he assembled diverse materials, assessed contradictory peer reviews of manuscripts submitted for publication and collaborated with authors to improve the legibility and clarity of their articles — all of this at the single most prominent journal of a discipline with subfields that sometimes just barely overlap. He recounts “controversies that emerged from his columns on open access and biological anthropology and the inclusion of politically charged material in the journal,” but he also considers “the need to keep costs down and revenues up in an economic environment in which libraries are cutting subscriptions and publishers are considering the future sustainability of journals.”

Let Jessica Pressman’s Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (Columbia University Press, October) serve as the final bead on the invisible thread. Even as more and more books appear as digital commodities, cultural activity “from literature to kitsch objects, stop-motion animation films to book design” reveals a certain fetishism of the printed artifact. The “new status of the book as object and symbol” derives from its capacity to provide “shelter from — or a weapon against — the dangers of the digital; they can act as memorials and express a sense of loss.” And to bring things full circle, the intangible availability of an ebook on a tablet seldom has the aura of a paper-and-ink volume that has piqued a reader’s curiosity.

Inside Higher Ed