There is one reference work — actually two massive volumes — that I value more than any other in my personal library. I've had it for nearly 20 years now, and I still consult it at least once every few days.
You may have already guessed that I'm referring to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The Compact OED came in a giant blue slipcase with a little drawer at the top containing a magnifying glass. The print was very small because the publisher had condensed a dozen magisterial tomes — the sort of work only a library could own — into something that was almost given away as a book-club premium. That's how I got mine, back when I didn't need the magnifying glass to read it. The OED is now available online, but I usually prefer to use my old, familiar volumes.
First published in 1927, the OED may well be the most heroic achievement in the history of English literary studies. But can you even name the editor who started it? In his book, The Professor and the Madman, Simon Winchester presents the gripping narrative of a scholarly project — initiated by James A. H. Murray — that took 70 years and hundreds of contributors to complete. It's amazing that anyone even attempted such a work, but the OED was the product of a more confident era in the humanities. It reflects the kind of faith that our culture now places only in scientific undertakings such as the Human Genome Project.
Why does such a project as the OED seem impossible today? Why is there no vital center in the humanities that might animate a comparable project?
Today's academic humanists — or at least the one's I see at the big conferences — seem fractured and fragmented, desperate for recognition and stature.
I was once asked — in a job interview for an entry-level academic position at a second-tier state university — to explain how, exactly, my scholarly work might "redraw the boundaries of the profession." I felt compelled to make up some kind of grandiose lie, but I didn't believe in the urgency or importance of my work enough to make my exaggerations persuasive. The mundane value of my project was clear enough: "It interests me, sometimes; it's thoroughly researched, and I think a few scholars and students will consult it periodically once it's published."
I could feel the temperature of the room drop as if I had just stepped into a meat locker. The rest of the conversation was perfunctory. "Don't call us, we'll call you," their manner seemed to say, and the door, in due course, slammed behind me. In the hall my eyes met those of the next candidate; I noted the customary rictus of feigned self-confidence like something out of a Kabuki performance.
Do people still ask such questions in job interviews at the Modern Language Association Convention? Have such pretensions been mocked out of existence yet? Somehow I doubt it.
Such moments suggest the inability to acknowledge that the average branch campus of a state university does not need a cut-rate celebrity-clone on the faculty. Just as we inflate our students' grades, we elevate the expectations we place on our colleagues and ourselves without a corresponding increase in sustaining resources. What the average college needs is not a bevy of academic prima donnas but a steady supply of workers willing to provide yeoman's services, instead of spending their lives crippled by the complementary delusions of grandeur and inadequacy.
What would it be like if the humanities moved away from this culture of individual "genius," a notion that belongs to the allied cultures of capitalism and romanticism more than to skeptical postmodernisms professed by most academic humanists? What if, instead, academe strove to embrace a culture of collaboration, organized around projects that do not showcase, first and foremost, the supposed brilliance of certain intellectual celebrities?
What if, as I proposed in my last essay on "Principled Mediocrity," we began to support an ethic of service to our students and the profession instead of privileging and rewarding what, in the end, adds up to an epidemic of indifferent institutional citizenship masquerading as "excellence."
Perhaps the profession has always been thus and can never be otherwise. Perhaps I am simply making virtues of my own inadequacies. Yet more and more, the academics I respect are not the celebrity theorists — who will, in all likelihood, soon be reviled, then forgotten — but the unsung heroes, including the nearly anonymous compilers of reference works I consult almost every day for my teaching, writing, and continuing self-education.
One of the first books I acquired when I became an English major was Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Margaret Drabble. I wore it out as an undergraduate, and, with the OED, it taught me more about literature than just about everything I've read since.
In time, as I became an Americanist, I came to depend on more than a dozen of the Oxford Companions, along with the Concise Dictionary of American Biography, Poole's Index to Periodical Literature, and Jacob Blanck's Bibliography of American Literature, ultimately completed by Michael Winship. In addition to those, I've always depended on the electronic version of the Modern Language Association's bibliography; it's what I most value about the organization, along with the work of the MLA Committee on Scholarly Editions.
Right now, we seem to be entering some of kind of "Golden Age" for readable reference books, particularly in the category of place studies. During the last few months I have eaten breakfast with The Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago, 2004) edited by James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, which will soon be succeeded in my daily life by The Encyclopedia of New England, edited by Burt Feintuch and David Watters (Yale, 2005). Once I finish reading that, perhaps I'll start browsing Kenneth T. Jackson's The Encyclopedia of New York City (Yale, 1995), or revisit my partial collection of the American Guide Series, which was originally produced under the aegis of the WPA in the 1930s and 40s. (If only the federal government could underwrite such a series today, it might provide invaluable work for the hordes of unemployed humanities graduates.)
But those are just a few idiosyncratic examples that represent some of the preoccupations of my scholarly subfield. More important, just about everyone in academe depends, on a daily basis, on reference books that confer, unfairly, very little esteem on their compilers.
The writers and editors of reference works are often regarded, like lexicographers, as harmless drudges. Worse yet, they are sometimes treated as second-rate because they seem to misunderstand how the academic status game is played. You can't rise meteorically if it takes 10 years — or 70 — to painstakingly assemble facts, or to organize large numbers of contributors, instead of making an assertion, based on abstract theorizing, that supports the pieties of one academic faction or another.
Nevertheless, I've been clearing out my theory shelves of so much stuff that seemed absolutely vital 10 or 15 years ago and seems almost worthless now. Who cares about a shrill application of a dated theorist to a second-rate novel making a bid for canonicity on the basis of political concerns that now seem almost irrelevant?
Most academic careers are built on books that barely survive the decade in which they were written. Reference books, for all their long-term value, can only be undertaken safely by scholars with status to burn and careers to conclude. A generation ago, graduate students could earn their doctorates by compiling a useful annotated bibliography; today, they undertake that sort of valuable apprenticeship exercise at their peril. The result is a profession that rejects the foundational skills and breadth of knowledge that seem necessary for the grand generalizations we now expect from scholars who are barely out of graduate school.
Perhaps it's time for many of us — graduate students and older scholars alike — to reassess the hierarchy of scholarly publishing and career deadlines that demand one form of scholarship over another, and, in the process, produce mountains of ephemera for every volume of real value to the profession and the larger public.