Berks Day 3: Is The Book Dead? (Uh, No)

May 25, 2014, 1:04 am

books1When I wasn’t selling memberships to the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians (you can buy one here, or outside the book exhibit tomorrow), or announcing the new Berks website launching in beta this summer, I was on a panel about the future of publishing. It was packed. Thanks to Paul Eprile (also in charge of the book exhibit) for organizing it; and Jean Quataert, Melissa Pitts and Lois Banner for a great conversation.

My opening remarks had the intentionally provocative title: “Should Historians Write Books? How the Digital World is Changing Your Career.” And without further ado:

Two years ago, I was on a plenary session at the American Historical Association, during which environmental historian Bill Cronon, the President of the AHA announced that he no longer owned any books. Downsizing from a house to an apartment, he had sold everything and replaced all his books with eBooks kept on electronic devices. Waves of horror rippled through the room. As scholars, were we not defined by our books? Numerous people in the crowd then raised comments and questions with a familiar theme: because of digital technology, the book as we know it would soon be dead. Although several of us on the panel pointed out that there was a robust book exhibit nearby, featuring about ten thousand newly published or briskly selling books, the anxiety did not diminish that something crucial to our identity was on its way out.

I want to push back at the idea that technology is killing, or will kill, books. I think that is nonsense, and I will tell you why. But I also think that historians need to re-examine their very narrow idea of what a book is and why it is a form of scholarly production that is so central to our identity. History is said, in contrast to, say, economics or physics, to be a “book field.” One proceeds along the ladder to full professor by writing books: depending on where one is situated, that might be one or two at the time of tenure; and even though many of us do not have a second book out at the time of promotion to full professor, we all behave as if a full professor without two books is like a car without wheels. And by books, we not only mean things printed on paper, we usually mean monographs.

So the anticipated demise of the book raises great fears among historians, not just, to paraphrase English novelist Anthony Powell, for how — without books – we might furnish a room that reflects our scholarly selves back to us. The death of books raises questions for how we might preserve careers whose general practices – and the significant presence of women in the professions over the last forty years has not altered this at all – have not changed since the 1890s.

And yet, digital scholarship raises some interesting and rarely discussed issues about how history, as a field, might evolve. For example

  • Is increased difficulty in publishing also generative? It’s no accident that medievalists and early modernists have been at the forefront of new digital history practices. These fields were the canary in the coalmine when publishers began to cut back. It is relatively difficult to get a book published in these fields, and several others: by contrast, US history and modern European history are far easier fields in which to publish.  What can we learn from these scholars about  new ways of telling stories and engaging audience that we ought to be adopting, regardless of whether we can get our research published as a traditional book?
  • A second question to raise is: What counts as a book? A broad look at the long past would suggests that books can be performative, pictorial, or a form of oral discipline carefully passed down to the next generation; a look at the present might point to video games and virtual environments like Second Life in which the player makes narrative choices, and inhabits alternative personae; and in which developers create stories with numerous narrative arcs and endings.
  • A third question to raise would be the emphasis that the digital places on short-form writing, an under explored and often dismissed genre among historians. Here I am not talking only about blogs, which may or may not be scholarly, depending on their emphasis, but displacing the monograph with writing that requires less than a 5-10 year publishing timeline. Long form writing is a stubborn, and inexplicable, fetish in the humanities. Other fields? Not so much. It is well-accepted that some creative writers – Alice Munro, for example, choose short form writing exclusively. Some short form writers develop characters, plots, and fictional geographies across multiple discrete stories: I am thinking of John Updike. bell hooks has made a career as an essayist and has never, to the best of my knowledge, written a lengthy work of criticism. Why not historians? Furthermore, I don’t know about your students, but mine don’t read whole books: would it not make sense to marry the preference of some historians for short form writing to an evident need for well-crafted history that is written to size?
  • Finally, the purported demise of the book is not a direct consequence of neoliberal cost cutting. There are many kinds of digital publishing, as I have suggested above, but although distribution of electronic texts is less cumbersome, and sometimes less expensive, than physical book digital publishing, digital humanities scholarship is not cheap either, and there are significant technology costs to keeping any platform — whether it is files written for eReaders or a born-digital project — up to date.
  • My final position? Digital publishing offers tremendous opportunities for historians, but only if we can detach our ideas about excellence from the physical book as we know it.

A final note: there was an emergency call for conference Twitter guidelines after one Twitterstorian was rebuked during a panel. My view? Ask the panel if you have their permission. Not everyone understands Twitter, and some people who do may not wish their remarks written down and recorded for posterity. Brian Croxall’s Ten Tips assert that people should expect to be tweeted unless they request otherwise: I’m not so sure of that, but the other none tips are great.


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