I got a nice surprise in the mail Friday – a copy of the book where one of my essays was recently published (University of Chicago Press is distributing it in North America, if you’re interested). I have to admit that I was more than a little thrilled to crack open the cover, see my name in the table of contents, read the description of my piece and how it contributes to the collection in the introduction, and then read the essay itself on the pages of the book.
I have been critical of traditional academic publishing for some time (which might be an understatement). The traditional system is largely closed (due to in no small part to high costs), glacially slow, and ultimately, I think, unsustainable. I admire the work that the MLA and other groups are doing to try and open up (and speed up) the academic publishing world, taking advantage of the vast expanses of the Internet. But as expressed by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, some habits are very hard to break, and our love of the book and printed word seems to be one of them.
I broached the subject on Twitter.
It just so happened that I was having these thoughts just as Anvil Academic was having their Twitter chat on their new digital publishing model (read the Storify of the chat here). I think that while we are increasingly viewing publishing both “fiction” and “academic discourse” differently (see, also, this special issue of World Literature Today dealing with very short fiction). I’ll even go so far as saying that even though being published in IHE is by far the most prestigious and widely-read place where my writing has appeared, it still doesn’t give me the same thrill as if it were to appear in print in a magazine or newspaper (sorry, Scott!). There’s a reason why Dean Dad and Mama PhD have put out books; it’s because, ultimately, our society (and not just the culture of higher education) places more value on a book.
If we are talking about legitimizing digital academic publishing, I think we need to seriously address the love affair we have with the printed word. In his description of his course on Hypertext, Jesse Stommel I think sums up quite nicely why we love the printed word:
A printed book has weight, odor, a certain texture in our hands. Roland Barthes writes in The Pleasure of the Text, “Text means Tissue” (64), a nod to the literal substances from which books are made (pulp, rag, and animal hide), while also alluding to the materiality of language. When we read, we engage the physical object of the book in an intimate way, and the words themselves have physical character through the typographical choices that govern how they appear on the page. Further, each word has shape as we say it, a part of our mouths, lungs, throat, or gut it tickles into action.
This, of course, applies to the word on the screen, but I think that our physical experience of reading, holding a book, turning a page, feeling the paper, etc. Of course, being published is still the highest form of approbation, and as it becomes increasingly rare, so too does it becomes increasingly valued. I want to hold a book and see my name there. But it's all just cultural bias. How do we change something that is so embedded in our culture's DNA?
Books and print will always hold a special place in my heart. But I’ve got to move onward and upward in terms of what I value about my work and where it appears. Let’s hope higher education is ready to make that move as well.