Books Exposed, Part Two

Scott McLemee continues his preview of the publishing season ahead.

June 18, 2008

Imagine what would need to happen for university presses to return to what was once, long ago, their virtually exclusive mission: the publication of scholarly monographs intended for restricted, indeed sometimes infinitesimal, audiences. It would require more changes than the mind can readily picture.

Libraries would need to have bigger budgets. The costs of printing and distribution would have to deflate. Chain bookstores, apart from paying for their inventory up front, must agree never to return books to publishers. And that’s just for starters. Professors, while cultivating an interest in fields well outside their own, ought to buy more books. Graduate students would be given generous stipends earmarked for building up their own collections.

Also, while we’re at it, everyone should get a pony.

But reality, which tends to be pony-free, has long compelled university presses to split their catalogs ever more sharply between specialized works and commodities designed for a wider market. Occasionally, though, a new title hits that sweet spot somewhere in between. In a column earlier this month, I began scanning the fall lists for possible “crossovers” -- books that might reach an audience beyond the ivory tower. Here are a few more possibilities.

Half the effort involves guessing what the public’s appetite might crave. Over the past few years, some university presses have been quite literal on that score. Hence the emergence of something called “food studies” -- a trend that will no doubt culminate, one of these days, in an endowed chair in Cookbook Theory.

For the moment, at least, the United Nations has declared 2008 to be the Year of the Potato, making it very timely that the University of Wisconsin Press is bringing out Crunch! A History of the Great American Potato Chip, by Dirk Burhans. Scheduled for November, it promises to uncover the “dark side of potato chip history,” according to the catalog. Alas, its purview does not extend to an analysis of Funyuns, which have always struck me as far more sinister. (See this phenomenological description.)


Another, still more stomach-churning exposé is due from Princeton University Press, which is publishing Bee Wilson’s Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud, from Poisoned Candy to Counterfeit Coffee, in October. It provides a survey of how foods and beverages have been “padded, diluted, contaminated substituted, mislabeled, misnamed, or otherwise faked” throughout history. Of any academic book published this fall, Swindled has the best chance of inspiring a really horrific documentary.

A more comforting prospect seems to be Maria Balinska’s The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, due from Yale University Press in September. This cultural history begins in 17th century Poland and ends, I’m guessing, in your grocer’s freezer – though if you think that’s a bagel, you don’t know bagels. As if to confirm that a bona fide trend is emerging within the field of food studies, Balinska’s narrative, too, has its darker side: an account of “the Bagel Bakers’ Local 388 Union of the 1960s and the attentions of the mob.”

If the Association of American University Presses gave an award for best subtitle -- which, by the way, it really should -- this fall’s strongest candidate would be Marion Nestle’s Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, out in September from the University of California Press. The book “uncovers unexpected connections among the food supplies for pets, farm animal, and people,” according to the catalog, “and identifies glaring gaps in the global oversight of food safety.”

Another appetite that always generates attention, academic and otherwise, is that of the libido. Not long ago I complained that a recent series about the history of the sexual revolution might have benefited from the involvement of scholars who actually knew something about the matter. (Instead, the producers filled out the show with commentary by fifth-rate demi-celebrities.) Clearly, though, this is an area where stirring up popular interest is not too difficult. The crossover appeal of books on the subject is obvious.

The one scholar to appear on that program was Linda Williams, whose new book Screening Sex is forthcoming from Duke University Press in November. Moving between personal recollections of how she responded to particular films and in-depth cultural and historical analysis, Williams begins with cinematic representations of the kiss -- though the book becomes considerably less chaste in very short order. Larry Flynt used to do jail time for publishing things less explicit than some of the movie stills in this book.

Even more startling for most people, though, will be Steven Marcus’s classic The Other Victorians: A Study of Sexuality and Pornography in Mid-Nineteenth-Century England. First published in 1966, it will be reissued by Transaction in September with a new introduction by the author. This is not a book to read just because Foucault alluded to it in the first volume of The History of Sexuality, or even because Marcus was doing cultural studies well before anybody was calling it that. All duly noted, of course. But The Other Victorians is fascinating in its own right -- a riveting look at how Victorian smut reconciled desire and anxiety in a vision of insatiable excess that Marcus calls “pornotopia.”

Every so often, we learn that a politician or famous clergyman, or even the occasional provost, has carved out his own little niche for pornotopian bliss. Some of those figures recover from having their walks on the wild side exposed (Bill Clinton for example) and some do not (what is Mark Foley doing these days?) In The Art of the Public Grovel: Sexual Sin and Public Confession in America, due from Princeton University Press in October, Susan Wise Bauer analyzes what works and what doesn't. Evidently "a type of confession that arose among nineteenth-century evangelicals has today become the required form for any public admission of wrongdoing.” This book should probably be bound in loose-leaf format, thereby permitting frequent updates.

If all else fails, plead behavioral compulsion. Leading disability-studies scholar Lennard J. Davis’s Obsession: A History, appearing in November from the University of Chicago Press, traces how behaviors once understood as the result of demonic possession were transformed into symptoms of a medical condition -- one with a “huge increase (estimates up to 600-fold) in diagnosis” over the past three decades.

Another condition that is diagnosed ever more frequently, autism, is the subject of two books due out this fall. In Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure (Columbia University Press, September), Paul A. Offit, a physician and professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, “recounts the history of autism research and the exploitation of this tragic condition by advocates and zealots” who champion dubious theories and quack cures. The philosophical implications of the disorder are considered by Deborah R. Barnbaum in The Ethics of Autism: Among Them, But Not of Them (Indiana University Press, November). The disconnection between the autistic individual and other people raises questions about both the nature of consciousness itself and the possibilities of moral understanding among those with the condition.


Health-care reform is bound to be on the national agenda once George Bush is safely out of power. In October, Harvard University Press will publish Harold S. Luft’s Total Cure: The Antidote to the Health Care Crisis, offering a “comprehensive new proposal” the author dubs SecureChoice. The details cannot be quite grasped on the basis of the catalog description. But once SecureChoice is established, it seems, things will be just about perfect. All of us will be happy -- doctors, patients, drug companies, everybody. Well, good luck with that....

This survey of the fall's potential breakthrough books has been quick, dirty, provisional, impressionistic, and by no means complete. The point bears admission, if only in the vain hope of mollifying any publicist inclined to write a letter of complaint. Your press's exciting new cultural history of guacamole clearly deserved mention. I feel your pain. But variety was the intent here, and not exhaustiveness.

As a matter of fact, there is at my elbow a list of other forthcoming titles that, while of less interest to the nonacademic book buyer perhaps, do merit notice in this column. We’ll consider many of them here in months to come.

Meanwhile, your roving correspondent will soon be headed to the Association of American University Presses annual meeting, held in Montreal later this month. Here’s hoping any Intellectual Affairs readers who plan to attend will say hello. The life of a professional bookworm has its pleasures -- but conversation is good, too.


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