Thursday, May 2, 2019

The Future of Books?

“Professors don’t assign books anymore.” This was my editor at Harvard UP, right after I had signed my book contract for Policing the Open Road.

I murmured back something like, “Hmm … that’s interesting.” But my mind was actually roaring, “WHAT?!”

Let me back up. In college, I got a glimpse of what it meant to be an historian, to study history. It meant going beyond learning dates and who did what—that was just the starting point. The next level was about interpretation. Textbooks, I discovered, were for beginners. Advanced students read academic history books, the culmination of a historian’s research on a topic. Each interpreter of the past had a distinctive voice and offered a different perspective. History in its highest form, I learned, was a never-ending conversation about how to understand the past and, therefore, also our present.

The beginning-of-the-semester ritual of lugging home a stack of books from the bookstore became for me one marker that I was really learning history. I still remember many books from those impressionable years, like Chris Stansell’s City of Women and Drew Faust’s Mothers of Invention. These books were powerful. Studying history changed how I thought about almost everything. As a concrete example, I became a feminist in college.

Back then, it never occurred to me that one day I could write a history book. The thought of writing words that people I did not know might want to read was too preposterous to even enter my mind. This goal developed slowly, in small steps, and over many years. By the time I arrived in grad school, writing a book seemed like a distant, but attainable, dream.

So I didn’t quite know how to respond when my editor essentially told me that my dream would not end the way I had always imagined. Realistically, the chances of my book—most history books—appearing on a syllabus are small. The fortunate ones get a chapter or two copied for a course packet. Like my airline miles, the reward had changed just as I was nearing the finish line. There are no more free flights, just free magazines.

Two years ago, I didn’t have a platform to start a conversation about these changes. I still don’t really, but I do have LHB for the month of May. So I’ll open with some questions; feel free to leave comments below or email me if you have any insights. Assuming my editor is right (and I’m sure he has the numbers to know), why is it that professors are assigning fewer books? And is there anything that can be done to bring books back into the curriculum?

In the next post, I’ll write more about the case for books. I’ll also share how I wrote Policing the Open Road so that readers might want to read the whole thing.

Sarah Seo