Forget prestige, or some desire to add to the world’s depository of knowledge: the thrumming motor beneath most academic endeavour is an enthusiasm so ardent it might be called obsession. We know our subjects so well that we realise how little we truly know about them, but that only encourages us to research more. Even when it’s a living, academia is a calling.
Liking things a lot is quite the desirable trait these days. The 21st century has seen the inexorable rise of the fan in every cultural sphere. It is now difficult to imagine trade publishing without the excitable ecosystem of bloggers generating an abundance of free publicity, for the pure love of the book. So where are the academic book bloggers? I want to see excitement about these books. I want GIF-laden reviews of A Brief History of Time and Gender Trouble. Personally, I could extoll the virtues of Ronald Hutton’s work to anybody, with as much enthusiasm as I might recommend a favourite novel. Admittedly, there are many factors that might put off the “casual” potential reader of an academic book, especially those around accessibility and the perception that the text is not “for” them. But if we return for a minute to that idea of producing books for the good of mankind, to expand our horizons: what good does it do to promote that learning only to the academy?
Last week I had the pleasure of attending an interdisciplinary postgraduate conference on Fear and Loathing in Fantasy and Folklore at the University of Edinburgh. I listened to dozens of fascinating speakers giving papers on Game of Thrones, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and other dry and obscure topics. The atmosphere was great: smart, passionate people engaging with academia in a lively, accessible way. There was a hashtag. There was buzz. And the whole thing was free and open to the public.
In an age of instantly available information overload, the curatorial is becoming more valuable than ever. Skimming a Wikipedia article, or reading the first page of Google results simply does not give the reader the same value as a text written by somebody who has dedicated a significant part of their career to understanding the nuances and context of their subject. Academic books can be vital, fascinating, and even fun.
During Academic Book Week, I suggest we try to harness that feeling, and look outside of the traditional audience for these books. As publishers, we have a responsibility to disseminate information, and if we can make sure it is accessible to those outside the academic environment, we should. After all, we want our books to be read.