Scholarly Meets Mainstream

University presses depart from their usual academic selections to offer general-interest books

THE NEW COLD WAR?:RELIGIOUS NATIONALISM CONFRONTS THE SECULAR STATE By Mark Juergensmeyer University of California Press 292 pp., $25.


A NATURALIST IN COSTA RICA By Alexander F. Skutch University Press of Florida 382 pp., $16.95.

THE IMPERATIVE CALL:A NATURALIST`S QUESTIN TEMPERATE ANDTROPICAL AMERICA By Alexander F. Skutch University Press of Florida 331 pp., $16.95.

MEANING OVER MEMORY: RECASTING THE TEACHING OF CULTURE AND HISTORY By Peter N. Stearns U. of North Carolina Press 254 pp., $24.95.

BLACK STUDIES, RAP,AND THE ACADEMY By Houston A. Baker, Jr. University of Chicago Press 110 pp., $14.95.


WHILE the scholarly monograph remains a central component of their enterprise, university presses have edged into a vacuum created by commercial publishers. In recent years, for-profit presses have increasingly focused on the bottom line, sometimes forsaking worthwhile titles that do not portend a bountiful payback.

Nudged by a weak economy, the not-for-profit university presses have been scouting new material, sometimes those very manuscripts rejected by the commercial presses on financial potential rather than substance. As a result, the distinction between trade publishers and university presses has blurred.

Adjusting their priorities, university presses are emphasizing more general-interest books that will sell reasonably well while satisfying their traditional responsibility to broker new ideas and to educate the public. The presses have increased their presence in bookstores, especially the large chains, begun advertising more in the mainstream media, packaged their books attractively, and brought their ordering systems in line with the trade presses.

Public-affairs publishing, a long-time strength of the university presses, has seen an emphasis on the readable, often shorter, book that might have once been brought out by a commercial publisher. For example, Mark Juergensmeyer's "The New Cold War: Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State" makes the history and issues surrounding worldwide religious fundamentalism accessible to a general audience.

Juergensmeyer suggests that unity among religious nationalists is unlikely. He asserts that we should come to terms with the enduring presence of religious nationalism and understand that religion offers a vision of morality and justice that certain nation states cannot or will not assure.

Many university presses have chosen to highlight environmental concerns among their public-affairs offerings. These books range from think pieces on global ecological responsibility to old-fashioned nature writing. Donald Worster's "The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination" is a contemplative essay on the way that past ideas about the relationship of humans to nature persist unavailingly into the present. Worster maintains that no amount of tinkering will correct what is , at root, a fundamentally obsolete and dangerous world view dependent on the appropriation of nature.

The fatalism that tinges Worster's view is aggressively counterbalanced in Christopher D. Stone's "The Gnat is Older than Man: Global Environment and Human Agenda." A practically minded environmental lawyer, Stone has set out to turn "apprehension into a more positive direction." He proposes a Global Commons Trust Fund, monies raised on the premise that nations utilizing the common heritage of the planet - the oceans and the atmosphere, for instance - be charged for their use. He recommends that the natu ral environment and species within it be represented through appointed "ecoguardians."

Politics is also at the heart of George B. Schaller's "The Last Panda," a book that concentrates as much on the authorities responsible for panda preservation in China as on the natural history of the species. Writing in the first person, Schaller presents a heartfelt delineation of greed, waste, and good intentions gone awry. He contends that we have an obligation to maintain pandas in the wild and that the Chinese policy of sending the popular species to zoos that request them, on long-term "rent-a-pan da" schemes, should be halted in favor of creating strictly maintained panda preserves in China.

Many publishers, including university presses, have responded to the reading public's taste for ecologically vested nature writing and travel literature. In this vein, the University Press of Florida has reprinted the two-volume autobiography of award-winning ornithologist Alexander F. Skutch. "A Naturalist in Costa Rica" and "The Imperative Call" tell of Skutch's early years as a naturalist-farmer in Costa Rica, a country whose preservation of large rain-forest tracts has made it a favorite destination for bird-watchers and other ecotourists. Skutch writes in the relaxed parlance of 19th-century naturalists, whose careful observations were evoked in a pictorial language that is enjoying something of a revival today.

The Florida press played to its strength in tropical American studies by bringing out the Skutch reprints. Other smaller university presses have adapted their ongoing lines in regional subjects, including fiction, to attract a greater market share. The University of South Carolina Press recently published "That's What I Like (About the South)," a comprehensive collection of short stories penned by Southern writers in the 1990s. The volume offers fiction from nationally known authors like Bobbie Ann Mason

and Mary Lee Settle, as well as from less familiar writers like R. H. W. Dillard, whose contribution provides the title for the collection.

The University of Georgia Press has also presented several fictional offerings, including a collection of stories titled "Mother Rocket" by Southern writer Rita Ciresi, winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. The sleeper in the Georgia Press line might well turn out to be the satirical mystery novel, pointedly set at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, called "Murder at the MLA." Written under the pseudonym D. J. .H. Jones, the story is guaranteed to make academics blu sh to see how easily English departments can be parodied. Jones's serious recommendations to improve the academy include gems like requiring English professors to teach literacy in the public schools in order to obtain tenure.

Explaining current curriculum battles and activities undertaken in the interests of what is variously labeled multiculturalism, political correctness, and deconstruction has become a minor industry among the university presses. Among some rather tart-tongued competitors, Peter N. Stearns's "Meaning Over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History" is a balanced argument for reform. Stearns challenges the presumed mission of the humanities to instruct high school and college students in the cano n of Western literary classics. He yearns to replace one orthodoxy with another, but he also wants to help students develop skills in analysis that will let them think for themselves.

Stearns's book can be beneficially paired with Houston A. Baker Jr.'s straight-talking essay on "Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy." As a founder of black studies in America and a former president of the Modern Language Association, Baker knows firsthand the issues driving the academic politics of multiculturalism. While he urges intellectuals to encounter rap as a crucial kind of urban expression, he refuses to endorse all rap music as honorable and condemns the "vicious sexism" of 2 Live Crew.

One promising area of university-press publishing is cultural studies. As the humanities have come to recognize popular culture as a substantial and meaningful realm of inquiry, the prospect for academic books with a broad audience has enlarged. Wolfgang Mieder's "Proverbs Are Never Out of Season," a look at the way in which proverbs have adapted to the post-industrial age, is simultaneously entertaining and edifying. Equally appealing is Iona Opie's "The People in the Playground," a closely observed, an alytic record of kids' games, jokes, and nonsense verse. Opie's work is based on actual playground interactions. We learn not only what kids say, but also why and when they say it.

An example of the new cultural history and the recent trends among university presses is the widely reviewed study by Fred Miller Robinson, "The Man in the Bowler Hat." Robinson chronicles the social symbolism of this distinctive fashion article as it has appeared in literature, art, and popular culture. His chapter on the frequent use of bowler hats in the Surrealist paintings of Rene Magritte is complemented by a discussion of bowlers worn by early film stars like Charlie Chaplin.

The university presses' reach into more salable general-interest works is not without its critics, who equate popularity with superficiality or who imagine that economic pressures inevitably erode quality. This latest harvest, which barely samples the yield from some 100 university presses in the United States, goes a long way to allay those suspicions.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Scholarly Meets Mainstream
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today