The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

The AHA: An Editor’s Perspective

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I am sure some of you who attend the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association or some other major academic conference have witnessed a newly minted Ph.D pitching a book idea, based on her or his dissertation, to an editor in the exhibit hall. The editor listens and nods as the post-doc or assistant professor verbally walks through the proposal. This kind of conversation has become a rite of passage for any first-time academic author.

I have done this a few times and have always felt very awkward and uncomfortable. Perhaps it is just me, but I always assumed that the editor was bored and really did not want to hear from yet another dissertation writer trying to land a book contract. If the editor’s eyes were flashing around the room looking at the name badges of people coming into the booth I knew I was in trouble.  I knew I was in even more trouble if the editor interrupted me (always politely) multiple times to talk to someone who he or she deemed to be more important. Who wants to try to make a book pitch in such a public setting?  I was always self-conscious of the people milling around in the booth who were no doubt listening to me explain my proposal.

After I published my first book I decided that I would not use the exhibit hall to pitch proposals to editors. (Part of this decision was based on experience. My interaction with editors at the AHA and other conferences played a very, very small role in getting that book into print).  It was too much work.  As an introvert I hate such spontaneous meetings.

Don’t get me wrong, I still meet with publishers at the AHA.  But most of my meetings are scheduled well in advance so that the editors are prepared for the conversation. I try to make sure that these meetings take place away from the booth and preferably outside the exhibit hall.

The book exhibit continues to be my favorite part of any big conference.  When I enter the exhibit hall for the time my heart (and mind) still races. When I am at the AHA I try to make two or three visits.  I usually just browse titles and try to say hello to the editors I have worked with over the years.  I take pictures of the books I want to read or write about. I run into friends, acquaintances, colleagues and blog readers.

I tend to see my discussions with editors about book ideas as something separate from the exhibit itself.

With all this in mind, I thoroughly enjoyed Nancy Toff’s recent post at AHA Today about what it is like to be a book editor at the conference.  Toff is vice president and executive editor at Oxford University Press.

Here is a small taste of her post:

As talent scouts, we judge work that has already been done. Editors thus spend some of their time listening to papers and scoping out new talent. The “yield” is fairly low, but it’s a good way to check out potential authors. It tells us not only whether a particular historian has a good argument, but whether s/he is a decent human being. Public behavior is telling! Does s/he get to the point? How does the scholar react to questions and criticism? I also meet with potential authors who have written to me in advance and sent me proposals or sample materials. The conference is a chance for me to hear more about the project, to ask questions about what I’ve read, and often to guide the author in a slightly different direction. I’ll ask about competing titles, about sources, and, as at sessions, I’ll get a feel for the style of the person I’m dealing with.

Unfortunately, time is always short. So when meeting with an editor, authors should get to the point. The proverbial “elevator pitch” is no joke—we need a quick overview of the subject matter, the status of the book, and the archival work you’ve done. If the book has grown out of a dissertation, who was your adviser? That information often orients us intellectually. Think of the meeting as speed dating for scholars and editors—make a good first impression. Many university press editors are also commissioning books, especially for existing series. After consulting with series editors and doing some research, I will have identified potential authors for particular titles and set up meetings to discuss the possibilities. That’s where I wear my snake-charmer hat.

Editors always make time to chat informally with potential authors to see if we can find the perfect new project based both on the scholar’s interests and our needs as publishers. It’s kismet when those two objectives align. For example, I had worked with Frans Coetzee and Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee on a World War I primary source anthology; I hoped to do another book with them. When we met at the AHA’s annual meeting several years ago, they told me that they had many more diaries they’d come across but had not had space to include. The result of that conversation was Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from the Great War (2015), a collection of six rare and diverse war journals.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Yeager

Edwards and PrintJonathan Yeager is UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This interview is based on his recent book Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I enjoyed researching and writing the last two chapters of my first book on the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Erskine (1721-1803). In these chapters, I discussed how Erskine helped disseminate and publish the works of several evangelical authors, including many of Jonathan Edwards’s posthumous books. While conducting research for these chapters, I benefited greatly from reading Richard Sher’s seminal monograph,
The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 2007). Because Sher’s book was devoted exclusively to secular and theologically liberal Scottish Enlightenment authors, I thought that I might be able to make a scholarly contribution on eighteenth-century evangelicals and publishing. I discovered that no one has ever written on the history of Jonathan Edwards’s publications, and so I started to write an article on how his major works were published in the eighteenth century. I amassed so much material on Edwards’s publications–especially on the various people behind the scenes who helped publish his works–that I decided to write a full-length monograph on this topic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I make two major arguments that can be summarized as the following: First, even though Jonathan Edwards can rightly be described as a theological genius and the foremost American revivalist of the eighteenth century, much of his success was dependent on a host of booksellers, printers, and editors who helped publish his works before and after his death. Second, evangelicals like Edwards cared how their books appeared in print, even thought they worked harder at disseminating their works for evangelistic purposes than making profits from their publications.

JF: Why do we need to read Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: There has been
a lot written about Jonathan Edwards. But nearly all the scholarship has focused on his life and thought. In order to have the fullest understanding of Edwards and other eighteenth-century authors, we need to examine the publishing history of their books. I want readers to see that Edwards’s ideas were packaged in a particular format, with various options in sizes, bindings, paper and font quality, and pricing that made a difference in the reception of his works. More importantly, a number of people, acting as booksellers, printers, and editors, made most of the decisions on how Edwards’s books should appear in print and how they should be marketed to the public. Edwards had a definite idea on how he wanted his books to look, but he did not know the best way to have them published so that they would be appealing to the public (without giving too much away, I show this in a few case studies within my book). Knowing all this to be true, I argue that we need to take a closer look at how individuals such as these contributed to his success as an internationally-recognized author.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JY: In 1998, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in business administration and then went on to work as a financial consultant for five years with two different brokerage firms in Florida. About halfway through my time as a broker, I became disillusioned with the business and began reading a lot of books on church history and theology. With my wife’s blessing, I resigned from my job in 2004, sold our house, and moved my family to Vancouver, Canada to study theology at Regent College. At the time that we moved, I simply wanted to gain more knowledge about Christianity. I was having so much fun in Vancouver learning about my faith, snow skiing, and hanging out with friends from multiple denominations all over the world, that after finishing a MA in Christian Studies, I stayed for an additional ThM degree in theology. In my last year in Vancouver, I began corresponding with David Bebbington, who helped me with a thesis that I was working on at Regent College under J. I. Packer. Later that same year, I was able to meet Bebbington in person, and he and I talked about studying history with him in Scotland. After much thought and prayer, my family and I decided to move to Scotland in late 2006 to begin my PhD. My time in Vancouver and Scotland highlight my twin interests of theology and history. I feel very fortunate to have a job that allows me to do research and teach in both fields. 

JF: What is your next project?

JY: My immediate plan is to write an article on the publication of Samuel Hopkins’s System of Doctrines (1793). This mammoth two-volume book by Edwards’s disciple became the first systematic theology of the so-called New Divinity movement, and helped shape the next generation of Edwardseans. After this project, who knows.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

Slate: “Uncle Books” Are Written Largely By Men For Men

McCullough_I

David McCullough: Author of “uncle  books”

Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion at Slate define “uncle books” as “tomes that you give an older male relative, to take up residence by his wingback armchair.”  In a very interesting article, Kahn and Onion, after research into 614 books published in 2015, conclude that most popular history is written by men, for men.

Here is a taste of their piece:

We examined a set of 614 works of popular history from 80 houses, which either published books we defined as trade history or landed books we defined as trade history on the New York Times Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction best-seller list in 2015. (For our full methodology, click here.) We found that 75.8 percent of the total titles had male authors. Interestingly, the effect was slightly less pronounced among titles that made the New York Times best-seller list—but only slightly (70.4 percent of those authors were male). University press and trade imprints had roughly the same proportion of male to female authors. The persistence of this imbalance, even among authors writing for presses that publish more academics, seems to reflect a continuing gender disparity among academic historians. In 2010, Robert Townsend of the American Historical Association wrote that among four-year college and university history faculty surveyed in 2007, only 35 percent were women.

Read the entire article for more about the methodology used by Kahn and Onion and the response of the publishing community to this trend.

 

The Book Is Still Alive!

Here is the latest report from the Pew Research Center



Here is what it all means:

The number of book readers has dipped a bit from the previous year and the number of e-book readers has remained flat, according to new survey findings from Pew Research Center.

Seven-in-ten American adults (72%) have read a book within the past year, whether in whole or in part and in any format, according to a survey conducted in March and April. That figure has fallen from 79% who said in 2011 they had read a book in the previous year, but is statistically in line with polls since 2011.
Many book publishers, researchers and retailers have wondered whether the introduction of e-books would impact book reading overall or lead to a decline in the number of books read in print. This year’s data show a slight decline in the number of American adults who read print books: 63% of American adults say they read at least one book in print in the past year, compared with 69% who said the same the year before and 71% in 2011.
The survey data – which measure who has read at least one book in whole or in part in the previous year, how many they read and what formats they use – come as industry data out last month indicate that Americans remain hybrid consumers. Digital sales, which comprise about 20% of the market, have slowed sharply, while print sales have stayed relatively strong, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Read the rest here to learn how book reading among millennials is actually on the rise.

Bay Psalm Book (1640) Could Draw Between $15 Million and $30 Million

Jill Lepore, writing at The New York Times, reports on tomorrow’s historic auction.  A taste:

THE first English-language book printed in the New World is scheduled to be auctioned on Tuesday by Sotheby’s of New York. It’s expected to command between $15 million and $30 million — more than anyone, anywhere, has ever paid for a printed book….
…“The Whole Booke of Psalmes” is a collection of 150 psalms, in verse. In the 1630s, Puritan intellectuals in New England, believing the King James translation of the Bible to be corrupt, retranslated the psalms from Hebrew into English. Since they wanted the psalms to be sung, they set them to meter. They cared more about piety than poetry. As the Boston minister John Cotton, one of the translators, explained, “If therefore the verses are not always so smooth and elegant as some may desire or expect; let them consider that God’s Altar needs not our polishings.”
Others favored more polishing. The first “improved” edition appeared in 1647, just seven years after the original. Thomas Prince’s own “Revised and Improved” translation was published in 1758, in time for one of his psalms to be read over his grave. In the King James, the 37th psalm promises that “the meeke shall inherite the earth.” In the Bay Psalm Book, “meek ones the inheritance/shall of the earth possesse.” In Prince: “the meek and humble shall/the earth as heirs possess.” Smooth and elegant these psalms are not.
In 1866, the Old South Meeting House gave the Prince collection to the Boston Public Library for safekeeping. There followed a certain amount of jiggery-pokery. One copy of “The Whole Booke of Psalmes” ended up in the hands of a mayor of Boston. After his death, when his estate announced plans to auction it, the deacons of Old South filed suit, claiming the church still owned the book. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sided with the mayor’s heirs, and the book was sold for $1,025, a sum so staggering that the story was reported in The New York Times.
Another copy was auctioned in 1879; it was bought for $1,200 by Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in America. That copy was auctioned again in 1947, when it commanded $151,000, breaking a record. The copy of the Bay Psalm book that Sotheby’s is set to auction this week comes from the Prince library, too. In protest of its sale, the Old South’s historian resigned.

Why We Still Need Books

I have never read a book on a Kindle or a Nook or a laptop or a screen.  I am sure I will some day, but I am a bit behind the curve when it comes to new reading technology. 

Over at the blog of The Independent, Johann Hari argues that we will always need printed books because “most humans have a desire to engage in deep thought and deep concentration.”

Here is a taste of his thought-provoking piece:

We have now reached that point. And here’s the function that the book – the paper book that doesn’t beep or flash or link or let you watch a thousand videos all at once – does for you that nothing else will. It gives you the capacity for deep, linear concentration. As Ulin puts it: “Reading is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction…. It requires us to pace ourselves. It returns us to a reckoning with time. In the midst of a book, we have no choice but to be patient, to take each thing in its moment, to let the narrative prevail. We regain the world by withdrawing from it just a little, by stepping back from the noise.”
A book has a different relationship to time than a TV show or a Facebook update. It says that something was worth taking from the endless torrent of data and laying down on an object that will still look the same a hundred years from now. The French writer Jean-Phillipe De Tonnac says “the true function of books is to safeguard the things that forgetfulness constantly threatens to destroy.” It’s precisely because it is not immediate – because it doesn’t know what happened five minutes ago in Kazakhstan, or in Charlie Sheen’s apartment – that the book matters.
That’s why we need books, and why I believe they will survive. Because most humans have a desire to engage in deep thought and deep concentration. Those muscles are necessary for deep feeling and deep engagement. Most humans don’t just want mental snacks forever; they also want meals.
I’m not against e-books in principle – I’m tempted by the Kindle – but the more they become interactive and linked, the more they multitask and offer a hundred different functions, the less they will be able to preserve the aspects of the book that we actually need. An e-book reader that does a lot will not, in the end, be a book. The object needs to remain dull so the words – offering you the most electric sensation of all: insight into another person’s internal life – can sing.
So how do we preserve the mental space for the book? We are the first generation to ever use the internet, and when I look at how we are reacting to it, I keep thinking of the Inuit communities I met in the Arctic, who were given alcohol and sugar for the first time a generation ago, and guzzled them so rapidly they were now sunk in obesity and alcoholism. Sugar, alcohol and the web are all amazing pleasures and joys – but we need to know how to handle them without letting them addle us.

Randall Stephens Interviews Robert Darnton on Digital Books

Over at the blog of the Historical Society, Randall Stephens sits down with distinguished intellectual historian Robert Darnton to discuss the Digital Public Library of America.  This is an attempt to create “something bigger than the Library of Congress and make it free of charge to everyone.”

Darnton discusses the various possibilities and obstacles to this project.

Watch the video of the interview here.