I believe in books—or, rather, the opportunity that books provide to help us better understand the natural world around us and the people who inhabit it.
I feel fortunate to have grown up in a home full of books. My parents, both teachers, had a library with all sorts of books, including complete editions of the works of such authors as James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, and Robert Louis Stevenson. While attending school and spending time with my friends, I also inhabited a world of imagination fostered by reading the novels of these and other authors. I feel I owe my sensitivity to issues of class and the plight of the downtrodden, for instance, by being exposed in my childhood to the absorbing stories and unique characters that Dickens created.
In college I gradually moved more toward nonfiction, though it was the fiction and plays of Jean-Paul Sartre that got me interested in existentialism and prompted me to major in philosophy. I had inspiring teachers in people like Walter Kaufmann and Richard Rorty, who supervised my senior thesis on Sartre, and they inculcated in me a deep respect for the world of ideas.
Knowing I did not have the dramatic flair that I believed necessary to become a first-rate teacher on the model of my own father or Walter Kaufmann, I found a home in publishing that well suited my interests and strengths. Unlike graduate school, where I had experienced the pressure to narrow one’s horizons so as to become an expert in a certain subfield, publishing allowed me to be a dilettante and to get paid for it.
My roots in liberalism had engrained in me a strong belief in the “marketplace of ideas,” and as an acquiring editor I dedicated myself to championing the best academic writing I could find, irrespective of political orientation. Thus, over the years, I have published books reflecting arguments from across the political spectrum, from conservative to liberal to socialist, in the firm belief that, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., once put it, “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.”
I worry that the rush to digitize everything in sight and put it up on the Web will exacerbate the problems already identified in the NEA’s 2004 report on “Reading at Risk.” As Web researcher Jakob Nielsen has observed, “the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets—so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.” The younger generation, weaned on the Web, is in danger of losing the ability to develop such conceptual frameworks, which comes from in-depth, concentrated reading of books where arguments can be laid out in a logical progression. And the marketplace of ideas is already, as demonstrated in the current election campaign, degenerating into a marketplace of sound bites, where ideas get neatly packaged in blacks and whites, leaving all the greys unacknowledged. The citizens of this country desperately need the rich contexts that books can provide to assess what the candidates are telling us. And that is one reason I volunteered to help the Centre Daily Times keep its book review section alive, so as to bring to the attention of people in central Pennsylvania the wealth of knowledge that books of general interest published by university presses can provide. With our partners in the Penn State Bookstore and Schlow Library, we can hope that this effort will succeed in providing our fellow citizens with more ideas to help them better understand why sound bites usually only tell half-truths.