- I Left My Wallet in San Francisco
Annual professional meetings are, like political conventions, the buggy whips of the twenty-first century. Even if they are not entirely obsolete, they serve a purpose much too limited to justify their ever-in-creasing expense.
The pointlessness of political conventions derives from the preemptive prevalence of state primaries and caucuses. The annual professional meeting should have succumbed years ago to the ability of the Internet to sustain incessant jabber. That both institutions still survive owes more to the hedonistic aspects of human behaviour than to any practical thing. Years ago, I concluded that annual professional meetings were a waste of my time and money, inasmuch as (a) there was nobody in my racket that I felt compelled to impress and (b) smoking, drinking, and carousing until dawn were pastimes in which I could engage without the inconvenience of travelling to venues featuring outrageous prices for food and lodging.1 I suppose my first encounter with a sixty-five-dollar 'registration' fee did the trick. Registration for what? For the privilege of hearing a few turgid papers and seeing their authors skewered by dyspeptic audience members? For being able to walk among the book exhibits and listen to too many young PhDs try to flog their manuscripts to jaded press personnel? Then, five o'clock and Happy Hour at some local watering hole with the bored and the boring? Registration for that?
Put the turgid papers on the Internet, I say, where any who really care can read them. And let prospective authors write actual letters to prospective publishers, so the latter can determine whether the former have any grasp of the English language whatsoever. As for smoking, drinking, and carousing until dawn, well, they aren't good for you [End Page 243] anyway, at least not compressed into ninety-six hours by persons best described as practitioners of sedentary lifestyles.2 I've known too many of the physically unfit who had coronaries soon after trying, with pathetic diligence, to cut the mustard at their profession's annual gathering.
I confess it: My prejudices arise from having manned book exhibits at meetings during my days in scholarly publishing. The experience left me with a decidedly jaundiced perspective. I remember painful annual visits from an old party who had to explain to me once more why, exactly, his manuscript had not yet been delivered into the hands of my employer. I checked the files and learned that he'd received his contract twenty years earlier.3 'You know, don't you,' a veteran of the booths once told me, 'that 90 per cent of the proposals made to you at these meetings never amount to anything.' He was right, and I had to develop the skill of pretending to be really, truly interested in all the guff, while trying earnestly to make sure that nobody stole anything from the exhibit.
But I was there not only to listen, no matter what, but to sell books, too. I recall taking very few orders for books. I think I averaged two or three a year. The people who came around were scholars, after all, and they didn't expect to have to pay for books, not even at the enticingly generous 'convention discount.' No, they expected to acquire them free of charge, either as desk copies (rare) or examination copies (more common) or through what we may call politely 'legerdemain' (also common, but frequently unpleasant).4
On the last day, it was the custom of our house and almost everybody else's to unload the exhibited books for 75 per cent off the retail price, to spare ourselves the trouble and expense of packing them up and trucking them back to the warehouse. The whole exercise seemed a waste of time and money, but exhibiting at annual professional meetings was by then a practice of long standing, like begging on street corners and, as they say in military and diplomatic circles, showing the flag.
It is still such a practice, I see from the programs I receive from the professional organizations to which I belong. Each program contains an index of...