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William Germano Fabulous Invalids William Germano is Vice-President and Publishing Director ofRoutledge. In October 1938, when America had been feeling down and out for quite some time, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman staged anew play lamenting Broadway's ongoing near-death experience. The theme was old even then. The play, The Fabulous Invalid, closed after sixty-five performances and then disappeared. You can't even find a printed copy in the New York Public Library's Theatre Collection. Today, the phrase "fabulous invalid" survives to describe that creaky old darling, the professional theater. But scholarly publishing might just as easily be celebrated as a "fabulous invalid." Ifs certainly never seen such rotten box office. Ourprofession—ifwe can call it that, as opposed to abusiness—has been operating under a set of assumptions about publishing and scholarship in which the book has been central. The book has performed many functions, first as a repository but also as a commodity, a product, an artifact, a totem, as the very material object within academic culture. Today many of those assumptions no longer hold true. Our old friend is not what it once was. Collectors of rare books may be the last curious remnants of the impulse called bibliophily. The term shows up in sales catalogues and at auction houses. Ifs not quite bibliography, more like bibliography plus romance. But the idea ofbibliophily—loving books—stands in sharp relief to a history of the opposite response. In the early twentieth century the English critic Holbrook Jackson published The Fear ofBooks; a century earlier, in 1832, the classical bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin published a satirical curiosity entitled Bibliophobia: Remarks on the present languid and depressing state ofthe literature and ofthe book trade positing, among other things, that fear of cholera kept people from buying books touched by other hands. Although we hardly speak today in democratic countries of books as a source of fear, we educated Westerners have elaborated our own system for marginalizing the volume, printed and bound. Ifs not about disease, just profound intellectual discomfort. Welcome to the new bibliophobia. The humanities may have contracted the worst case, but we should keep in mind thatbibliophobia is no respecter ofborders. Humanists mightshare their antidepressants with colleagues in the social and behavioral sciences, whose book problems are not dissimilar if less intense. Other cultural traditions parcel out disciplines in ways that fit uneasily into our divisions of pedagogical labor—the Germans have their Geisteswissenschaften, and— even better—the French their sciences humaines. Though we talk endlessly about the "crisis in the humanities," the key questions don't expire at the threshold of the English department or the art history's slide archive. 224 the minnesota review If the so-called crisis is anchored in the humanities, we need to consider what a humanist is, or what the term may possibly mean, at the present time. To a publisher, a humanist might be someone who expects to publish many books but never buys any. To the world outside the academy, the subtle nuances that distinguish, say, a professor of aesthetics from a professor of Latin American history can be easily erased with the broadest of strokes. Academics write books, and most are not readable beyond the academy. Even people who have never read an academic book will feel confident telling us how badly they are written. While we might reluctantly agree that academic discourse isn't available to the nonacademic readership—and I will return to this point—it is still alarming to note that while more new books appear annually, the number of American households that purchase even one single hardback book declined in 2002 from the prior year. If any professor finds that undergraduates are reading more printed books now than he or she did in college, please let me know. It seems inevitable that books as we know them will continue to decline in visibility and economic importance, although I believe there is a threshold below which the traditional book business will not subside. As long as the university relies upon thebook as a primary unit of measuring academic achievement, we can imagine the scholarly monograph limping along, shored up by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 223-226
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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