Written by the director of the Princeton University Press, Peter J. Dougherty, the essay makes two powerful points about books:
First, books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments at a relatively general level of discourse and in familiar rhetorical forms — narrative, thematic, philosophical, and polemical — thereby helping to enrich and unify otherwise disparate intellectual conversations.
Second, university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas — whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism — when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority.
There you have it: sustained arguments that tie together otherwise disjoint ideas and resonance in the broader intellectual culture. It’s something that can’t be done in a 35 page article, a blog post, or conference paper. You need an extended literary form – the book – to pull it off.
Dougherty makes a number of excellent points. Here’s a good one:
Hard ideas define a culture — that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores “the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing — and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share.” The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.
The broader intellectual culture is enriched and defined by challenging ideas generated by specialists, but expanded for the general educated reader. I like it.