books · university presses

Notes on #12UPbooks

A little over a year ago I decided to buy one university press book every month for twelve months. You can see my picks on twitter using the hashtag #12UPbooks. Now that the stunt is over I thought I’d share some impressions.


The best part: bookstores
Over the past twelve months I looked for university press books at independent bookstores in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Buffalo, Madison, Providence, Lexington, Louisville, Athens (GA), Charleston (WV), and Shepherdstown (WV), and every store had at least a few. The stores near universities are especially exciting – eclectic in their stock, emphases, taxonomies, shelving techniques, clientele, staff, and vibes. Seminary Coop, Book Culture, and Talking Leaves are flat-out destinations.

The second best part: contemplative reading
I’ve been an ebook skeptic since people started predicting the demise of print circa 1998, and my immersion in (often challenging) university press books drove home the pleasures of traditional armchair reading, with a pen and without digital distractions.

Biggest surprise: interior design counts
There are books from highly regarded UPs on tradey topics, presumably positioned for general audiences, with way too many words per page.

Least surprising insight: discount is just a number . . .
Speaking of trade, I couldn’t accurately tell you which of the books I read had trade discounts. I found books that struck me as entirely scholarly in stores and was surprised by the number of high profile, tradey UP titles that were hard to find out in the world. Accessible writing style sometimes seemed attached to less compelling subject matter. Urgent, newsy topics got denser treatments. Point is the real world of books – as opposed to the world of university press offices, where “trade” and “scholarly” are often treated as total and absolute categories – is a productively messy place.

Also unsurprising: sometimes I couldn’t tell what was at stake
I mostly read history, geography, and anthropology books, and sometimes the historians stripped out so much historiography that there didn’t seem to be an argument. I think it’s time for the pendulum to swing back a bit. That five-page intro designed to be taut and punchy sometimes just seems vague.

Place where people should buy more books: conferences

I also spent lots of time this year in exhibit halls, and was disappointed to see so many booths nearly full of heavily discounted books. I found great new stuff in cloth for ten bucks. If you’re on the fence, go ahead and buy the thing!


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