More Book Advice from a Nonexistent Bookstore

So, if last round was the Greatest Hits, this time’s for the album tracks and rarities—not everything here will be to everybody’s taste, some of these will be to almost nobody’s taste (well, except maybe yours, Asher), and at least a few of them should be loved by none. Continue reading


Book Advice from a Nonexistent Bookstore

Now that Newman Books is closed, DC doesn’t have a really good philosophy/theology bookshop. Okay, granted, Newman’s selection could be pretty spotty at times,* and Kramerbooks can be surprisingly good,** but that’s beside the point for those of us who want our critical Latin editions of Ockham and Scotus, 5 different translations of Augustine, more stuff on the Reformation than most stores devote to religion, or a whole section on Aquinas. We want our bookstore, complete with people who know a critical edition from a public domain Latin version. It’s something you just can’t get from Amazon—well, along with the feeling you get from not sending money to Satan’s minions—and will be sorely missed.

But. But! I’m gonna give you the next best thing: a series of lists (what is this, Buzzfeed?) of books worth reading on any number of philosophical*** topics, complete with caveats, explanations, and my own opinions, which are completely right and you should never question ever because they’re right. Some of these are syllabi for imagined courses I’ll never get to teach, but have always wanted to—a few of them I’ve been developing since reading Plato’s Republic, scarily enough—while others are just “look, don’t read bad translations like I did, try these instead.” It’s advice I’d give to hypothetical customers or students, written up in a big ol’ binder at the front of the store that you could whack me over the head with when you disagreed with something I said.

You don’t get the binder, but you do get my opinions. Sorry ’bout that. Continue reading

On Reading All of Augustine

“The man who claims to have read all of Augustine is a liar”

And, of course, Isidore of Seville is pretty close to right. I haven’t touched the Ennarations on the Psalms, nor about half the other sermons, nor a couple other minor works, but 30-odd other volumes? Not right short, I undertake! Now that I’m all but done with this super-secret press project I’ve been working on for a year and a half now (because of course there won’t be any revisions at all…), it’s time for a few observations:

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Underrated Philosophers VI: Jorge Luis Borges

And this is where I jump the shark. Dante’s understandable—he at least wrote a couple of philosophical treatises, he gets an entry in the Cambridge Companion to Medieval Philosophy—but Borges? The whacked-out Argentinian surrealist writer of trippy short stories with a weird obsession with tigers and labyrinths? The man who never wrote anything over fifteen pages? The man who said that metaphysics is really just a branch of the literature of fantasy? Seriously? Seriously?

Nicolás Menza, El jardín de senderos que se bifurcan (The Garden of Forking Paths), 2000.

First, his poetry’s awesome, so shuddup. Second, you have to read his essays to really make sense of his short stories and poetry (assuming you’d actually want to, rather than just enjoying the Weird). Third, his essay on Ramon Llull is both the inspiration for this underrated philosophers series and why I’m not doing one on Llull, much as I’d like to; it wouldn’t be as good as the one that already exists. Fourth, there are lots of philosophers who love Borges, some of whom even organize traveling art exhibits based on his work.*

But, as a philosopher…well, he may be the only absolute idealist worth reading. Granted, there aren’t a lot of absolute idealists (Borges, Berkley, and…um…uhh…), and Berkley’s bad crazy, but that’s beside the point (kinda). What isn’t beside the point is what happens when an absolute idealist goes blind and starts writing fiction. Continue reading

An Education for Academic Writers, Part I

Every writer has their imaginary audience, even if their real one is (like most of us) just friends, people linking to pictures you’re hosting, and parents who wouldn’t actually be interested in what you’re writing about if anyone else wrote it.* Mine is usually my grad school self and his colleagues—people who discuss insane things over wine and coffee after lectures, who have absolutely no clue about why people aren’t interested in what we study, and who labor under more than a few delusions about how this whole “publish or perish” thing works. Continue reading

What’s the Great Scholastic Novel?

Yes, another aside at the beginning of a post, but, thanks to a very nice reference from The Smithy, home of other fans of John Duns the Subtle, ye olde humble blogge’s visitor counter’s pretty much exploded. Seriously, I’ve gotten almost as many people visiting in the last three days as I’ve ever gotten in a month around here. Thanks for visiting, y’alls!

Why aren’t there any great novels written from a Scholastic viewpoint? For that matter, how many truly great works of literature that weren’t written by Dante can those of you who don’t study the middle ages name that explicitly follow a Scholastic worldview? Heck, what about the great Stoic novel? Sure, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations aren’t poorly written at all, but really, what great play, poem, or book follows a Stoic worldview, rather than explicitly espousing one?* It seems that you can’t be an existentialist without writing novels (Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre, and de Beauvoir were all pretty dang good novelists), and postmodern nihilism, especially of the “there is no truth—which should really scare you” postwar variety, produced any number of temporally disjointed and bone-crushingly dense black comedies. The Greek aristocratic ideal gave us some of the greatest epic poetry and drama the world has ever known, while postwar Japanese novelists infuse their works with Zen Buddhism’s unique wabi-sabi aesthetic, and Romanticism and German Idealism gave us a flood of great poetry. Heck, even Puritanism has produced great novels—according to at least one argument I’ve read, all of them.** So where’s the great stuff involving the nuances of virtue ethics, natural ends, and hylomorphism? Continue reading

Short Thoughts

A few quick notes from the slush mines while I ready the posts I’ve actually been spending time with:

✶If you wouldn’t want to take the time out of your busy academic schedule to read the monstrosity of a manuscript you just sent to us, nobody else will either.  Contrary to what you may believe, everybody else is just as busy as you are, and thousand page manuscripts filled with bone-crushing prose just aren’t something we really feel comfortable asking people we like to read.  Frankly, we can’t pay people enough to slog through that kind of thing—not because we’re short on cash, mind you, but because there are some things not worth doing, no matter the price.  Furthermore, when that book’s printed and bound, it’s going to be a doorstop.  People will balk at buying it—it’ll be so long we’ll have to increase the price, you’ve probably made it so specialized nobody’s going to want to read it, and we’ll get stuck with boxes of expensive bricks in our warehouse.  If we tell you to cut it by half, we don’t mean a quarter, we mean half.  Seriously, any book that long has things you can cut.  If you’re fluent in four languages, two of them dead, you shouldn’t need us to tell you the meanings of “proportion,” “concision” and “reasonable.”

✶I may have said this before, but, if you agree to review a promising manuscript from someone you’ve never heard of, the author is probably a junior scholar on the tenure clock, and your dragging your feet on the review has the chance to seriously ruin someone’s life.  If someone doesn’t get a book published before their tenure review because you took your sweet time about it despite frantic e-mails from the valet* and his boss, they’re probably not going to get tenure.  Knowing that the reason you missed your one shot at steady academic employment, the thing you sacrificed eighteen great years of your life, true love, and more profitable employment for, is because some anonymous reviewer couldn’t be arsed to actually finish their review in the six weeks they agreed to do it in has got to be rough.  If you’re asked to review a book by a junior scholar, keep in mind that it’s someone’s livelihood at stake.  If it’s an established person whose book you’re reviewing, be a decent, ethical human being who keeps their word and turn the damn thing in on time.  You know you’re going to get drunk with this person at the next conference anyway; do you want to hear them complain about how their book was delayed by some dumb reviewer?

✶Every once in a while, read a book that isn’t academic, pretentious, or highbrow.  Your writing, both Academic and “for popular audiences” will improve.  Popular biographies are a good place to start; mystery novels and thrillers might be even better.  Heck, seemingly everyone else in book publishing wants to get into literary YA, so I can probably get you a slew of recommendations there.  Whatever.  If your subdiscipline is known for bad or tortured writing (which, granted, if you’ve been in your own particular academic bubble for long enough, you might not realize how truly hideous your cohort’s prose really is), try a 2:1 academic prose:real prose ratio for at least two months.  If you’re planning on writing something for a popular audience, spend a month reading nothing but popular nonfiction.  Those of us who review papers and sort through the slush pile have noticed that you have absolutely no clue how normal people write and talk.  Your academic papers are nigh-well impenetrable,** to the point that I have no idea whether you have an actual point that you’re doing a great job burying under the technical jargon, Latin, and petty allusions to minor distinctions, or if you’re putting up a storm of words in what you think academic prose should sound like based on how senior figures write to cover up the fact that you’re insecure in what you’re doing and aren’t confident in your points.  Probably both.  Trust me, cut the first half of your paper, the one in which you give “proper historical context,” cut the David Foster Wallace footnotes, ditch the extraneous side references you put in to make it clear you know who that person is, and you’ll actually end up looking smarter once your audience knows what you’re banging on about.  As for popular writing…”popular” does not mean “dumb.”  You can engage thoughtfully with serious issues in what will seem like a short amount of space without sounding like a kangaroo after a troughfull of espresso.  Don’t try too hard, and you’ll be just fine.  With all the popular nonfiction you’ve been reading, that thoughtful yet lively prose style should be coming naturally to you now, right?

✶The day will come when we look back at our current obsession with sans-serf fonts and wonder what we were thinking.  You see these fonts here?  You know how many of them are good for setting pages of type in?  None of them, that’s how many!  I don’t care if it looks hip, I don’t care if all the cool kids are doing it, I really don’t care if it makes your philosophy or humanities journal look more “sciencey,” just use frikkin’ Garamond already and spare us the eye strain!  Caslon and Minion are also acceptable, Filosofia is lovely if you’ve got it, and Didot or Bodoni in certain very controlled contexts if you must.  But please, don’t contribute to the Great Gotham Blight.

*Yes, I’ve been promoted by Bigbossman from Intern-in-Chief to Press Valet—the final “t” is pronounced, in proper English fashion.  For those of you who haven’t seen Jeeves & Wooster starring Fry and Laurie, the significance of both the promotion and the pronunciation might be lost on you.
**And this is coming from someone who considers Simone de Beauvoir and St. Augustine bedside reading.

Peer Review: It Ain’t That Hard, People!

No, really, it isn’t.  I swear, though, if there were a university publisher equivalent of College Misery, bad peer reviewer stories would keep the place running.  All we want is a 5 page, double-spaced book report—and the first page or so is pretty much padding.  Any of your grad students could do this.  Heck, you ask more from them when they do lit reviews.  Is it really too hard to read a book in your obscure specialty (we picked you for a reason, after all!) and toss off an undergrad seminar paper on it?  It would take you a weekend.  You’re an expert, this should be easy—otherwise, we wouldn’t ask you to do this! Continue reading

The Marketing Department Strikes Back: Post-Approval Bingo!

Well, the marketing and managing editor’s revenge is here: all the little things that make a day “special.”  Before anyone asks, no, neither of these bingo cards are based on specific incidents or people (although a few more egregious examples do stick out)—not much point in waiting for something unique to happen again.

Plus, I’m pretty sure the really interesting incidents are covered under the publisher’s code of omertà.

Same rules as the last one apply, only now it’s the acquisitions department’s turn to pay—their just reward for inviting all these unique and highly valued people to publish with us.

Slush Pile Bingo!

The end of summer: new froshmenki show up for orientation, grad students pose as older siblings to mooch free food, and professors send us proposals for the books they’ve spent all summer working on.  Oh, and the whole acquisitions department comes back from vacation at the same time.  Suddenly, the term “slush pile” is depressingly literal.  Why suffer when you sift through endless manuscripts?  Grab an intern and a bingo card and start sifting through those stacks!

Each row of five—horizontally, vertically, or diagonally—earns you a coping mechanism at the local tavern courtesy of the marketing department.*

*Marketing people, don’t worry, your version is coming.  Acquisitions people, start saving your beer money now.

Your Dissertation Isn’t a Book—But It Can Be

Credit where credit is due: much of this is based of a spiel from Bigbossman to grad students attracted by the promise of free food and cheap books.  By the way, locusts descending on a ripe field have nothing on a bunch of grad students who have heard that there are $3 books.  Also, a lot of it I may have discussed already; however, there were a few new things, and some points of discussion worth, well, discussing.

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