Archive for Wednesday, July 4, 2001

Academe offers good read

July 4, 2001


Summer is the time when many of us take a pause from the pressures of work and spend a few days or weeks doing the things we like. For some, this means catching up on the reading we didn't have time for the rest of the year. Magazines and newspapers are filled at this time of year with recommendations of good books to read, both fiction and non-fiction. Over the years I have joined this group and occasionally ventured to offer you some suggestions based upon my own explorations in the world of books.

Over the years I have not only worked as a professor and academic administrator, I have also been fascinated by the academic world. Every culture has its peculiarities and academe is no exception. There is a whole genre of literature devoted to the world of academe, usually referred to as the "academic novel." Many, if not most academic novels fall within two literary genres, either they are comic novels or they are mystery stories.

The comic genre has been dominated in recent years by two British authors, David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury. Both have captured the foibles of the modern professorate superbly and their books make for wonderful reading. Bradbury has a new novel out called "To the Hermitage" and it is worth reading, as are both of their earlier works, easily available in paperback.

Of academic mysteries there is no shortage. These tend to be of two types: those in which the characters are academics and those set in academic settings. Again, many of the greatest of these, such as the Inspector Morse stories which have been so popular on television and video, are set in England. Among the most recent of these, my favorites are the works of Veronica Stallwood, in which the protagonist, Kate Ivory, is a writer based in Oxford, who tends to become embroiled in murder investigations involving that venerable university. My favorite among these, also available in paperback, is called "Oxford Fall."

Many of those who are not academics nor have the experience of living among academics believe that the life of a professor is a life of reading, teaching, and philosophical contemplation far removed from the politics, stresses, and pettiness of what they term "the real world." How wrong they are.

Academics, as so many mystery writers know, can be savage to one another. The academic world is often highly contentious and it seems frequently that the smaller the financial stakes are, the greater the passion and fury expended in battles.

Academic journals like Lingua Franca and the Times Literary Supplement are often battlegrounds in which wars between rival factions are fought. For decades the "letters" section of the TLS has been the place where scholarly rivals have slugged it out.

I remember several years ago, when two of my closest friends became opponents and decided to take the fight public in the TLS. Allies were recruited on both sides and letters dripping with vitriol became a regular part of the scene. This lasted for months and only ended when the journal finally tired of printing the newest salvo in this war. By the end of six months, friendships had been destroyed forever.

All of this was over a question of Latin usage in 5th Century legal documents. There have been contested corporate mergers for billions of dollars which generated less passion than this scholarly battle.

It is this context that I make my final suggestion for summer reading. The academic world has been roiled in recent months by a book by a gifted (non-academic) writer named Nicholson Baker. In this book, "Double Fold," Baker takes on the very difficult question of library preservation standards, particularly whether libraries should dispose of their copies of old newspapers and replace them with microfilm or other storage media, a practice that has been common throughout the world over the past 20 years.

Baker's book is an impassioned diatribe against this practice, and, by implication, against librarians, academics, and administrators who support it. The subject of newspaper preservation in libraries may seem a bit dull compared with other summer occupations, such as NASCAR racing, but Baker's book is as action-filled as any war story, for, indeed, he has done nothing less than declare war on a common practice throughout America and the world. It is worth a read.

Mike Hoeflich is a professor in the Kansas University Scool of Law.

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