Thursday, August 19, 2010

market mania and collective purpose: three great fall books

One reason I love university presses is that, at their best, they serve as a kind of coal mine canary for big ideas. They combine extraordinary reserves of editorial patience with an exceptional level of academic brainpower. This makes the university press publishing process an incubation period for ideas that can later make their way into public discourse in a splashier way.

Hundreds of popular books on evolution over the past couple decades owe their existence to the transformational research of E.O. Wilson and his book Sociobiology.

Steven Pinker’s crisp, cogent arguments about cognition rely mightily on dozens of books nurtured over many years by the cognitive science masters at The MIT Press and other academic publishers.

And the John Gray “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” industry rests on a foundation of academic scholarship, much of which originated with university press publishing. Interestingly, this fall Harvard will publish Rebecca Jordan-Young’s book Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences (September 2010), which calls into question twenty years of received wisdom on the alleged mars/venus gender divide.

My point is that books published by university presses often signal trends. And this season I’m thrilled to see a cluster of fascinating titles examining our collective hallucination about the so-called free market system coming from Harvard University Press. If history is repeated, these books should presage a broader popular discussion about the system we live under and take for granted.

In a most straight-forward way, eminent Chicago scholar Bernard E. Harcourt takes on what he calls one of the most pernicious myths of the modern era- the idea that the market is self-regulating if left alone. In his sweeping new book The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment & the Myth of Natural Order (January 2011), Harcourt brilliantly links our irrational notions about punishment with our fantasies about the supposedly natural system of market organization. It’s a deeply subversive book in the best sense of the word.

Ten years ago, Harcourt launched a critique of the “broken windows” philosophy of urban law enforcement (the idea that if you harshly punish small property crimes, it will stop the big crimes) with his book Illusion of Order. That strategy had hypnotized policy-makers, and Harcourt’s thoughtful challenge opened a discussion. I’m hopeful that his new book will inspire a similar rethinking of our faith in the market metaphor.

In Maynard’s Revenge: The Collapse of Free Market Macroeconomics (January 2011) Lance Taylor shows how little relevance mainstream macroeconomic theories have for the everyday real world. This is a very technical book aimed at economists, thus way above my pay or brain grade, but the gist of the argument is clear. The emperor has no clothes! This is the sort of big, important book that will hopefully percolate through to the pop economists and the general educated public.

Finally, in another big idea book with a more philosophical bent, historian Daniel T. Rodgers, in Age of Fracture (January 2011) writes about the ways in which the decade of the eighties really transformed us in ways we still don’t completely understand or acknowledge. Longstanding shared commitments to social obligation and collective social institutions were replaced by an obsession with the private self and its individual desires. Our politics turn so much on a supposed left/right divide, but Rodgers posits that the more important split is the private/collective one.

As I read this book I was struck by how much the market obsession Taylor and Harcourt write about relies on this devaluing of what we owe to each other. It’s the sort of wonderful, beautifully written book that feels powerful, as if it could actually prompt a mass attitude shift if enough people read it.

It’s hard to imagine reading this cluster of books without shedding a few illusions about the capitalist system. That’s a long overdue national discussion that will need both university presses and trade publishers to move it along.

The critique is getting sharper and sharper, aided by the daily headlines and real life unemployment lines. Unfortunately, there’s often a yawning gap between the comprehensiveness of the indictment and the scope of the proposed remedies. Tweaks won’t do. What we desperately need now are big idea alternative social and economic arrangements, and some daring 21st century socialist thinkers to dream them up. That’s a publishing trend I’m anxious to see.

Friday, August 13, 2010

In defense of expertise; Nelson Atkins Museum of Art shop

I’ve racked up about 5,000 miles this summer in my Mazda and have been listening to lots of great new music (thank you Everyday Music in Seattle, Twist & Shout in Denver, and B-Side in Madison). Laurie Anderson has always been a favorite so I was keen to hear her new opus, Homeland.

At first, my favorite tune was “Only an Expert.” Catchy beat, interesting narrative. Not surprisingly, it’s a sarcastic takedown of the experts.

But after a dozen listens it started to grate on me. For one thing, “experts” are sitting ducks; we don’t have many politically charged performers of Laurie Anderson’s stature and it seems a waste to squander eight minutes on such an obvious target.

Then her argument began to annoy me. I realized that I actually like the idea of experts! I think training people in specialties that interest them so the rest of us can benefit from their accumulated wisdom is actually a smart idea. The problem isn’t expertise per se; it’s the ends to which it’s put. To rail against mastery seems, well, stupid coming from a woman who is a certified expert in musical performance.

I’ve been a bit cranky on this whole subject lately since so much of new media seems predicated on the idea that we’re all experts, or that the experts aren’t really experts, or that expertise doesn’t really matter anyway. One opinion is as good as another, one fact is as good as another, and everything is “just a theory” anyway.

If Laurie Anderson wants to see the positive fruits of expertise she should visit the Nelson Atkins Museum shop in Kansas City. I’ve been calling on this store for ten years now, and it’s still a great surprise every season to see what book people who know what they are doing can accomplish. (There are other excellent museum shops of course- she should also pay a visit to the Boston MFA shop to see experience and taste in full flower.)

Over the past decade, so many fantastic art museum shops have become hollow shells when it comes to book inventory. Many seem more like high end jewelry and scarf emporia than bookshops. Where maintaining a solid selection of art books was once simply part of the mission of an art museum, the shops have now become centers for chasing cash. If books aren’t pulling their weight and the margin on play-doh and ugly knickknacks is better, books have to go. The market has spoken!

This downward spiral, where “watching” the book inventory level quickly becomes a purge, and the book section of every shop begins to look like a Taschen kiosk, is a depressing spectacle. But then there are the inexplicable exceptions, like the fantastic Nelson Atkins shop.

What makes this store so special?

It’s a bookshop with related merchandise, not a gadget shop with a few books.

The book inventory is attractively arranged and fresh.

Subject areas are wide and deep. All of art history is represented, not just a scattering of tie-in’s to current exhibitions.

There’s a sense of mission that reminds me of some of the excellent bookshops in European museums. The goal of exposing visitors to a great selection of art books seems like an extension of exposure to a selection of great art. And- surprise! - once committed to a significant book selection, the books sell quite well.

Kansas City is the quintessential Middle American city, and the museum is supported in a robust way by the corporate community. Indeed, admission is free, which is no small factor when trying to figure out why they do so well with books. A family that has paid $100 just to get in might not be so willing to part with $65 for a monograph.

But there’s a more important factor: the staff expertise. Many of the booksellers have been there for years. John Hamann, who has been the brains behind the store and inventory as long as I’ve called on them, has both a vast institutional knowledge of art books, and an intuitive sense of what his visitors might find interesting or quirky. He’s a walking argument for the idea that knowing something well is related to doing it well.

I don’t want to see any more museum shops turned over to consultants and number crunchers and window dressers. If art book sales have a future in our great art museums, it will be because administrators invested in staff expertise.

Sometimes, “only an expert CAN deal with the problem.”