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We interrupt this program….

Today, Cornell University Press is pricing their older academic titles to free. It’s unclear how long that will last! (Amazon US store only). I grabbed 75 titles. Cornell U. Press is one of the major academic presses. Some of these titles have been free before, but I haven’t seen many of them before. Cornell usually publishes some first rate titles in comparative literature.

A while back, the head of Cornell U. Press sent out a strange offer to sell out-of-print titles to the best bidder. I ended up poring over the catalog for a few hours and finding some wonderful things: I sent them a list of 100s of titles I wanted, adding that I would pay $10 for 4 titles (which I thought was reasonable). As it turns out, this was a kind of bait-and-switch thing (which was not really a surprise). Apparently Cornell is trying to sell a new ebook portal service for scholars and institutions. (which is what I expected). Anyway, I ended up getting nothing, though I had a perfectly good time browsing titles and discovering to my delight that my local libraries have a fair number of Cornell titles which I wanted to read.

It’s easy to make fun of literary academic types and their crazy topics, and in a way academic presses serve an important function of providing an outlet for tenure-hungry professors seeking publications. At the same time, academic publishing has always been crazy — mostly grant-supported, ridiculous prices (especially for people not affiliated with institutions) and unmarketable by definition. Many of these books are financed not by author advances, but academic grants and sabbaticals.

If you compare them with mainstream publishers (like for example, Simon & Schuster), books in academic presses don’t talk down to readers; they don’t try to popularize a subject or pick a juicy tidbit from a discipline that anyone would find irresistible. Often these books are more methodical than interesting. But that’s ok too. Sometimes when uncovering new writings on a subject, it’s more important to be thorough and accurate than revolutionary.

Probably the one exception to the rule are biographies — which are expected to be well-researched and fun to read. Occasionally they are affordably-priced too. I have purchased several biographies by academics …most recently Vol 1 of a biography of Stalin by Stephen Kotkin. I don’t know enough about the biography genre to know what makes a good biography (though ironically, I am gearing up to write one myself about Jack Matthews). In the last 5 years I’ve read a number of biographies, all of which I’ve enjoyed — though in a way you have to implicitly trust the author’s researching skills. Anway, Cornell U. has a biography of Machaut which I’ve been salivating over (and luckily my local library seems to have a copy of).

Not all comparative literature titles are great to read, but many are. If you think about it, comp lit is about making connections across cultures, languages and disciplines. I was once reading Allegoresis : reading canonical literature East and West by Zhang Longxi and found just the East/West comparisons lovely.

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