Hot Type: A Few University-Press Books Hit Mainstream 'Best Of' Lists

December 13, 2009

'Tis the season of lists, including the best-books-of-the-year roundups that newspapers and magazines churn out every 12 months. I greet these yearly exercises with a skepticism that borders on dismay. Out of the many thousands of books published annually, are these 10 or 25 or 100 really the standouts, the must-reads, the can't-misses? List making keeps literary editors busy, but the results do not always inspire a reader's trust.

This year I wondered how many university-press titles had caught the eye of the mainstream list makers. As a recovering book-review editor, though, I knew this was likely to be an exercise in futility. It's an old, sad story: too many books, too little review space, and editors whose attention is ever more elusive, especially if you are a smaller publisher with a more rarefied list. Most scholarly monographs will never get a second glance, or even a first one, from The New York Times Book Review.

If there's anything good to be said for "the year's best" picks, it's that they are not determined by sales figures and commercial popularity (right?) but by some less tangible measures of success. One can hope, anyway. Just about every university press publishes general-interest titles as well as academic fare. And a scholarly treatise can break out if the subject and the circumstances are right. University presses are also home to some high-end and experimental creative writing that more commercial publishers won't take a chance on, although small, nonacademic, independent presses have ­really stepped in to take up the slack there. I figured all of that ought to give university-press publishers a fighting chance at some end-of-year love from review outlets that ignore them too much of the time. This year's mainstream best-of lists don't show much evidence of that, although the big names—Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton—make a predictable showing.

Let's start with The New York Times's "100 Notable Books of 2009." Two university presses show up among the Knopfs and Nortons, Riverheads and Vikings. (A handful of smaller presses are there, too.) Oxford University Press scores two mentions in the nonfiction category, one for Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, by Gordon S. Wood, and one for Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector, by Benjamin Moser. Harvard University Press's Belknap imprint gets a nod for the classicist Mary Beard's The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found.

Move on to Publishers Weekly, whose top-10 list riled a lot of literati by managing to include no female authors (or university presses, although nobody complained about that). PW also put out a list of what it considered the year's 100 most notable books, chosen from more than 50,000 published in 2009. Although the long version includes not only some women but a more eclectic selection of publishers than the Times's, it's not long on university-press fare. Oxford, clearly a darling of book-review editors, scored a twofer: Gordon Wood's book again, and Muslims in America: A Short History, by Edward E. Curtis IV, which is billed as an "accessible history by a scholar who is not among the usual academic talking-head experts on Islam."

Mr. Wood and Empire of Liberty also turn up in The Atlantic's "Books of the Year" roundup. The magazine's literary editor, Benjamin Schwarz, must have a greater fondness for (or awareness of) university-press output than most of his editing counterparts do, because he included nine such titles on his list of 25. A Johns Hopkins University Press title even makes the top five: Abraham Lincoln: A Life, by Michael Burlingame. University-press books on the Thirty Years' War, the Hundred Years' War, the lives of Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, American history from a Pacific perspective, and 800 years of financial follies got nods from Mr. Schwarz, too.

During my survey, unscientific as it was, I noticed that British lists seemed a little likelier to mention books from scholarly publishers, especially when the selections were made by outside writers and critics who were asked to pick one or two favorite books. (That's the way to do it, in my view.) The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Vol. 1, 1929-1940 was a sleeper hit that turned up on several recommended lists. True, it's published by Cambridge University Press, a giant in the university-press world, but it's still a heartening choice.

One trans-Atlantic list, "Page-turners," from The Economist, has a decent sampling of university-press fare, mostly from Oxbridge and Ivy League presses—Cambridge, Oxford, Princeton, Yale. I was glad to see an entry from the McGill-Queen's University Press, in Montreal: The Life and Times of Raul Prebisch, 1901-1986, by Edgar J. Dosman. Prebisch, says The Economist, "was often talked about as "Latin America's Keynes" and "may be due for rehabilitation."

What about all the good stuff—the quirky, experimental novels, the intriguing nonfiction that isn't about financial panics or early American history, that never get noticed by the Times et al.? I asked a couple of book lovers who are not affiliated with mainstream review outlets to pick university-press books that would end up on their personal best-of-2009 lists. Mark Athitakis, a frequent reviewer who runs the literary blog American Fiction Notes, said he was leaning toward a Harvard title: David Suisman's Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music. He called it "a great reminder that the format/copyright battles that consume the music industry today are really nothing new." (He also likes the cover, which tweaks the RCA dog of "his master's voice" fame.)

Chad W. Post is director of Open Letter Books, which specializes in translated fiction and is based at the University of Rochester but is not a university press per se. He picked one Yale book: the novel Five Spice Street, by the Chinese writer Can Xue. But Mr. Post's other selection was a University of Nebraska title: a translation of In the United States of Africa, a novel by the French-speaking, Djibouti-born writer Abdourahman A. Waberi, that imagines the West as a place of squalor and despair and "the United States of Africa" as the prosperous, stable place that Western refugees want to escape to.

Mainstream list makers, broaden your horizons. There's always next year.