Yesterday evening I attended the President’s Reception at the Princeton Theological Seminary Alumni week. Earlier in the day I had a great time providing a response to Prof. Gordon Graham’s paper on Emile Cailliet and the role of the philosopher in the seminary. So now I was prepared to enjoy some appetizers out on the back lawn with a glass of wine and good conversation. Fortunately I enjoyed all three.
On the way out I had a conversation with the president of the seminary, Iain Torrance (son of T.F., nephew of James and cousin of Alan for all the theologians out there; the Torrances are to Scottish theology what the Kennedys are to American politics: a dynasty). President Torrance then asked me whether I would be interested in reviewing any books for the Scottish Journal of Theology and with that he ushered me into his grand office and pointed at a book shelf with perhaps a hundred pristine theology books hot (or warm) off the world’s leading academic presses, each waiting for review.
This was, in effect, the academic’s equivalent of visiting the local SPCA with dozens of adorable puppies yipping through the wire cages, each desperate to be adopted.
I must say it was a modest existential moment. Each month dozens and dozens of new titles are published in theology and its bordering disciplines. The modestly successful titles may crack one or two thousand copies sold while the wildly successful may crack ten thousand. But most will languish in obscurity having sold perhaps one or two hundred copies, most to university libraries, before they fall out of print and are forgotten.
Incidentally, what is the life of an academic book that gets purchased by a university library? It thinks it is lucky. “I was purchased by the library at Notre Dame University”. Good for you. But how often will you be taken off the shelf and read cover to cover? And how often will you be understood and appreciated as you are read? Rarely if ever. If you’re lucky you may be pulled off the shelf once or twice a year by an undergraduate. He will bring you to a reading table and squint with perplexity at your impenetrable prose. Frustrated, he withdraws you from the library for closer inspection. But procrastination is the hobgoblin of undergraduate success. Instead of being promptly read you lie on the filthy berber carpet of his dorm room. Late the next night his dorm mate returns home from a frat party drunk and kicks you under the mini-fridge. (Was the kick intentional? You can’t be sure, but you do know that his roomate has to sound out words while reading Sports Illustrated.) There you are discovered three weeks later, covered in dust and lint with fines accruing. Quickly you are stuffed into a book bag and rushed back to a dropoff box. If it is any consolation your bibliographic information did make it onto the works cited and consulted list, though you were not cited and if comprehension is an essential element of consultation then neither were you consulted. Within three days you are back on the shelf, ready to repeat the meaningless cycle, waiting for the day when you are discovered by a graduate student who is able and ready to grant you the careful attention you deserve.
In retrospect after considering the fate of the typical academic book I concluded that these glossy review copies on the shelf in President Torrance’s office were not as badly off as they first appeared. Indeed, on one accounting they had actually won the academic book lottery as they awaited review by an academician who would read them through, read them carefully, and review them for the world (so long as we are clear that by “world” we mean the few hundred regular readers of the typical academic journal in theology).
Moments later I walked out into the night, past the glittering lanterns on the front lawn, carrying three volumes which I had committed to review in the coming months. Even the most successful of them would likely be forgotten within decades, lost in the never-ending cascade of new books each seeking their own reviews and audiences. And their authors and reviewers and few readers would grow older year by year and fall into eternity. But as surely as the sun rises new authors, reviewers and readers would rise to take their place. And the cycle would continue.