Farewell Talk: An Accidental Vocation
Executive Director, Association of University Presses, 1997 to 2013
For the first time in my career, people are offering to buy me lunch, they’re even saying nice things about me in public. I should retire more often.
Thank you, Alex, for that very gracious and flattering introduction, the nicest I’ve ever received. I’d say I’m speechless, but I don’t want to get your hopes up.
Since this is my swan song, sort of, I’d like to talk for a few minutes about what publishing has meant to me. Back in 1970, in the Dark Ages before the internet, when I got my first publishing job, people spoke of publishing as “the accidental profession.” They meant they believed it was a profession, just not one people were trained for, like dentistry, or veterinary medicine. Publishing was something you just fell into, somehow, and then, if it really was for you, it became a vocation.
That was certainly true of me. I was a graduate student in the middle of a PhD program in Southern California, headed for what I thought would be a normal academic career, when my fellowship ran out and I couldn’t find a job teaching. So I took a job as a textbook sales rep, a “college traveler,” thinking it was an acceptable Plan B: it would keep me on campus for a year or two, hanging out with the professoriate, while I regrouped and figured out a new Plan A.
Well, Plan B became the new Plan A in short order. To be honest I was an earnest but not very good salesman. What thrilled me about the job, though, was the contact with publishing, with, in Herb Bailey’s phrase, “the art and science” of everything that goes into making books and publishing them. I had been reading books practically all my life, but I had also been taking their existence—in bookstores, libraries, under the Christmas tree—for granted. For the first time I had a glimpse of the whole complex, elegant—and sometimes messy—process that begins with an author transferring her vision to—then—a piece of paper, and ends with a reader sitting down with the edited, printed, bound embodiment of that vision, a book. It was a splendid, terrifically exciting new world. My connection with it was attenuated—I was a rookie salesman living in Los Angeles and most of the action was in New York—but it was electric. I never looked back, and a couple of years later I was transferred to the New York office. And then, one thing led to another as it usually does, and 40-odd years later, here I am.
Publishing as the accidental profession had another, and contradictory, implication as well. That most of us had just fallen into it also meant that that the only was to learn it was to do it. The only credential needed for an entry-level job in publishing was a bachelor’s degree. It wasn’t supposed to matter what the degree was in, but in fact a high percentage of us had been English or History majors. In other words we had read a lot and were reasonably literate. Our bosses, who had read even more and were, for the most part, even more literate, assumed that we had all the basic equipment they could ask for, and that, presumably, we could learn everything else we needed to know the same way they did: by just doing it.
I’m oversimplifying here, but only a little. Manuscript editing, then as now, was a technical skill unique to publishing, a body of principles and conventions that could be learned, and therefore taught, more or less systematically, from texts like The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual. In New York, NYU ran a Publishing Institute whose evening courses trained generations of editors in the basics of their profession.
People whose interests were broader than editing could also take courses in management accounting, or copyright, or contract law. But the purpose of these courses wasn’t to train us as lawyers, or accountants; it was to give us enough basic knowledge to know when it was a good idea to consult our accountants and lawyers, and what questions to ask them.
Because it was assumed that publishers were entrepreneurs: talent-spotters, risk-takers, enterprise managers; people with broad interests who weren’t themselves necessarily expert in anything, but who had a certain talent for seeing a new opportunity in an author or manuscript, and for harnessing the expertise of others to realize it. This, I cheerfully admit, is a romantic conception of what it is to be a publisher. It also contradicts the idea of publishing as a profession, whether accidental or deliberate. It’s the publisher as anti-professional, the publisher as amateur, the person who does it for love.
But love of what? Back in the day, when we newbies talked among ourselves about the accidental profession, sooner or later the question would come up: So, why are you in publishing? It was a given that we were all wretchedly underpaid so we knew none of us were in it for the money; what was it? And the answer, usually spoken with shy diffidence and a slightly embarrassed smile, was, “Because I love books.”
I don’t think the shyness was because we were confessing to an immoderate love of books as objects, the way some people fetishize feet. Some of us might have, but most of us were shy because books had meant so much in ways so intensely personal that we really didn’t know how to unpack their importance. Confessing that we loved books was like a secret handshake. We shared a kindred spirit, and we knew what we meant, even if we couldn’t explain it.
That was then and this is now, and looking back it’s pretty clear to me what I would have said then, if I’d been able to. Put as simply as I can, there were books that had profoundly changed my understanding of the world, and in changing my view of the world, they had changed me. The act of reading them had made me a different person than I was before I read them. In a metaphorical but deep sense, they had claimed me for their own.
I’m not going to read you one of those books to illustrate this point, but I am going to read a sonnet by the early 20th century poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In it, Rilke is not writing about the effect of a book, but to my way of thinking he certainly could be. He is describing the consequence of seeing a headless ancient Greek statue. Rilke’s “Torso of an Archaic Apollo,” translated by Stephen Mitchell:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Not every book, or poem, or monograph, or work of some other art demands such radical transformation. But they all do change us, although most of the time in such tiny increments that the movement is almost imperceptible. Nevertheless, anyone who reads can, I think, name a few books whose influence was deep and enduring. I recently read Gaddis’s brilliant biography of George F. Kennan, the principle architect of the United States’ Cold War policy of containment in the ’50s. And that policy, Kennan recognized, was fueled by his reading of Gibbon, and what he took away from those magisterial volumes about how over-reaching empires fail.
And back when I was a college traveler I met a man who had been a Hollywood screenwriter, and who read two works that propelled him into a new career teaching mathematics. The first was a paper—a journal article, if you will—by Kurt Gödel, On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems, the formulation of Gödel’s famous theorems and the other was a book published by Princeton: G. M. Polya’s How to Solve It.
Some of those books may have been ones whose attraction was strong, but fortunately short-lived. In late adolescence I confess to having been thoroughly seduced by both Look Homeward Angel and The Fountainhead. At that stage in our lives we are all notoriously impressionable, so there’s no point in making too much of such fevered enthusiasms, but during the same period I also read Crime and Punishment, the book that first opened a door, for me, to the transfiguring and redeeming power of the creative imagination, a book that remains a touchstone for me today.
You all have stories about the books you love. Because of my background, mine were mostly literary works, primarily novels. Yours may have been in history, or economics, or philosophy, or mathematics; anything, really. And they may not have been books but journal articles, or poems. Whatever they were, we were excited by them, stimulated by them, loved them for what they did to us and for us—and, by some peculiar accident of time and circumstance, they drew us into publishing.
A few months ago when Peter Dougherty told me the Board wanted me to give the after-dinner talk tonight, I said, Holy Smokes! or words to the effect, What in the world will I talk about? Easy, said Peter, Talk about the future.
Well, I have two favorite quotes about the future. One is, “I have seen the future and it’s very much like the present, only longer.” And the other, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” That one sounds like Yogi Berra, but it was Niels Bohr. I think those two statements sum up just about everything there is to say about the future: it will either be a long extension of what we see around us today, or it will be virtually unknowable—or, to be fair to Bohr, perhaps statistically predictable, but opaque in its particulars.
Probably they’re both true: an extension of the present, but a present reshaped by forces and agencies whose effect we can’t predict. And one of those agencies, of course, is human agency, what people—you—want to happen, and work to make happen. So I’m not going to try to prognosticate about the future of scholarly publishing, except to say that it will be what you work to make it become. I’m not as naïve as that may sound; I know there are other actors working to shape that future, and some of them have a lot more money and raw political influence, if I can put it that way, than you do.
But you have something they don’t: deep personal knowledge of how publishing works, and deep personal conviction of the ability of your end product—book, poem, article, screen display, whatever—to change lives, and in changing them to make them richer, to make them more truly human. So in the welter of buzz and confusion and conflicting choices that we live in from day to day, when it comes to publishing, stay true to your school. Keep faith with the love that got you into this business.
I know it isn’t easy, and I know it doesn’t always produce the result you wish it would. But you aren’t alone. You are part of a community, and I don’t just mean the AAUP community, although that’s certainly important, but the much larger community of people everywhere whose lives have been transformed by the act of reading. I know that it’s easy to feel marginalized, that you’re working on a small if not tiny hyper-specialized satellite in the publishing universe, but that larger community, let’s call it the People of the Book, is huge, and it’s world-wide. Work together, and you will shape the future.
A few minutes ago I described this talk as my swan song, sort of. The “sort of” means that while I am retiring from the day-to-day management of the Association, I will be continuing on for a while as a part-time consultant on some policy issues, both domestic and international, and on recruiting new International Members to AAUP. I am retiring from what has been my day job, though, and there are some people I want to thank.
First and foremost, the staff at the central office: Tim, Linda, Susan, Brenna, Kim, and Regan. You’ve been wonderful to work with, and you’ve done what every boss needs but usually has the decency not to ask for: you made me look good. Thank you.
I’d also like to thank my new boss, Peter Berkery. At our first meeting just after he’d been hired, we both admitted that having the ex-Executive Director hanging around the office for another four months was a situation with a certain potential for strangeness, but we agreed that we could probably work it out. And we did. Peter picked up the reins with no fuss or bother, and I discovered the quiet satisfaction of being able to NOT intervene and leave the problem-solving to the other guy. Thank you for making it so easy for me to stand down, Peter. I’d tell all of you that he’s going to be a terrific Executive Director, but as you’re discovering, he already is one.
I also want to thank someone who wanted very much to be here tonight, but events conspired against her; my wife, M. She’s been my editor, my confidant, and my best advisor. You don’t want to know how many trees she’s talked me down out of in the last 15 years. I couldn’t have done it without her.
Finally, there are all of you. This occasion has been a long time coming. For some of you perhaps a little too long, and if that’s how you feel, I don’t blame you. I started this job in July 1997 and I’m leaving it at the end of this month, 15 years later. That’s a pretty long run, but all I can say is that it would have been a lot shorter if I hadn’t liked the job so much. It’s been interesting, it’s been challenging, and—most of the time—it’s been fun. But above all it’s been deeply satisfying, and the source of that satisfaction has been the pleasure of working for you.
You describe what you do as mission-based publishing, which it is, but for me, that formulation is too abstract. You are the beating heart of that mission. It only exists to the extent that you believe in it, and that your actions are guided by it. Putting belief into practice is never easy. I know it brings rewards, but I also know it requires sacrifices. I honor you for both. It has been a great privilege to serve you.
“Archaic Torso of Apollo,” copyright © 1982 by Stephen Mitchell, from THE SELECTED POETRY OF RAINER MARIA RILKE by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell. Used by permission of Random House, Inc.