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Anis Shivani

Anis Shivani

Posted: August 21, 2010 10:15 AM

Following our spotlight of independent literary presses, here is a special feature devoted to the most exciting university presses in the country.

For whatever shortsighted reasons, newspapers and mainstream media in general give short shrift to the vast output of our great university presses. This is especially sad in an era when the university presses are often the ones that provide the most thoughtful analyses of civil liberties, constitutional law, foreign and domestic policy, trade and finance, globalization, immigration and citizenship, and other areas where the rapidity of events in recent years has made it difficult to step back and put matters into perspective. The best among the university presses combine profound scholarship with accessible language, to present books that are both of the moment and can claim a place in the canon.

Few trade publishers in America can match the University Press of Kansas's output of distinguished political books. Or Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton University Press's books on literary criticism. Or New York University Press's urgency in delivering compelling books on civil liberties and constitutional issues. Or MIT Press and Yale University Press's books on art and architecture. The trade publishers get the reviews and the attention, but one often has to look to the university presses for books of greater substance and authority. If trade publishers give us a provisional draft of history, university presses give us the more authoritative version.

Often their regional focus merges with discovering new voices, such as in Wayne State University Press's mission to find Michigan literary writers and to give them a unique platform, or the University of Nebraska's similar goal with respect to that region. The university presses specialize in subjects such as film criticism (the University of Illinois Press and the University of Chicago Press) or literary theory (Columbia University Press) or literature in translation (Slavic literature at Northwestern University Press) for which the trade publishers have neither the inclination nor the resources. Or consider the University of Arizona press's indispensable focus on the border--in a time of racism and anti-immigrant feeling, where else can one find such compelling books about the proliferating meanings of the border?

The misimpression should be removed: university presses do not publish boring or excessively weighty or arcane books. They may not be into showmanship and high-stakes publicity maneuvers, but their steady, unrelenting focus on particular subject areas creates vast bodies of new knowledge that the mainstream reviewing community makes a great mistake in ignoring.

In their comments to the Huffington Post, representatives of these presses were asked to discuss the transition to digital publishing in particular, and you can see that as a group they are addressing the challenge head-on.

There are books here for everyone's taste. Check out what these presses have to offer. You'll often discover history, depth, seriousness, charm, and beautiful design--all at once. And tell us your favorite university presses and what you like about them!

Eric Zinner, Assistant Director and Editor-in-Chief, tells the Huffington Post: "NYU Press begins with the conviction that scholarship matters, greatly, and can effect significant change. We see our mission as making common cause with the best and the brightest, the great and the good of academe in order to aid in the transformation of the intellectual and cultural landscape. While our first responsibility is disseminating work throughout the academy itself, we are committed to helping produce knowledge that will resonate with a broader public. We maintain that the university is the public square for intellectual debate, and we want NYU Press to be its soapbox, offering original thinkers a forum for the written word. We champion rigorous, innovative, provocative work. We champion great ideas. The Press publishes across a broad swath of the humanities and social sciences; we're particularly interested in the places where different disciplines and methods intersect, producing compelling approaches to a set of issues and themes shared across all of our fields, such as race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, visual culture, children and youth, and disability. We love to highlight how, say, the methods of legal studies are applied not just in law proper, but also in history, literary studies, or psychology."

There are few subjects more important today than civil liberties in the age of terror, and NYU Press takes a backseat to no one in this field of study. Forthcoming titles of particular interest include Marjorie Cohn's The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse; Jonathan Hafetz's Habeas Corpus After 9/11; Austin Sarat and Nasser Hussain's When Governments Break the Law: The Rule of Law and the Prosecution of the Bush Administration; David Garland et al.'s America's Death Penalty: Between Past and Present; Jonathan M. Metzl and Anna Kirkland's A... more
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