03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Slow Sell, or, Why Professors Matter

It's like slow food: selling some books is better done slowly. I have noticed that a lot of the posts on this page are about the book business, or about new books. An early post noted an industry-wise saying that you have three weeks from publication to disappearance, and that pre-publication buzz was the crucial element in making a book succeed. The posts here about favorite books testify to the power of another mode of selling: the slow sell. It can't be done pre-publication, because it requires -- wait for it -- reading.

This is where professors matter. Of course, anyone can recommend a book, from Obama to the bloggers here, and those recommendations can make a book immortal--or, at least, can make a book last a few years. But for teachers, recommending books is the day's business, just about every day. College professors, popularly thought to be walled up in their jargon and their offices, have the privilege -- and the duty -- of recommending different books, new books, the cutting edge of knowledge, every time they offer a course. They can do this because their students buy the books fresh each term -- unlike, say, a school district, which might buy a set of books once in several years. The used-textbook market notwithstanding, cutting-edge teaching will always be attuned to books that are in that zone of invisibility, between three weeks old and the Penguin Classics. This is true in history, literature, political analysis, philosophy, psychology: substantial works, be they new, recent, or older, enter syllabi as quickly as professors, in their ongoing research, find them, and find them useful.

My last week's reading is a case in point: I read David Mitchell's Black Swan Green (2006; anyone spoken of it recently?) and am almost finished with Elizabeth Strout's Amy and Isabelle (1998; ok, so this novel became visible again because of breaking news, Strout's Pulizer this year, but that's not why I happened to be reading it). The Mitchell is for a course I hope to teach on contemporary British fiction; the latter is for a student introduction I'm writing, The Cambridge History of the American Novel Since 1945. If these books end up on syllabi, they will begin to last. And they bring other books along with them: I also recently read Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. I love the idea of having students read Black Swan Green's stuttering narrator alongside Lethem's narrator, who has Tourette's syndrome. What do these narrators' troubles with words tell us about how we use language today, and what the control of language (in the literary arts, but also in our broader culture) can do?

For literature, the slow sell is crucial. Understanding a literary work has more dimensions to it than simply absorbing what it says. Teachers of literature put the book in its historical context, show how it exemplifies aspects of the art of writing, help students see how it connects with other things they read, know, or have experienced. Teachers of contemporary literature allow us to see the present as evolving history -- it is simply not true that you have to wait to see which books "stand the test of time." It is teachers who show students how to read, understand, and care about a given book; a succession of successful teachers -- or the lack of such a succession -- is what makes a book last, or not.

Marketing people, do the math: our contemporary literature survey enrolls a hundred students or more every time it is offered. That's one school, one department, one course. Don't forget the slow readers.