Rectifying Names

a blog on publishing by Bruce Fingerhut

     1. Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done?”
     2. The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.”
     3. “So, indeed!” said Tsze-lu. “You are wide of the mark! Why must there be such rectification?”
     4. The Master said, “How uncultivated you are, Yu! A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve.
     5. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
     6. “When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music will not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
     7. “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”

Analects of Confucius, XIII Tsze-lu, Chapter 3, James Legge, translator

To Influence or Be Influenced by the Culture - June 24, 2013

Recently, I received a note from an old friend in publishing. It was yet another of the myriad articles on e-books and the publishing industry. This one indicated that e-books will have a far greater impact on paperback publishing than it will on cloth, that paperbacks will continue nonetheless, that e-books will become dominant in certain genres, and that the likelihood is that e-books will maintain their growth pattern, especially among young people. In other words, it was not especially different from what we hear every day . . . except with less devastating results to traditional publishing than one is used to. (The fact of the matter, of course, is that the Henny Pennys have been predicting the end of publishing for generations at least; see this blog’s “The War against Paper” of March 25, 2013, for a personal example.)

My edited response to my friend, in part, follows.

I don’t worry enough, I guess. Perhaps because I don’t publish fiction (Lord of the World is becoming more nonfictional by the day). Ms Arnold-Ratliff [author of the article] has hit on something when she reports that the reason for various outlets change over time. Mozart wrote The Magic Flute as pop culture (of course, that’s only half true: Mozart wrote The Magic Flute for money), whistled by the hoi polloi on their way to work; it has since become highbrow for the 3% who love classical music. Books were thought up, I suppose, as means of education, edification, and communication (and, maybe, later, much later, for entertainment). Over time, self-expression and the ability to say something non-stupid at a cocktail party were added to the mix. Now there are no cocktail parties, but more than sufficient self-expression. Education now, of course, is quite separated from wisdom; it is information, a “product” that has supplanted wisdom as surely as altruism supplanted charity, as value supplanted virtue. So it makes sense that people who read, but not necessarily mainly for learning, would assume, like Engels, that quantity can change into quality, and come to equate 500 books on one’s Kindle as a road to being what Flannery O’Connor called innerlechuls.

No one of sound mind enters publishing seeking to arrive beyond the dreams of avarice. It is for something else, and I suppose the best way to describe it is that he or she is interested in the culture of our country and, in a small way, wants to have some affect on that culture. I do not suppose that it ever mattered one whit for most whether the product of their labors was in paper or digital outputs. I must admit that I find paper almost sensuous, but I am sure that others find that statement unworthy of even a cocktail-party comment, if there were cocktail parties.

Over time, of course, the purposes of one format over the other will change, perhaps from technology, perhaps from the habit of people. At the moment, however, e-books seem to me to be yet another notch on the growing understanding of books as pure commodities. Fewer and fewer people look upon them as things of beauty, as possessions of great importance, as symbols or, better yet, signs of some accomplishment or of a seeking of accomplishment. They convey information, and the more they become simply a conveyance of information, the less they will convey wisdom.

Just as it is true that intelligence is not the opposite of stupidity, since intelligence is finite, so too is it true that knowledge is not the same as wisdom, since information is not the same as truth.

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Answers to Unspoken Questions - June 17, 2013

In this life, we may ask for many things. Sometimes we don’t get what we want; sometimes we find we need to come to grips with the nature of what we want. Sometimes we get what we want; sometimes we get it good and hard. This applies to our work as well as our play. But adjusting what we want and what we get are the very stuff of the human condition.

A wonderful example can be seen in the reading this past week from the Gospel of Luke:

[36] One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house, and took his place at table.
[37] And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment,
[38] and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.
[39] Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.”
[40] And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?”
[41] “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.
[42] When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?”
[43] Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
[44] Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.
[45] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
[46] You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.
[47] Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”
[48] And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
[49] Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?”
[50] And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36–50 (RSV)

This passage is rich in many lessons, of course, but I want to concentrate only on the notion of expectation. Here is a woman, ashamed of her sins, doing a loving deed, but there is no indication that she has expectations of reward for this deed, only the sadness of her fallen life, her need for apology rather than amends or compensation. There is no indication that she assumed her deed would expiate her sins. Her tears that washed the feet of Jesus were of the present and for her past, not her future. The Pharisee, on the other hand, judged her past as binding her present, indeed her future. He too had no expectations that her deed would expiate her sins.

Then Jesus told a story (a parable) that tied forgiveness to sin in a surprising way: the greater the sin, the more wonderful the forgiveness. One assumes that both the woman and the Pharisee saw the gap between sin and forgiveness in a completely different way, that the greater the sin, the less likely the forgiveness would have meaning, as though one would need to work one’s way back from great sin to lesser sin before getting forgiveness. Both the woman and the Pharisee were unable to bridge that gap; for each, the sin was too great, the expiation too impossible.

Most of the time, of course, we do expect answers, we seek answers. In fact, that’s what questions are for. But there is a lesson in this passage of the woman who asked no questions, expected no answers. For her, Jesus asked the question and supplied the answer. For most of us, we do not merely mourn our past, but we question our future. To give you one very mundane example that has the advantage in this blog of tying this to publishing.

When I sold a company I had founded in 1990 (and sold in 1996), Books in Philosophy, in order to start St. Augustine’s Press, I had been in publishing as editor and publisher in both scholarly and trade houses. I had done my best to try to understand the market for books, the needs of people for edification or inspiration or information or enjoyment or any other reason to buy and read books. I had failed. The market in America is too large, too varied, too confusing. And I came to the conclusion that if I were to be in publishing further, it would have to be in a way that did not require wisdom that I knew I lacked. My answer (though I do not think this is by any means the only answer or even the best answer) was to avoid thinking about knowing my buyers but about knowing me. I resolved to have one main question to myself in choosing a given title to publish: am I interested in reading this? I did this with the hope, not the knowledge, that there were other people out there who were like me, who would find this book or that one interesting, important, edifying. It proved to the best decision I ever made in publishing.

Unlike the women in Luke’s Gospel, I was looking for an answer. But like her, it turned out that the question was far more important than the answer; within the question itself lay the answer. Like the lesson we learn early (or never) in philosophy in the story of Socrates’ visit to the Oracle of Delphi (please note that the Oracle sort of mumbled answers, which may have required the hearer to do a bit of interpretation). She told Socrates to “know thyself.” Is this not in some ways Jesus’ answer to the women, that her real self is not wholly defined by her past sin? To know yourself may be revelatory, may be life-changing, or, in the case I mentioned here, merely a roadmap that one travels with hope.

Sometimes, of course, our answers to spoken questions are completely surprising and even frightening. We are left then with self-understanding seen in a greater way. Here is my favorite example, this from the greatest man who ever lived:

[7] And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated.
[8] Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me;

[9] but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
[10] For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7–10 (RSV)

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Production - June 10, 2013

I write today merely to give you a publishing update, but in keeping with my bad habits, I thought I would first give you the reason to have an update at all.

St. Augustine’s Press has grown a great deal in the sixteen years of its existence, both in quantity and, I trust, in quality, but we do suffer from one deficiency, and this year we are seeking to mitigate that deficiency even though we cannot wholly solve it.

The deficiency is that the company is among the very few scholarly publishers of some note that is not connected with a university or a foundation or endowment . . . that is to an entity that can guarantee access to sufficient cash in good times and bad. Of course, there are good points to not being so tied to a university, etc., but, as Tevya said to God in Fiddler on the Roof, “It’s no great shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.”

Of course, no one in his/her right mind ever got into scholarly publishing for the money. I remind my wife about this occasionally, and she understands well, being a therapist (no one ever became a therapist for the money either . . . and you have to listen to the interminable complaints of others on top of that!).

The results of not having someone standing in the corner who can always write a check that won’t bounce is that sometimes books get delayed. This, plus the great growth of the company, has led to a lot of books that have been delayed.

Now, we are fixing this. We have scheduled only two new titles in the fall, both of which are time-sensitive (such books are rare for us anyway), and concentrating on bringing out those works that have suffered delays. By next spring we should have caught up completely; we will then resume our regular pace.

It is true that, unlike trade companies, scholarly publishers should seek out the timeless work, not the timely. But allowing timelessness to become a pattern for production is overplaying you hand. Our books will continue to be of the highest quality in selection, editing, and manufacturing. It’s just that, in the future, they won’t take quite so long to get them to you.

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A Fierce Beauty - June 3, 2013

My wife Laila and I are not used to long vacations, except, occasionally, to Norway, where she is from. Our travels in America, when they are not simply visiting family, are rarely more than extended weekends. But in early May, while my brother-in-law Arne was here, we took an eight-day trip to the canyon lands of Utah and Arizona.

I think I should preface what I am about to write with two background stories. I am from the Washington Metropolitan area; Laila is from the West Coast of Norway in and around Bergen. When we came to South Bend so that I could go to grad school at Notre Dame, it was a shock. Washington, of course, has beautiful buildings, thanks to you all out there, but it also favors us with lovely Rock Creek Park, with the handsome Potomac River, with nearby Blue Ridge Mountains, and with the one-of-a-kind Chesapeake Bay. Western Norway is simply the most beautiful place on earth, Bergen being the threshold to the greatest fjords in the world. Like most places, there are climatic downsides too: Washington was built on a marsh, and summers range from awful to abominable (the temperature and humidity index for the last summer we lived in Washington began the first week in May at 85º and 85% respectively and never went lower until October). I looked forward to the cold of Northern Indiana . . . until I got here. My early reaction was that South Bend was the Shakespearean City . . . weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. But over time I learned to love the prairie, to see beauty in seemingly unending rows of corn, and to relish in a milder summer.

The second story deals with a visit to the canyon lands with our then-very-young children. I loved the desert, and saw in it an opening and freedom that other topographies could not match; Laila, who comes from an area wet and green, saw exactly the opposite . . . a terrifying place closing in on her.

So it was unexpected when she suggested that we vacation in Utah and Arizona again, after all these years. I thought she was being more than typically kind in making this suggestion, though, I’m happy to say, her reaction this time indicated that the trip was not a total sacrifice for her.

We rented a car and put on 1,650 miles in eight days traveling (in order) to Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, Canyonlands National Park, Monument Valley, the South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Escalante State Park, and Capitol Reef National Park. Though sandstone predominates everywhere, it’s a miracle how different each of these places is from the rest. Both Laila and Arne loved the fierce beauty of this world, unique in all the earth and beautiful beyond explanation.

For me, a long-time fan of the canyons, it was wonderfully satisfying to see Laila, especially, fall for this remarkable place.

When Americans decide to take a European vacation, nearly always it is to see the works of man . . . the beautiful cities, the awe-inspiring cathedrals, the great historic buildings. There are exceptions, of course, where one would go to see the works of God: Norway most definitely, Switzerland, and certain areas within various countries like the British highlands or the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland (I should add, regarding Norway, that you will find there the northernmost of the great gothic cathedrals, Nidaros in Trondheim).

It has taken a very long time, but Laila and I seem to agree on all the important decisions in life, though she, as a therapist, tends to ask whether thus-and-so is good, and I tend to ask whether it is true. From this, I long ago gathered that the true and the good are one. But we should not exclude beauty, because beauty is one with the true and the good. It is a salvation all its own, not just a needed respite but at the very core of life, needed on the same level as are the good and the true.

In America, our cities, with a few exceptions (San Francisco, New Orleans, New York, perhaps Boston), are more or less like other cities. What we should be seeing are the works of God, and they are everywhere. I think many Americans are truly unaware of the great beauty that confront us throughout this blessed land. Give yourself a break, see our own country, and do as the ad that I saw everywhere in Utah prescribes, “Live Elevated.”

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“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” - May 20, 2013

We certainly have a remarkable President, a man who refuses to make decisions but must have his way! For those of you who blanch at an argument with an excluded middle, this may be an affront. How can a person have his own way if he doesn’t establish what his own way is? I think the most likely answer that overcomes the excluded middle is that there are ways to transmit a desire that is a consummate decision without either the words or the written proof of a decision.

Leaders of all sort, from corporate to king, have long been able to convey their desires without the inconvenience and, perhaps, embarrassment of spelling it out. After King Henry II showed his disdain for the Church by elevating his friend and drinking-and-whoring buddy Thomas Becket to the chair of Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket had the temerity to evolve into taking his religious calling seriously. Henry said (out loud to himself) in the hearing of his henchmen, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” The henchmen then stormed Canterbury Cathedral, where Becket was praying, and murdered him at the altar.

Corruption is not typically taught the way algebra is, with graphs and blackboards and textbooks. It is hinted at, sometimes with nothing more than a raised eyebrow, and those who refuse to understand soon find themselves on the streets, looking for work. It has been this way from time immemorial, and will be this way until the world ends, whether with a bang or a whimper.

Men dissemble this way to cover their tracks and give them outlets for any result. Only God is wholly to the point. I am writing this on Pentecost day, a time that not only was the birth of the Church, not only the coming of the Holy Spirit, but also the turnaround of the story of the Tower of Babel. Instead of words bringing confusion and chaos among brothers, they redefined brothers as those who understand beyond words.

Words without the knowledge of the meaning are empty signs, lost on any audience. It is like expecting spell-check to make you into an editor. But having knowledge of meaning is itself insufficient if the person has bad faith. In the end, it is truth alone that is the hallmark of communication.

There will always be sycophants, hangers-on, henchmen, toadies, and flatterers, ready and willing to rid the king of a turbulent priest. The greatness of our humanity is that there are also turbulent priests, often willing to be martyrs for us.

My wife, Laila, and I went on our longest vacation in America in decades in early May, visiting the incredible canyon area of Utah and upper Arizona. I will return to write about that trip next week.

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When Did We Get to Be So Nice? - April 29, 2013

Publishers used to see themselves as gatekeepers to honesty and perhaps even to quality; some still are, though the Zeitgeist seems stacked against any need for gatekeeping at all. I’ve written on this with regard to amazon and the proliferation of semi-truths that is the internet and much of the book business now.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when people could have conversations about difficult personal, professional, or political topics and not feel obliged to lie so that they wouldn’t have to use the word “lie.” Let’s face it, we’re no longer really suited for a discussion around a table in the manner of Dr. Johnson and his friends. We’re no longer as witty, no longer have the vocabulary (of course, that is unfair; Johnson wrote the first English dictionary), no longer as polite, and, sadly, no longer possess either the time or the inclination to get to the truth of things, not if it is at the cost of using the L word. Using that word, it seems, is more likely to indict the speaker than the receiver. If a man cheated on his wife, our conversation about him might well devolve into four-letter words, but those same words serve their purpose whether we meant that as condemnation or praise. What does that say about us?

Where did this scrupulosity come from, that we are unable to use a perfectly good and clear, though harsh, word to describe an action? Let’s take a few samples from our presidential races in the past couple of decades. Remember George H. W. Bush being hounded constantly for saying at the convention that nominated him, “Read my lips, no new taxes”? Eventually, he fell victim to the bright and sunny arguments that raising taxes by oh-just-a-tiny smidgeon would suffice to have good relations with the other side, and help much of his program get passed. Of course, it did not happen. The same day that he relented on his “no new taxes” pledge, the people who had talked him into that action for the sake of unity started tagging him with the “liar” label, not the “flipper” label. I believe that this was more responsible for his loss in 1992 than any other reason, for example the forever-reiterated “worst economy in fifty years” cheer that was repeated ad nauseam, getting louder every time someone mentioned that the economic downturn was a minor one by American standards and that there was a Carter administration sometime within the fifty years under consideration.

Bush was followed by Bill Clinton, his now-virtually-adopted some, who was someone whose need to be loved led him to serial lies about the most trivial matters. I once said he couldn’t complete a thought without a lie (e.g., “I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t inhale.”). But, again, most of Clinton’s lies were such that he could easily be forgiven. They were about private matters or done so that everyone would love him. They were more pathetic than evil.

My point is that for both of these men, there are excuses which a great number of people could sympathize with. But now we have a president who simply repeats lies that are well known to be such, as though no one has found out, possibly because of the media, who don’t report the lies or refute them, but more likely because that he doesn’t have the same demands that Bush 41 or Clinton placed upon themselves: to hold the office in honor and to serve all the people and not just those who voted for him . . . in short, to have some combination of duty and shame..

We don’t have that problem any longer. There doesn’t appear to be any concern whatsoever from the present White House to see in lies or going back on one’s word something to be ashamed of. So they are repeated and repeated, without shame or change.

This is right out of the Saul Alinsky handbook. Not since Hegel walked the earth, has a man been more quoted without being read as has Alinsky. At least with Hegel, one may be forgiven for bypassing the work of this most self-consciously difficult writer ever to put pen to paper. When you read Hegel, you are likely to know the meaning of every word in the sentence, but still be flabbergasted at what the sentence meant. I remember being halfway through The Phenomenology of Mind, when the Professor asked me how it was going. I said, smiling, that I think I may have to learn German to understand the text perfectly. His response was, “No, Bruce, it is much easier in English.”

No one could say that about Alinsky. His prose is understandable to anyone from a Ph.D. to a brain-addled drug addict (or even combinations of the two), and yet no one apparently reads him, just the few famous quotes from him.

Reading him might expose a plan for the purpose of lies, of a strategy of using lies, of a tactic incorporating lies. The journey from being ashamed for an action to being ashamed to point out the shame of an action has reversed the meaning of “lie.” Once we lived in a world of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”; now we just have statistics. If they show 50.01% of voters agree with you, there is no reason to care about lies, much less damned lies.

What we have now is the inability to be shamed. When Joseph Welch, head counsel for the U.S. Army, who was under investigation by Senator Joseph McCarthy, said, “Have you no sense of decency, sir” (it’s misquoted as “Have you no shame, sir”), he could say that because it was a time when people knew what decency (and shame) meant. McCarthy was essentially shamed out of the Senate, and soon died a broken man, drunk and with a ruined reputation.

But now think of the Benghazi affair. Here we have enough lies to last a lifetime for any number of people in the Obama Administration, including, especially, the president himself. Yet, our fair-minded, nice, and concerned opposition and the media that is by no means an opposition force both refuse to call these lies “lies.” In so doing, they are neither fair-minded, nice, nor concerned. They are cowards and either fools or knaves (more likely, knaves). This lying about “lies” does not advance any agenda with even a taste of honesty.

Is there any public figure, any journalist, any lawyer, who would be drummed out of power because his lies shamed him? McCarthy’s moral center was superior to any number of politicians today.


Dear Friends: I’ll be away and incommunicado for a short time in Utah’s and Arizona’s canyon lands. I return on May 14. This blog will resume on May 20.

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Refused to Be Terrorized - April 22, 2013

Though I had other plans for this week’s blog, the events in Boston demands a few words, although far from the book-publishing world.

Most of what has been said over and over again this week is noncontroversial in my mind. Whatever their reasoning for the actions, a pair of brothers chose to disrupt the Boston Marathon with some horrific homemade bombs, killing three people and wounding some 170 others. Amateurs that they were, they did not seem to have thought through cover-up or escape. They then killed a police officer in cold blood by shooting him in the back of his head. Eventually, the older of the two was killed by police while his younger brother escaped, only to be caught the next day.

Many victims are wounded physically for life, and many more wounded mentally. This was the first terrorist bombing in the United States since the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 (the larger, more devastating attack in 2001 did not involve bombs).

Most of the whys and wherefores will not be fully vetted for some time. We can look forward to the wise and the foolish sharing the stage, giving opinions, and sometimes coming to conclusions. In the end, there will probably remain answers to questions that will displease some people. It is in the nature of a large and free society that controversies rarely lead to unanimity in conclusions. I have no desire to proffer any answers here.

What concerns me is the manner in which this event has affected and will affect our culture, what the late Paul Harvey used to call “our Americanism.”

The president gave what seemed to be a heart-felt speech, not placing blame but extolling the work of police from several sources. He said that the terrorists had failed, adding that Bostonians refused to be intimidated, that Americans refused to be terrorized.

I don’t know what he meant by “Americans,” whether he was speaking about the people of Boston or the larger community, whether he was speaking about people in charge of discovering and finding the terrorists or others.

What has bothered me is his notion of success or failure, of refusing to be terrorized or being terrorized. I am not at all sure that these terrorists failed. From what little we know about the terrorism we have faced for the past several decades, it seems by no means the case that these people judge success, for example, by the size of the death count or their having escaped capture. Indeed, suicide itself seems to be a part of many in such terrorist actions. We tend to call them cowards, but by any normal understanding of “coward,” these people are not that at all. Giving up your life for your convictions may be many things, but it is not cowardice.

But if they didn’t fail, did they succeed? Oddly enough, I think their success can only be judged by our reaction. If the number of the dead or the escape of the killers is not the way of judging success, it seems that our reaction to the event must be the goal. And just as the president was wrong to say that they failed, he is wrong in saying that we refused to be terrorized.

Again, this depends on who “we” are. If “we” are the people who make the decisions for subduing these killers, it is difficult to say that they refused to be terrorized. They closed down a great city to catch one amateur terrorist. If you were plotting a terrorist action, would you consider it a success to have closed down an entire city for a day? What would have happened if these terrorists were professionals instead of amateurs, and had ten people spread out over the city? Are we prepared to close down Boston for a week? for two weeks? Our fear is their success.

Perhaps our citizens’ reactions to this terrible event will spur on serious thinking about what it is that drives terrorists to want to harm us, about the balance between security and freedom for a modern republic, about the nature of success in a war on terrorism, and, finally, about our place in the world and our being (what Madeleine Albright called) the “indispensable nation.”

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“Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” - April 15, 2013

No, the title is not a commentary on politics, though, given the present regime, one could be forgiven for thinking so. Nor is it the beginning of a fitting complaint about the IRS on this, its day in the sun.

It’s a quote from the Gospel of John, telling the story of the unrecognized risen Jesus telling St. Peter, who came back from a fruitless night of fishing, to cast his net on the right side of the boat, where he would find 153 huge fish. I don’t want to get into the shining theology of this last chapter of John; let’s just stay with the most mundane notion: that there will come a time in the life of each of us when we are coming up empty and are confused or depressed or upset about our situation. This occurs in our personal lives, in our working lives, in our spiritual lives.

I realize that some people find emptiness in a bad meal or someone giving them a crooked smile. What I’m talking about is sterner stuff, not necessarily end-of-the-line stuff (e.g., grave illness, marital infidelity, etc.), but something of importance that nevertheless doesn’t inhibit us from reacting and changing our ways.

In our work, for example (since this blog is presumably about work), having difficulties with colleagues or bosses, not getting the raise, losing a job or getting a demotion, being simply unhappy with the work, finding oneself in an ethically troubling situation, coming to the conclusion that this is not the work of a lifetime are all problems that can affect most of us.

I’m not a therapist (that’s my wife), and so though I know that there are innumerable coping mechanisms for people, depending on the problem and, especially, on their own psyche and history and personality, I would certainly not deign to give advice (let me reiterate: my wife is the therapist). What I can say is that on occasion one may come to the St. Peter situation, in which there is a solution offered that involves casting the net in a different direction. In the case of St. Peter, it came from the One most suited to give him correct advice . . . expect for the fact that John’s Gospel says explicitly that Peter did not recognize Jesus, the one who suggested casting the net on the right side of the boat. When this situation arises, we may well take St. Peter as our model, and give it a chance.

I picked a job problem rather than a personal problem because, after all, this blog is about publishing, but reverse-side net-casting is a lot safer in a job than with your wife or husband or children.

I find, for example, that some of the things that may bother you are not those that you really expected to have when you embarked on this journey. St. Augustine’s Press is one of the very few scholarly presses I know about that is not connected with a university or a foundation or that has a substantial endowment. So perhaps I could be forgiven (except from my wife . . . the therapist) for worrying about money. But money was never the reason to get into publishing. I know of only one person who got into publishing for the money, and both he and publishing would have been richer if he had chosen banking or money management or pharmaceutical sales for a living. I should add that no one I know became a therapist for the money either.

We live in a country that is both the mainstay of strength and balance in the world and yet is forever re-new-ing itself. Christianity is also this way: both the world’s bedrock of moral clarity (the motto of the Carthusians, stat crux dum volvitur orbis, “the Cross stands while the world turns,” says it best) and the very essence of renewal of purpose and method. I tend to think of the country and the Church in the same way as Richard Weaver playfully defined conservatism as the “paradigm of the essences toward which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.”

Casting your net out into unknown waters may be frightening, but that’s where all the big fish are.

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The Timely and the Timeless - April 8, 2013

I have been in the book-publishing business ever since leaving grad school. My first job was as an editor at Open Court Publishing Company, in the basal reader section (they also had a much smaller trade section), then at the University of Notre Dame Press. In both cases, quality was held to be more important than quantity. In both cases, they struggled: Open Court with competition from huge companies; Notre Dame with the very nature of scholarly publishing (about which, more below).

It was out of this experience that I came to realize that the mark of a scholarly house had to be that the timeless was the aim of the company, leaving the timely to trade publishers. What separates trade from scholarly publishing are mainly the intention of the publisher and the manner of sales, more than it is the very nature of the book’s purpose or even the execution of the writing of the work. Trade houses rely on the book trade, i.e., the bookstore market, far more than scholarly houses do. Consequently, they have a shorter timeframe to sell their works and a faster period to recoup their investment. Trade books have a shorter lifespan but often (usually) earn a greater amount than scholarly books. The print runs are larger, which means the unit price is smaller, although the discount is often higher. A premium is paid for being on time, for deciding quickly on reprints as needed, and for attending to far more promotion than is typical of scholarly books. Whereas scholarly books may wait months, even years, to get reviews, a trade book must garner all their reviews in a short time, or those reviews may come after the book is either reprinting in paper or pulped . . . in other words, if not wasted, at least of lesser import.

None of this is to say that one type of publishing, whether you want to call it trade v. scholarly, or timely v. timeless, is more important or central to the culture of our country than the other. There is room for both. But I have been convinced after all these years that it is important for the publisher to understand which side of the border he or she is on, in order to do the best for the author, the ideas (which, after all, are separate from the author), and the company. I have seen a number of scholarly houses greatly hurt, even go out of business, because they thought they could really compete as a trade house, with all the attendant work of that house . . . higher up-front costs, the frenetic pace of production/sales/promotion, and the decisions of when to fish and when to cut bait. Failure for a smaller house without adequate financial backing and staff is always around the corner in two ways: the book doesn’t sell right away, or the book sells too well right away. The first is heart-breaking, the second is disastrous. Only a few large houses can handle both the timely and the timeless.

What worries me these days is not just the siren call of big print runs and trade sales for the scholarly press, but the fact that even in full-throated scholarly publishing there seems to be a much more pronounced push toward early sales and early write-downs, St. Augustine’s Press is one of more than 100 mostly scholarly houses that are distributed through the University of Chicago Press’s Chicago Distribution Center. Several years ago the then-assistant director of the CDC made an exhaustive study of the sales of many (most?) of the houses that they distributed, and came to the conclusion that 85% of lifetime sales were made in the first year of its existence. This means, of course, that there is not much difference between the results in trade v. scholarly publishing . . . except that scholarly houses did not pulp the books fast enough. They were worse businessmen in a field of terrible businessmen.

But if the sales trajectory of scholarly publishers is similar to that of trade, except slower and fewer, what can be said of the complaints one hears from authors and reviewers that editing is becoming a lost art, that quality is lower even as production is higher, that, in short, the very nature of what a publisher should be, i.e., a gatekeeper, is in danger of becoming passé?

In 2005, there were 172,000 new titles published in the United States, a tremendous amount. I should add that publishing is likely the only business that has more manufacturers (i.e., publishers) than outlets (i.e., bookstores). Since the day of specialty bookstores seems to be over, how can we rightly assume that any bookstore can possibly keep track of what is being published?

In 2011, a mere six years later, the number of books published in the United States exceeded 2 million! I gather this includes both self-published works and perhaps e-books, but, still, the number is immense. Like trying to discern the truth of things on the internet, how can the reader in such a market be serviced without trusted gatekeepers? But today both our sales trajectories and our editorial practices have blunted the differences between the timely and the timeless.

Without the gatekeeper, without the guarantor of quality and truth, we descend to the character of Johnny Rocco in the movie Key Largo, who decided that the only way to describe what we really, truly wanted was . . . “more.”

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The Fourth Cup - April 1, 2013

I do not want this blog to be another iteration of Facebook, informing people I do not know, but have enough respect for that I cannot see boring or embarrassing them, with intimate details of my life. Except for e-mail and new printing know-how, I have done my level best to stay as far away from technologies as is possible, most especially social media. Life is too short to waste it on trivia. If my name is fated to be writ in water, so be it. Far better than splattered with corn syrup.

However, what I want to say about the Fourth Cup makes more sense if I mention a little background. I was born and raised into a Jewish household in the Washington Metropolitan area so long ago that, frankly, it was not so metropolitan. I was the beneficiary of a wonderful family and soaked in all the beauty and tradition of Judaism with precious little of what should have been the accompanying belief. By the time I married the first non-Jewish girl I ever dated, I called myself an agnostic for the simple reason that I did not have enough faith to be an atheist.

My journey (or, rather, my battle; for some, life is an Odyssey; for me it is an Iliad) was shepherded by a wonderful teacher, a great writer, a close friend, and, most especially, that non-Jewish girl. And I brought with me the Old Testament foundation that continues to mark my life.

I am no theologian, but I know a syllogism when I see one, and some events from the Bible or from our own reactions and life experiences remain central. I am afraid that were I to have had a Road to Damascus experience, my reaction would have been more like Scrooge than St. Paul . . . a bad piece of boiled beef. But God is good, and the pathway He has put before me, marked by these remarkable people and many others, has changed every important aspect of my life.

Now to prove that I am not a theologian. For many years now, my wife and I have celebrated both Passover and Easter, often, as this year, in the same week. The haggadah (the Passover prayer book) we use is completely authentic, not a “Christianized” one, but it lends itself to thought and questions and participation. This year I concentrated on the elements of likeness and of difference in Passover v. Easter. For example, both begin with a triumph, degenerate into catastrophe, and finish with a far greater victory. On the other hand, Passover is about saving a people (the salvation portion of the story, the handing over of the Law on Mt. Horeb, is not included), whereas Easter is about salvation, not about specific people or peoples to be saved. I never really thought before about the wide swath there is between saving and salvation.

This Passover I concentrated on the four cups of wine that are traditionally drunk during the Passover seder. The first cup is the Kiddush cup (the cup of sanctification), for blessing the festival day. The second cup (judgment) introduces Psalm 113, a psalm of praise. The third cup (redemption) is taken just after the meal of the unleavened bread. The fourth cup (Kingdom) is used in singing Psalms 115–116 and for the final prayer and exhortation. This tradition of four comes from the four promises that God made in Exodus: I will bring, I will rid, I will redeem, and I will take.

The Last Supper is often seen as a Passover meal, though there are arguments against this (i.e., Pope Benedict XVI gave good arguments that the Last Supper was the evening meal that occurred immediately before the first day of  Passover, which lasts eight days; for example, in John 19:31 we hear “[s]ince it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day),” the legs of those being executed should be broken so that they might die). It is interesting that Judas drank the second cup (judgment) but left the table before the third cup (redemption), whereas Jesus drank the third cup (and here I am assuming specific times in the celebration), but left before the last cup, which is often called the Cup of Elijah, after a part of the seder when a young child opens the door to allow the Prophet to enter.

Elijah plays several prominent parts in the New Testament. He is there at the Transfiguration, representing the Prophets along with Moses, who represents the Law. He is mentioned while Christ recites the 22nd Psalm while on the Cross, when the people misunderstand the first words, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani” to be calling for Elijah. Elijah is the only man mentioned in the Old Testament who is spared death, but ascends into heaven on a chariot. He is to come again to announce the coming of the Messiah at the end of days.

So, if Jesus leaves the meal for Gethsemane after the third cup and before the opening of the door for Elijah, before the fourth cup, the Cup of Elijah, it is for a very good reason: the Messiah is not to come; the Messiah has come.

When Jesus arrives at Gethsemane, he prays to the Father that the cup may pass from him. Could this cup be the fourth cup? If so, Jesus’ actions mean more than asking for a stay of execution; it means a reprieve from Messiahship.

But the Father greatly honored him, perhaps best said in Luke 24:5, when, after the Sabbath, the women came to the tomb to attend to Jesus and found the tomb empty. There they were confronted by two men in dazzling apparel, who asked them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

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