As the space for substantive public discourse shifted from print to online platforms, Columbia University professor Sharon Marcus and New York University professor Caitlin Zaloom decided, in 2012, to launch Public Books, a digital magazine dedicated to publishing writing by scholars and critics on hot-button issues. The success of Public Books led the professors to launch a new venture: a series of books created in partnership with Columbia University Press.
“There’s a hunger for academic ideas that extends well beyond academia and a need for publications like Public Books that present those ideas in ways that don’t require a PhD to understand,” says Marcus, the editor-in-chief of Public Books. “As the fifth anniversary of our online magazine approached, it became irresistible to collect some of our best essays into a physical volume.”
The magazine has published essays by hundreds of academics over the past several years and grown to reach an average of 40,000 people per month—a much larger readership than academics are generally used to. The readers have a median age of 25 to 34, and half of them come from outside the academic world, which reflects the project’s mission to break down the boundaries between academic institutions and the public.
Working with editors Philip Leventhal and Eric Schwartz at Columbia University Press, Public Books published its first titles in June, both of them anthologies of the magazine’s strongest work: Think in Public: A Public Books Reader and Antidemocracy in America: Truth, Power, and the Republic at Risk.
“In assembling Think in Public,” Marcus says, “our goal was to provide readers with a road map to important ideas of the last decade.” The book includes essays on technology, climate change, and race; interviews with artists and activists such as Ursula K. Le Guin and former Black Panther Lynn French; and literary essays by Judith Butler, Namwali Serpell, Theodore Kahan, and others. Marcus says a review of the television miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson by Nicholas Dames, which is included in the book, achieves the boundary crossing that Public Books intends.
“We ask our contributors to take an idea or topic they know inside out,” Marcus says, “and use it as a lens for discussing a recent book, television show, or art exhibit in a way that anyone could understand and learn from.” Dames compares the miniseries to 19th-century British novels that were set in the recent past to shine a light on the present.
Antidemocracy in America also draws on work from many contributors, but the book has a specific focus: to enable policymakers, academics, and general readers to confront a list of structural problems in our society that, the book’s editor Eric Klinenberg says, gave rise to the presidency of Donald Trump. “Antidemocracy in America is for everyone who wants to change the direction this country is headed,” says Zaloom, who shares the title of editor-in-chief of Public Books with Marcus. “The stream of lies and crude tweets can swamp the fact that Trump’s presidency has clear goals and carefully hewn strategies. Each chapter reveals these patterns and exposes the deep and disturbing histories that Trump routinely calls on.” Contributors include Richard Sennett, founder of the New York Institute for the Humanities; William Julius Wilson (More Than Just Race); Saskia Sassen (A Sociology of Globalization); Jack Halberstam (Gaga Feminism); and American political theorist Wendy Brown.
Columbia University Press plans to continue the series with at least two books per year. Marcus says to expect collections from the magazine’s series such as “The B-Sides,” which are “dedicated to the best books you’ve never heard of.” Others, Marcus says, will “offer reflections on how scholarship can help us think about some of the pressing issues of our time: gun violence, rape culture, imperialism.”