Nicholas Dames, coeditor of the new Rereadings series from Columbia University Press, would like to counter the notion that academic presses don’t publish appealing writing: “There’s a wealth of great academic writers who get shut out because of default suspicion about academics and scholars as writers.”
In fact, those who lack the time, resources, or inclination to matriculate can look to Columbia and other university presses for quick, immersive takes on various collegiate subjects intended to engage as well as educate.
For the Rereadings series, contributors revisit personally meaningful, post-1970s novels. Inspired by Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series, in which writers each obsess over a single album, Rereadings—which also reboots the Columbia Essays on Modern Writers series of the 1960s and ’70s—launched in January with Vineland Reread by University of Illinois English professor Peter Coviello; PW’s review called it an “astute and passionate analysis” of what’s often considered a lesser Thomas Pynchon work.
February brings A Visit from the Goon Squad Reread, in which Ivan Kreilkamp, an Indiana University English professor who has published pop-music criticism in Rolling Stone, the Village Voice, and elsewhere, delves into Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. Rereadings coeditor Jenny M. Davidson says readers unfamiliar with the original books can approach series installments as they would Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby or Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage—more heavily reliant on an author’s obsession than the object of said obsession.
Avidly Reads, which NYU Press and online magazine Avidly launched in 2019, similarly centers on what its website calls the authors’ “emotional relationship to a cultural artifact or experience.” Titles top out at under 200 pages and include the forthcoming Avidly Reads: Passages (Feb.) by Michelle D. Commander, an associate director and curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. She uses four modes of transportation—slave ship, train, bus, and car—and her personal experience to explore the question, “What is the value of Black life in America?” Avidly Reads: Guilty Pleasures by Arielle Zibrak, associate professor of English and gender and women’s studies at the University of Wyoming, follows in May and ponders so-called women’s culture, including teen magazines and rom-coms.
In contrast with the newer series, Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introductions is 25 years old and comprises almost 700 titles to date, including forthcoming hardcovers focused on Black history that eventually will be repackaged as paperbacks in the series. The Movement (Jan.) by Thomas C. Holt, professor emeritus of African American history at the University of Chicago, is a “concise and edifying account,” PW’s review said, that “casts the civil rights struggle in a new light.” Holt says the book draws on the stories of ordinary people to reveal principal motivations that sparked the civil rights movement.
The Cause of Freedom (Feb.) by Jonathan Scott Holloway, historian and Rutgers University president, surveys African American history from 1619 Jamestown through the Black Lives Matter movement. Distilling the African American experience to 160 pages “seemed daunting at first,” he says. “But I could not pass up the chance to offer perspective on what has so often been left out of the grand American narrative.”