That sound you hear is Nietzsche and Kant rolling over in their graves, or perhaps having a cow, at the news that after 42 weeks as Nielsen Bookscan's number one trade paperback philosophy book, The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D'oh! of Homer (Open Court, 2001) moved into the top trade paperback philosophy backlist spot late last year. Taking its place as the bestselling frontlist title was The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real (Oct.).
These two unlikely titles are the latest in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series—collections of academic essays that marry high thought and low culture. The series debuted in 2000 with Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing, edited by William Irwin, which has shipped 21,000 copies to date. The Simpsons and Philosophy, edited by Irwin with Mark T. Conard and Aeon J. Skoble, has shipped an impressive 163,000 copies, while The Matrix and Philosophy, also edited by Irwin, has already shipped 43,000 copies.
Open Court, which publishes 12 to 15 nonfiction titles a year, will continue the series with the April publication of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, edited by James B. South. First printing is tentatively 25,000 copies, and pre-pub orders have been the strongest for any book in the series, reported Open Court publisher Marc Aronson. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson, will follow in fall 2003, and Woody Allen and Philosophy, edited by Conard and Skoble, in spring 2004.
Series editor Irwin, an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., understood from his own experience that pop culture could offer students entry into a weighty subject. "I see these books as working in the same way as when a symphony orchestra does an evening of Beatles songs," he explained. "It gets people to come to the symphony, and they may find they actually like it."
Using pop culture to illustrate academic material has proven a winning formula before. Most notably, the Penguin paperback The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff has sold more than two million copies since its first edition in August 1983. Such whimsical titles find an especially receptive audience among students at college bookstores like the Harvard Coop, which sold nearly 400 copies of The Simpsons and Philosophy last year. "It's not philosophy for dummies," said Mark Ouimet, executive v-p of marketing at Publishers Group West, which distributes Open Court.
The books are so sophisticated they are even being used as textbooks. Kimberly Blessing, associate professor of philosophy at Siena Heights University in Michigan, assigned The Simpsons and Philosophy to the dozen students in a spring 2002 elective entitled "Animated Philosophy and Religion." Blessing recalled, "Students said, 'Wow, I probably wouldn't have remembered the different character types that Aristotle talked about, but now this is going to stick with me.' "