This is the text of the remarks Princeton University Press director Peter Dougherty gave at the PROSE Awards luncheon last week. This transcript is also available in the AAUP Exchange.
Thank you. I would especially like to thank the judges, our sponsors, and John Jenkins and Kate Kolendo for organizing the awards lunch, and all the people who make it possible. This annual luncheon has evolved into a very special event for us publishers and our authors, and a fitting tribute to the great books we collectively bring to market.
At Princeton University Press I’d like to thank the team that brought about the publication of Peter Brown’s book, Through the Eye of a Needle, led by its editor, the extraordinarily able Rob Tempio, production editor, Debbie Tegarden, designer, Tracy Baldwin, and publicists, Casey LaVela and Caroline Priday. I’m especially pleased with the quality of the book-making that went into the publication of this great book. In fact, Peter Brown himself has kindly commented on the book’s design and production, as has Gary Frazee, the head of our distribution center. People in this room will know that when you get compliments from both the author and the head of the warehouse, you must have done something right.
When we published Through the Eye of a Needle back in September, I had the occasion to tell a friend and colleague of ours once in trade publishing about it, and noted that it had broken the coveted ranking threshold of 1,000 at Amazon.com and appeared to be holding its own there. My friendly former trade colleague asked me what the book was about and I explained that it was a historical analysis of changing patterns of culture and economy in Western Europe between 330 and 550 AD.
Following a long pause, my friend remarked, “Princeton really is a scholarly publisher, isn’t it?” To which I answered a resounding “Yes.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her the book is 806 pages long.
I could have answered my friend’s question differently by explaining that Peter Brown is perhaps the world’s greatest living historian, that he has done more than any scholar of his—and maybe any—generation, to illuminate the so-called Dark Ages; and that since publication of his first books, Augustine of Hippo in 1967 and The World of Late Antiquity in 1971 (a book that I sold in my first year as a college textbook rep for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), he has done nothing but publish great books. As one of the reviewers of Through the Eye of a Needle remarked, it can’t really be called a magnum opus because every book Peter Brown has published could be described as a magnum opus.
Speaking of reviews, Brown’s book garnered the single most adulatory sentence I’ve ever seen in a book review. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills paid Brown’s book the ultimate compliment, saying: “It is a privilege to live in an age that could produce such a masterpiece of historical literature.” Wills’s review was followed by a swarm of equally laudatory reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Typically, when you publish a book of 800 pages, you expect a long wait for reviews in prominent publications. This was not one of those times.
So what is this book, with its long title and longer list of reviews? In the first blush it is a history of the role wealth played in the transition from the Roman Empire to the rise of the Christian West. Peter Brown tells the story of how the early Christian Church, which once renounced wealth, heeding the biblical admonition that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven,” grew to be the wealthiest institution in Western Europe through the absorption of the large fortunes of its new converts from the Roman elite as well as the Roman middle class. These new Christians were eager to tithe their worldly goods to the Church in return for the promise of eternal life. After a fractious debate amongst the Church Fathers over whether to accept and what to do with this newfound wealth, Christians saw an opportunity to at once help those in need, expand their influence, and, yes, even enrich their coffers along the way. Brown wears his learning lightly and yet there isn’t a page in this book where one doesn’t learn something, a point made by a reviewer who described it as “deliriously complicated.” Complicated, that is, in the scope and breadth of Brown’s erudition and insight.
My own view is that beyond its account of history, institutions, culture, and people, this great book is very much about social justice. As never before, when I hear economists and pundits discussing poverty, inequality, homelessness, hunger, and immigration, I see the trails of these well-worn discussions leading back to the early Christian West, and marvel at how these trails have been lit up brightly by the great Peter Brown. By shining a light on this seemingly remote time, he has illuminated our own condition.
Much as I admire the message of Peter Brown’s book, I find the medium noteworthy because Through the Eye of a Needle is, at its heart, a monograph, and as such it is a tribute to this vitally important genre of scholarship and scholarly publishing.
By monograph, I mean it is simply the literary result of a single, sustained campaign of research into a well-defined subject. Books that conform to this description are the stock in trade of all university presses as well as many commercial scholarly publishers, especially those working in the humanities and social sciences. Despite the steady and relentless contraction of the market for monographs due to a generation’s shrinkage in library book budgets, successful publication of a book like Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle reaffirms the value and vitality of the monograph as a basic scholarly art form, and the role of the editor and publisher in bringing the book to market, maintaining it, and positioning it for eventual translation, teaching, research, and long life in both print and digital forms.
Peter Brown, a great scholar and writer, and his award-winning book—a flagship monograph for the ages—thus serve not only to advance the frontier of knowledge, but also to inspire us as publishers to work with our partners in libraries, aggregators, booksellers, foreign publishers, and the scholarly media to renew our commitment to this sturdy but challenged genre, and to seek new and exciting ways of reinventing the monograph for the Peter Browns of the future and coming generations of scholarly readers.
Director, Princeton University Press