Civil War State Of The Art

I’ve been enjoying the exchange between Brian Downey, Eric Wittenberg, and Dimitri Rotov surrounding the pros and cons of publishing on the web. I thought a bit about Dimitri’s comment re: the ability to publish much longer studies on the web compared with the “institutional” controls of a traditional publishing house. (By the way I thank Dimitri for his brief biography. My comment on Brian Downey’s site was unfair and I apologize.) My concern is that we are placing too much emphasis on the unlimited length of text that web publishing affords. That a 200 page book could be turned into an 800 page book does not necessarily mean that it should be done. Granted that some studies demand longer page lengths, but I’ve found in my few years of reading that 200 to 250 pages is plenty. Both the University of North Carolina Press and Oxford University Press have tended to stick to this range. As for the outreach argument it is unclear to me at this point who this broader audience includes. I have no basis for this claim, but it seems to me that history books don’t sell (apart from Goodwin and McCullough) because people aren’t really interested in reading them. We make a big stink about a few authors who sell well, but let’s not kid ourselves. As I hit the home stretch of my Crater manuscript I am under no illusions that I will make any money or that significant numbers will read it. That’s simply not why I write. I write because it helps me get clearer on complex questions and the final product serves to engage others with similar interests who are also interested in thinking hard about the difficult questions. Within the context of the Civil War very few people fall into this category.

I do believe that the web offers excellent opportunities to publish the sources that historians use and as Dimitri rightly points out we may not even be talking about the entire book; perhaps it could be used to publish the primary sources used for readers to judge for themselves. The Valley of the Shadow offers an interesting example of such possibilities because the site allows readers of Ayers’s Valley-based book to trace the references back to the original sources. This is truly what makes the book and website groundbreaking.

I hesitate to put make this final point because I am not sure that it is really an argument. There is something comforting about a printed source that fails to translate for me on an electronic format. I feel rushed on the internet as I am a finger click away from millions of interesting sites. Even when I write online there is always a tendency to hit the “Publish Post” button sooner than I should. And no doubt that has happened more than once. I see this tendency in my students who have very little patience while doing research or reading online. I am convinced that the internet has contributed to creating a new generation of impatient and/or easily distracted students.

I find reading books to be very relaxing as it creates a self-contained experience. That said, I am more than willing to admit that this may be entirely a function of my conditioning. Anyway, thanks for the thoughful discussion.

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