Books — specifically scholarly titles published by university presses and other professional publishers — retain two distinct comparative advantages over other forms of communication in the idea bazaar:
First, books remain the most effective technology for organizing and presenting sustained arguments at a relatively general level of discourse and in familiar rhetorical forms — narrative, thematic, philosophical, and polemical — thereby helping to enrich and unify otherwise disparate intellectual conversations.
Second, university presses specialize in publishing books containing hard ideas. Hard ideas — whether cliometrics, hermeneutics, deconstruction, or symbolic interactionism — when they are also good ideas, carry powerful residual value in their originality and authority. Think of the University of Illinois Press and its Mathematical Theory of Communication, still in print today. Commercial publishers, except for those who produce scientific and technical books, generally don't traffic in hard ideas. They're too difficult to sell in scalable numbers and quickly. More free-form modes of communication (blogs, wikis, etc.) cannot do justice to hard ideas in their fullness. But we university presses luxuriate in hard ideas. We work the Hegel-Heidegger-Heisenberg circuit. As the Harvard University Press editor Lindsay Waters notes, even when university presses succeed in publishing so-called trade books (as in Charles Taylor's recent hit, A Secular Age), we do so because of the intellectual rigor contained in such books, not in spite of it.
Hard ideas define a culture — that of serious reading, an institution vital to democracy itself. In a recent article, Stephen L. Carter, Yale law professor and novelist, underscores "the importance of reading books that are difficult. Long books. Hard books. Books with which we have to struggle. The hard work of serious reading mirrors the hard work of serious governing — and, in a democracy, governing is a responsibility all citizens share." The challenge for university presses is to better turn our penchant for hard ideas to greater purpose.