Category Archives: Books That Matter

On Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

February 21, 2023. As the first anniversary of Russia’s horrific invasion of Ukraine nears, our community’s resources for understanding the region and this brutal war continue to offer much-needed knowledge and context.

Below is an updated and expanded list of books, journal articles, booklists, and commentary from our member presses and their expert authors, essential reading to all who seek to understand the ongoing crisis.

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Charlottesville Curriculum

After Charlottesville, local debates over the place of Confederate monuments in United States public places roared into the national spotlight. With a broad knowledge of the fields of study that have examined the history, policy, and cultural meanings of such monuments, University Press of Kansas Editor-in-Chief Joyce Harrison compiled for the Association a list of relevant university-press-published scholarship for us to share as part of the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum effort. There are many other deeply urgent aspects to what happened in Charlottesville on August 12, and several Association members have also compiled valuable resource lists under the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum tag. More can also be found in sections of the Books for Understanding: Race Relations in the US bibliography.

Compiled and introduced by Joyce Harrison

As more and more Confederate monuments and symbols are removed in US cities and towns, many people new to the issue have wondered why. Is it a bit extreme? Are we erasing history by removing them?

The books in this list were written by people who have spent their lives and careers studying how Americans remembered victory and defeat, how southerners honored the Confederate dead, and what monuments meant when they were built—and continue to mean—as our troubled past haunts us, over 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

University presses can help us understand and allow us to contribute to informed discussion and debate.

Continue reading Charlottesville Curriculum

#CharlottesvilleCurriculum: Resources from the UP Community

After while supremacists and Neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, leading to violence and the tragic killing of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, many groups and individuals have used social media to point fellow citizens to books, articles, teaching resources, and other materials to help understand what is happening throughout the United States. The members of the Association of University Presses publish scholarship that helps all of us know and understand our history, our present, and our possible futures; and a number of member presses have contributed resource lists to the #CharlottesvilleCurriculum and #CharlottesvilleSyllabus effort. Below are links to these reading lists.

If we’ve missed any #CharlottesvilleCurriculum posts by Association members, please email details to 

Continue reading #CharlottesvilleCurriculum: Resources from the UP Community

A Letter to Pratt in Praise of Books

Photo: Aaron A. Abeyta
Aaron A. Abeyta

The following letter was delivered as a keynote speech at the Association of American University Presses annual meeting in Denver, Colorado, June 2015.

A Letter to Pratt in Praise of Books

Dear Darrin,

I am writing in the evening light; the river birds have begun the last of their singing, sweet whistles, and rapid staccatos that are their language. I imagine they are asking one another for the very same things we might ask for, a lasting grace that is more than just their flight.

Antonito blooms in the cradle of three rivers, all of which give their names and their water to the Rio Grande west of town. A gorge of andesite rock, scored with petroglyphs, directs the river south through a rift that split the llano in two at the earth’s forming. The petroglyphs mark the passing of ancient civilizations; their crude renderings on the black stone are a lasting proof, a carved longing etched for us to interpret. Thermals rise from the gorge, and the river noise and the raptors make upon them a calligraphy of sound and flight that is like words at their genesis. Continue reading A Letter to Pratt in Praise of Books

Channeling the Ming: Feng Menglong’s Short Story Collections

by Lorri Hagman, Executive Editor, University of Washington Press
A Books That Matter Essay

Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 1, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2000)
Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 2, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2007)
Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Vol. 3, compiled by Feng Menglong, translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (University of Washington Press, 2009)

Book Cover: Stories Old and New
Stories Old and New: A Ming Dynasty Collection (ISBN: 9780295978444)

Some people spend thousands of dollars and endure hours of exhausting air travel to vacation in exotic places. But among the perks of my editorial job at the University of Washington Press in the summer of 1998 was being paid to boat down rivers and trek through mist-shrouded mountains in southeast China and to tiptoe into ancient monasteries and palaces, with eloquent and entertaining locals as my guides. This travel was, alas, only in the mind, but I relished it every day—an eight-hour minivacation in both space and time. My purported task was to copyedit the 1,270 manuscript pages of the English translation of Stories Old and New, a set of forty vernacular short stories collected in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by the most knowledgeable connoisseur of popular Chinese literature of his time, Feng Menglong. My true mission, however, was deeper and more subversive: to undermine cultural stereotypes by providing the English-reading world with an unmediated view of Chinese culture and society.

Back then, I still was doing occasional copyediting in addition to acquiring books in Asian studies and various other fields. At its best, copyediting can be like tackling a cleverly constructed crossword puzzle, a self-contained and satisfying task—not something I care to do full-time, but an entertaining diversion. Normally, it’s preferable to have a new set of eyes for copyediting, to spot things that the author and acquiring editor no longer have the objectivity to see, but Stories Old and New required a copy editor with Chinese-language training, and I was the only such person available. So I both acquired and copyedited the manuscript.

Pausing in front of the text and multipage style sheet (one for each story, as well as a list of recurring terms) and shifting my gaze out the office window westward toward Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, I would sometimes reflect that I had just surfaced from a time in which China was already an old and marvelously complex civilization, but the city of Seattle would not be founded for another two and a half centuries. The stories were so rich, so varied, that collectively they illustrated just about everything one needed to know about late imperial China—from history to religion to family structure. When the first Chinese edition was published in 1620, compiler and editor Feng Menglong wrote in the preface of the power of fiction:

Just ask the storytellers to demonstrate in public their art of description: they will gladden you, astonish you, move you to sad tears, rouse you to song and dance; they will prompt you to draw a sword, bow in reverence, cut off a head, or donate money. The faint-hearted will be made brave, the debauched chaste, the unkind compassionate, the obtuse ashamed. One may recite the Classic of Filial Piety and the Analects of Confucius every day, yet he will not be moved so quickly nor so profoundly as by these storytellers. (p. 6)

Shuhui Yang, a professor of Chinese language and literature at Bates College, had first written to us in 1996 about the translation of Stories Old and New that he and his wife, Yunqin Yang, a simultaneous translator at the UN, were completing. I had long been familiar with Feng Menglong’s work, and in my student days had even presented a paper comparing a courtesan in one of the stories to a famous courtesan in Sanskrit literature, a paper that was eventually published in the Journal of South Asian Literature. But the Yangs didn’t know that; our collaboration on this project seemed pure serendipity.

Cover Image: Stories to Caution
Stories to Caution the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 2 (ISBN: 9780295985688)

After the publication of Stories Old and New, I was surprised but delighted to learn that the Yangs were forging on with translation of the two remaining volumes in Feng Menglong’s trilogy of collected short stories, known collectively as the Sanyan: Stories to Caution the World and Stories to Awaken the World. Like Stories Old and New, each volume contained forty stories. Translating the three volumes—a total of 120 stories in 4,300 manuscript pages—was a labor of love on their part, as neither received professional credit or pay (beyond very modest royalties) for this work. My colleagues were understandably concerned about the difficulty and expense of producing these oversize volumes, but with generous title subsidies from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation and Bates College, along with creative typography and thin paper, we were able to publish all three.

Although English translations of a handful of the stories had been published in various anthologies, these were always abridged, omitting the many snippets of verse that are strewn throughout the stories, counterposed with the text, such as this one from “Chen Congshan Loses His Wife on Mei Ridge” (Stories Old and New, p. 342”):

Upon returning to his own yamen, the inspector held a banquet to celebrate the victory. With the slaying of Tiger of the Mountain, indeed,

 His fame spread throughout the Nanxiong region;
His skills in the martial arts won praise from all.

Also omitted were Feng’s interlinear and marginal notes, often deliciously irreverent, such as the following (in italic) from “The Courtesans Mourn Liu the Seventh in the Spring Breeze” (Stories Old and New, p. 219):

From that time on, he grew more dissolute in his ways and went so far as to take up residence in the courtesans’ quarters. On a tablet of the kind that was held by officials, he wrote, “Liu of Three Changes, Imperial Poet Designate.” Before he called on a courtesan, he would first send over this tablet and she would then prepare wine and dishes and bedding for the night. (What a carefree life! This is better than serving as an official.)

Even Chinese editions of the stories have omitted elements of the original, such as sexually explicit passages, which the Yangs translate in full. Their translation of the three-volume collection is the first—and probably will be the only—complete, unabridged English translation of this milestone work in world literature. An important editorial feature that is apparent only when the stories are seen in Feng’s original arrangement is their thematic pairing.

The flavor of the Yangs’ translation is captivating. Feng Menglong had collected stories hither and yon, modifying and even, perhaps, freshly composing some of them himself (much as the Grimm Brothers had done in Europe). The language of the stories is not classical but vernacular Chinese, a form that reflected the grammar and usage of common speech. Although easier for those of us who are not Confucian scholars to understand, Feng’s Ming-dynasty common speech is several centuries old. One of the things I love about the Yangs’ translation is the slightly old-fashioned cadence of the English phrasing, which reflects Feng’s language: things happen “in a trice,” or to “all and sundry” (as in the extract above). Although the Yangs’ command of English is among the best I’ve ever observed in non-native speakers, I wondered how they had been able to capture that subtly old-fashioned tone. When I asked about this, Yunqin’s response was, “Dickens, of course!”

After immersing myself so deeply in his world through the course of three volumes and 120 stories, I felt that I knew Feng Menglong personally and, curiously, that, were he to time-travel to my world as I had to his, he would not be perplexed or intimidated by twenty-first century culture. With his broad mind and deep curiosity, he would have eagerly engaged with the contemporary intellectual and social scene, recognizing new and fascinating variations on the same old stories.

Cover Image: Stories to Awaken
Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3 (ISBN: 9780295989037)

Helping to bring this trove of cultural gems to the English-speaking world was a privilege and a delight. Translators Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang were model “authors,” and we were assisted generously in the multivolume project by scholars such as Bob Hegel (Washington University), Wilt Idema (Harvard), and Andrew Plaks (Princeton). Bob wrote a capstone foreword for the final volume, and he also organized an Association for Asian Studies roundtable discussion in 2009 celebrating the completion of the set. The Yangs spoke on the process of translation; I contributed an editor/publisher’s perspective on the challenge of editing, producing, and financing such a large project; and several professors of Chinese literature discussed the use of the Sanyan stories in the classroom. The following year, another AAS panel focused on the content and style of the stories. Participants uniformly agreed that the rich content of these stories augment teaching on any aspect of traditional Chinese society. As rare, unofficial records of popular culture, they are priceless.

Sadly, despite its importance, literary translation is not adequately encouraged or rewarded. Academic departments do not count it toward promotion and tenure; publication subsidies and book prizes usually exclude it; and, with rare exceptions, translated literature does not sell well. Yet, I believe that, over time, books like our Ming Dynasty Collection trilogy, which enable readers to experience another culture directly, through native eyes, will matter more in advancing cultural understanding than will analytical works. Good translations allow readers to connect deeply with other times and places; to observe them first-hand; to experience amazement at both differences from and similarities to one’s own culture; to, for a moment, forget self and place and time.

While reading a chunk of the first draft of volume 3 on my commute to work one morning back in 2006, I was so mesmerized by “The Grateful Tiger” that I missed my bus stop:

But they had hardly gone a few paces when a sudden strong gust of wind blew out all the lanterns and torches. A yellow-striped tiger with bulging eyes and a white forehead was seen leaping down from midair. The crowd shrieked and ran pell-mell in all directions.

They thought their lives were in danger;
Their souls took flight in fear.

When the wind died down and the tiger was gone, everyone cried out, “Thank heaven!” They relit the lanterns and the torches, and as they were preparing to go on with their journey, the sedan-chair carriers exclaimed, “Oh no!” Of the two sedan-chairs, one was now empty. A look with a torch confirmed that the bride had disappeared. . . .

Reluctantly, I disembarked at the next stop and trudged uphill to the office, wistful for the Ming.

Defamiliarizing the History We Know: Editing “Sojourner Truth” and “The Spitting Image”

by Niko Pfund, Publisher, Trade & Academic, Oxford University Press (USA)
A Books That Matter Essay

Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend, by Carleton Mabee (NYU Press, 1995)
The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Jerry Lembcke (NYU Press, 2000)

Like most university press directors, I could pen an entire collection of essays on books with which I have been proud to be associated. I’ll focus here on two books that I acquired and edited at NYU Press rather than published, since an editor’s involvement is always more direct than a publisher’s. Both of these books provide a wholly original and counterintuitive perspective on a familiar topic, in both cases a subject rife with emotion, passion, and conflict.

Cover: Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend (ISBN: 9780814755259)

In the early 1990s I came across the manuscript of a revisionist biography of legendary abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth by Carleton Mabee, a SUNY historian who had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1944 for his biography of Samuel F. B. Morse, and was immediately intrigued. I was especially struck by his contention that Truth never actually uttered the phrase with which she is most famously associated, “Ain’t I A Woman?,” spoken defiantly, it had long been believed, to a hostile crowd uneasy about the establishment of a direct link between women’s rights and abolitionism, at an 1851 women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio.  Instead, Mabee claimed, Truth’s speech was met enthusiastically. The hisses and catcalls that purportedly rang out from the crowd were in fact the later embellishment of Frances Gage, one of the organizers of the conference, in a chronicle written years after the fact. Mabee further contended that the famous phrase was not in fact Truth’s at all, but rather of Gage’s later manufacture, basing his claim on an examination of both Truth’s and Gage’s use of language in their speeches and writings, and a review of newspaper accounts in the days immediately following the conference, which contained no mention of any such expression.

While the Akron convention may have been devoid of the specific dramas attributed to it, the publication of Mabee’s book itself made for some moments of considerable drama at the 1993 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. Mabee was perhaps 30 years the senior of his fellow presenters, and was, if memory serves, the only man and the only white person on the panel. Appearing alongside a panel of Truth biographers at one of the conference’s best-attended sessions, held in the large auditorium at Vassar College, Mabee’s presentation of his findings was greeted respectfully by the other panelists.

The excitement began during the Q&A, when a member of the audience stood up, wearing a black “Silence = Death” t-shirt, and claimed that Mabee’s work was motivated solely by his desire to tear down an iconic female figure. The time has passed, she said angrily, when we should let a white man guide our interpretation of the life of a prominent African-American woman. Carleton remained impassive and a hush fell over the audience, as I sat squirming in the front row.

After a tense few moments, the Princeton historian Nell Painter, who was at the time working on her own biography of Truth and thus had every reason to feel ambivalent about Mabee’s work appearing before hers, took the microphone. Painter began by saying that it was she who had invited Mabee to the conference. His work, she continued, was important and, er, truthful, rooted in imaginative archival research and fact. Her own work would make use of his when her book (which was widely considered the definitive biography of Truth upon publication) was released. As 300 women historians sat rapt, she concluded that the time had happily passed when scholars of women’s history needed to shore up their subjects as a means of validating the field of study. Sojourner Truth, she said was a remarkable and potent historical figure, and no one should feel the need to erect—or sustain—mythical scaffolding to prop her up.

Debates over identity politics were roiling the humanities in 1993, but Painter’s remarks were met with loud, sustained applause.


Cover: The Spitting Image
The Spitting Image (ISBN: 9780814751473)

Some topics act as a canvas onto which we project our pre-existing beliefs. Rather than engaging with other perspectives to challenge and test those beliefs, too often we simply search for empirical evidence—however selectively chosen or disingenuously applied—to support our established sense of how the world *is*. And so there are few more gratifying experiences as a publisher than contributing in some small, vicarious way to changing the way we think.

The Vietnam War, as a barometer of America’s trajectory as a nation and global power, is clearly such a topic. And, of all the contested iconography that came out of that war, the image of the American soldier returning home, crisply uniformed and eagerly anticipating a family reunion, only to be met by an anti- war protestor who spits on him and calls him “baby killer” has been one of the most potent and most resilient.

Only, claimed Holy Cross sociologist Jerry Lembcke, in his book The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam, it never happened. Not once, at least not according to any available evidence other than individual memories, which are, as oral history has shown us, notoriously changeable over time.

When I first encountered it, Lembcke’s argument struck me as overstated. Surely, I thought, this must have happened at least a few times and then been exaggerated; why else would everyone think it had? But the further I read and the more Lembcke and I discussed the project, the more persuasive I found his claim. The spectre of the hippy protestor (most often a woman, frequently wearing a flowery dress, almost always in the San Francisco airport) spitting on the returning vet was first given life, according to Lembcke, in the film Coming Home with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda, and then became culturally institutionalized in the mumbling monologues of Sylvester Stallone in the Rambo films. In fact, the only Vietnam-era episode Lembcke unearthed of someone being spat upon occurred during a rally by Vietnam Veterans Against the War when an anti-war protester was spat upon by another veteran countermarching with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Even as I found Lembcke’s argument increasingly persuasive, I failed in my attempt to get him to address why so many returning soldiers absorbed this claim of having been spat upon into their own autobiographies, and how the obvious unease that Americans felt in welcoming home veterans of a “lost war” was translated by soldiers into feelings of having been spat upon. Here I should note that I sent a draft of this piece to Jerry, who disagreed with my recollection here: “I think I did address the question why veterans say they were spat on. The stories are a form of scapegoating, i.e., blaming the loss of the war on home front betrayal and gendering those stories with girls or young women (or male longhairs) cast as spitters. The stories also conjure the image of the spat-on `good veteran’ that displaces from public memory the real-life anti-war veteran with whom the public is uncomfortable. The book’s contribution to the study of myth-construction is some of what has given it the legs it has.”

In any event, the book was widely reviewed upon publication, including an above-the-fold feature piece in the purple “Life” section of USA Today. Every review was met with incredulous, often irate readers’ responses as well as with other letters best distilled as “finally!” Jerry was tireless in engaging with all perspectives. His work compelled precisely the sort of debate that both author and editor had hoped for.

Given what a dicey proposition it is to accuse others of having in effect embraced a false consciousness—or, put more bluntly, having made things up—about their own autobiographies, Jerry faced some challenging moments during the promotional campaign for the book. At a reading at Clark University, a group of VFW members assembled outside before the talk and then marched in, taking up most of the front row seats. Within a few minutes of Lembcke’s opening comments, they began shouting comments and questions like “Where were you during the war?” Happily, Lembcke is not a shrinking violet. He didn’t shy away from these encounters but was even animated by them and welcomed the engagement, however fierce, holding his ground and giving as good as he got.

Influential books have a long life, and so The Spitting Image has seen several revivals. The 2006 film Sir! No Sir! featured the book, giving it its biggest post-launch boost. Manohla Dargis, the New York Times critic, favorably reviewed the film, specifically mentioning the book. Seven years after the book’s publication, Sir! No Sir! served as a second launch of sorts for The Spitting Image.  More recently, the LA Times editorialized about President Obama’s 2012 Memorial Day speech and built its critique around The Spitting Image, citing the book favorably.

Jerry continues his revisionist ways, most recently publishing a book about Jane Fonda, Hanoi Jane, with the University of Massachusetts Press. He reports “a donnybrook at the Waterbury CT public library in 2010 where a group of about 20 veterans decked-out in “I’m Not Fond ’a’ Fonda” t-shirts picketed outside and then entered the auditorium where they forced an early end to my talk and then intimidated other attendees in the Q&A to the point where a police officer stepped to the front of the room to cool things down.”

I just hit my quarter-century mark in scholarly publishing. Writing this piece, and reliving the experience of publishing these two books, affirms for me yet again how much I love the work we do, how valuable that work is, and how lucky we are to be academic publishers.