Friday, July 10, 2015

Shelf Life

First Edition of The
Time Traveler's Wife.
The first copy of the first edition of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife that I found, I sold for $110.00. Since then, I’ve found two more copies, and I have not been able to sell them for $25.00 each, though I’d be happy to take it. The book was a surprising bestseller, not published by one of the larger publishing houses, and actual first editions are somewhat scarce. But their monetary value has fluctuated, and fluctuated fairly widely, over only a short span of years.

It is possible, of course, that my first editions will someday regain the value they once had, though I probably shouldn’t count on it. Collectible modern first editions often have what might be called a shelf life, a span of time in which the market is active and the prices are high, until supply either does or (less often) does not catch up to demand. A book with lasting value must have ongoing, long-lasting demand, and collectors and dealers are often only guessing about what might have value five or ten years in the future, or even longer. It’s a lesson I seem to keep forgetting: if I cannot sell one copy of a book for $25.00, why is it that I’d buy the second? Because once upon a time it had been worth a good deal more?

Sometime in the late 1990s, I had a similar realization about academic scholarship in English. I had been teaching a graduate seminar in Middle English, and a student brought me a draft of a paper in which C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image was the primary academic work cited and referenced in the argument. “Lewis is certainly an important figure,” I told the student (at least this is how I remember it now), “but there’s been plenty of work done since then that will help you make your work, and your contributions, seem up-to-date.” There is, I was trying to tell this student, a shelf life for academic work.

Since that time, I’ve often discussed with students and colleagues the question of the typical shelf-life of an academic article in English: rarely is it suggested that the typical lifespan of an article exceeds ten or fifteen years. Of course, some important works of scholarship remain significant for far longer, even a century or more, as is certainly the case for some works in the field I know best, Old English. But a more typical, less exceptional piece of scholarship might be expected to appear on other scholars’ radar for only a decade or two, at most.

It was, I have to admit, a disturbing and daunting realization for me: my own academic career was quite likely to outlast the shelf-life of some of my own scholarship! Certainly, this resonated with my perception that if I tied my work too closely to a particular mode or trend in current scholarship, I would risk falling (or, if I was lucky, rising) with the fortunes of the scholarly trend itself, regardless of the quality or relevance of my own contributions. At best, it seemed, I’d need to re-invent myself, my scholarship, and my career at least once, since after twenty years in academia, I’d still be only fifty, and with (I hoped) a great deal yet to offer.

Perhaps it was entirely self-serving (or intolerably arrogant) of me, but I pretty much decided there and then, back in the late 1990s, that I didn’t want to outlive my scholarship. Having no confidence in my own ability to predict which academic trend I should plan to ride upon the coattails of, I opted to try something else. I decided to start tackling problems which, it seemed to me, had the potential to have the longest possible shelf life.

Specifically, I got serious about studying Old English meter. Of course, Nick Howe, my former dissertation director, and someone whose opinions about the academic profession I valued very highly, warned me not to write a book on meter. “No one will read it, and you’ll be pigeonholed as a metricist,” he said, or words to that effect. He was right on both counts, as it happened, though a few hardy souls seem now to have made their way through my 2005 book Early English Metre. But the central question that drove my thinking—how exactly do we know what is prose and what is verse in Old English?—turned out to be just the question I needed to ask, and I never turned back. Indeed, every academic book I’ve written or planned since has been built, in one way or another, upon that question and its answers.

But tackling the question of Old English meter was not a simple project: I started, quite literally, by scanning every line and verse of Beowulf, a project that took me a full year: my first Sabbatical. I later scanned every line of the Old Saxon Heliand, a poem twice as long. That only took me about eighteen months. Fortunately, I seem to have the kind of patience (or plodding nature, some might say) that makes this kind of work both possible and tolerable. But I cannot help thinking that devoting two-and-a-half years to such basic, ground-laying work might not have been a wise choice, a wise investment of my time, perhaps, if I had been thinking of writing articles with a shelf-life of only ten or fifteen years. Fortunately, I was more ambitious than that.

It has only been five or ten years, now, since my most important thinking and writing on Old English and Old Saxon meter was published: there has not been time, yet, to really assess whether or not they will have the longer shelf life I hope that they will have. Indeed, my clearest (and I believe definitive) statement on the question of how to tell prose from verse in Old English has yet to see print. But doing this work has been enormously rewarding to me, though it matches none of the ways in which academic work is usually evaluated in terms of timeliness or relevance: the work’s theoretical underpinnings are too basic; its conclusions are without obvious political relevance; its theoretical grounding is not linked to any theorists with major name-recognition. It is, in short, not trendy.

Things might have been different, I see now, if I had thought about the clash between the length of my career and the potential shelf-life of my works differently, way back in the late 1990s. The trendiness of a scholarly essay, for example, might be considered not in terms of shortness of shelf-life, but in terms of effectiveness in career-advancement. The beauty of a short shelf-life for articles, of course, is that ten or fifteen years is usually sufficient to see one through tenure and maybe even through promotion to full professor, if one can get onto the tenure track quickly enough. And I hope that maybe there’s a way to write essays that can both serve to advance one’s career and have much longer-lasting value in their field. But I do worry that whenever I’ve asked students, friends, and colleagues about shelf-life, ten or fifteen years is always how it’s seen. I am hopeful too, of course, that my copies of The Time Traveler’s Wife will one day be worth more than $25.00 again. But I don’t, frankly, expect it.

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