September 13, 2016

On Sympathy

There are only about six weeks left before Science of Sympathy is unleashed on the world. I’ve been living with this book for years and waiting impatiently for the publication machinery to grind slowly towards its end. My fifth book, it’s certainly been the most interesting from an editorial and production point of view. I’ve nothing but praise for the old-fashioned professionalism on show at the University of Illinois Press. In general, the world of academic publishing has out-sourced copy editing, loaded editorial burdens on to the authors themselves, given up on marketing, and adopted pricing policies that make academic books unaffordable for anyone save well-endowed university libraries. This publishing model can boast success if a title sells 150 copies. Publishers make their profits. Authors make nothing or next to nothing. A standard academic contract for a monograph has a royalty rate of between 0 and 2.5% for the author.

Happily, Illinois is publishing a hardback and a paperback of Science of Sympathy at the same time, hitting that university library market at the same time as making the book affordable for everyone else. Every step of the way I’ve dealt with different in-house employees responsible for copy, marketing, artwork, production, website, and so on. Most impressive from my point of view was the production of the jacket blurb. The vast majority of text you read on the back of books, talking about how innovative and brilliant the contents are, is written by the authors themselves as part of pro-forma marketing questionnaires. It’s tough to do. When you’ve spent seven years putting together a complex argument, it’s often difficult to sum it all up in one paragraph, let alone to find the distance to say why it is good in pithy prose. To my amazement, the person responsible for marketing copy at Illinois actually read my book and wrote the blurb for me. What a strange feeling to have someone else sum up what your book is about and what it does. This is serious, professional, almost lost editorial practice, and I’m a fan!

I’ll post some bits and pieces about the book in the coming weeks, but for now, here’s that blurb:

In his Descent of Man, Charles Darwin placed sympathy at the crux of morality in a civilized human society. His idea buttressed the belief that white, upper-class, educated men deserved their sense of superiority by virtue of good breeding. It also implied that societal progress could be steered by envisioning a new blueprint for sympathy that redefined moral actions carried out in sympathy's name.

Rob Boddice joins a daring intellectual history of sympathy to a portrait of how the first Darwinists defined and employed it. As Boddice shows, their interpretations of Darwin's ideas sparked a cacophonous discourse intent on displacing previous notions of sympathy. Scientific and medical progress demanded that "cruel" practices like vivisection and compulsory vaccination be seen as moral for their ultimate goal of alleviating suffering. Some even saw the so-called unfit--natural targets of sympathy--as a danger to society and encouraged procreation by the "fit" alone. Right or wrong, these early Darwinists formed a moral economy that acted on a new system of ethics, reconceptualized obligations, and executed new duties. Boddice persuasively argues that the bizarre, even dangerous formulations of sympathy they invented influence society and civilization in the present day.

Science of Sympathy is available for pre-order here (US) and here (UK).

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