The books that wouldn’t die


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Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956), Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983). Scholars rarely write books like these anymore: ambitious, erudite works that boldly set forth big, original ideas but were written as much for other scholars as for a broad public.

These are the Undead Texts. Their ambition and success inevitably made these works targets of specialist rebuttals. There is probably not a single claim they make that subsequent scholarship has not queried, criticized, or refuted. Yet these texts refuse to die. Novices and experts alike remain susceptible to the spell they cast.

Though these zombies are too miscellaneous in subject matter and style to constitute a proper genre, they are a recognizable type. When we asked a dozen scholars, in classics, history, anthropology, literary studies, sociology, and philosophy, to participate in a conference dedicated to Undead Texts, no one had difficulty coming up with an example; indeed, most had numerous candidates. Nor did other colleagues, who reeled off their own titles: Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-­Element in Culture (1949), Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory (1966), Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).

Undead Texts display impressive scholarship, often drawing on original sources in other languages and disciplines. Works such as Susanne Langer’s Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942), Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959), and Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy (1982) make strenuous demands on readers. Many were originally published by university presses and respectfully reviewed in learned journals. Some titles later migrated to trade presses as sales figures mounted: Langer’s book first appeared with Harvard University Press, then the New American Library (1951), before being reissued by Harvard (1957 and subsequent editions). Goffman’s The Presentation of Self was originally published by the University of Edinburgh Press and later by Doubleday Anchor (1959) and Penguin (1990).

By the end of their careers, Undead authors were laden with honors, made fellows of august academies, and awarded honorary degrees and prizes for lifetime achievement. With good cause: For all their iconoclasm, many of their books inaugurated subfields and even contributed to the founding of programs such as gender studies and nationalism studies. Most Undead Texts remained fixtures on undergraduate syllabi years after their publication and recruited a generation of scholars to their respective fields. They have never gone out of print.

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