Thursday, October 19, 2006

James Barr

<idle musing>
There are posts all over the Internet about the death of James Barr. You won't find more of that here. I only met him once and didn't really talk to him, so I'll let others sing his praises who can do a better job. No, these are thoughts along a different track altogether.

I used to work for a producer of video tapes and among the things produced were documentaries of famous people. We had a double video cassette documentary of Frank Sinatra, among others, but this one sticks in my mind. For good reason, at the time Frank Sinatra was quite ill and was in and out of the hospital and appeared about to die. So, the marketing director (not I), ordered several thousand copies to be duplicated, anticipating the nostalgia impulse buy. Sure enough, Musicland ordered 2 pallets worth of them, as did Best Buy. Frank Sinatra died about 2 weeks later.

That's not the point, though. What was sad was that every day the marketing people were fixated on whether or not he was going to die that day. At first they were hoping he would hang on long enough for the shipments to get to the stores, then they were hoping he would die before people lost interest and the videos got shipped back to us without selling. Pretty sad, isn't it? The life and death of a person was reduced to a few extra dollars in the bank—well, quite a few extra dollars, but you get the point.

How does this relate to James Barr? Well, we publish one of his books, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament. Now, do I run a sale on this book in honor of him? Or, will people think I am trying to cash in on the recent publicity and make a few dollars? In fact, I hesitated even linking to the book for fear that people would take it as a cheap plug.

When Erica Reiner died last summer, I decided not to run a sale or even mention it—and I actually knew her from my University of Chicago days at the Oriental Institute—for fear that it would be viewed as a cheap exploit.

The death of a person is not an opportunity to make money; it is a serious event, ushering them into their eternal destiny. For that reason, more than fear of misinterpretation, I have decided not to run a sale on the book.

What do you think? Am I creating a moral dilemna where none exists?
</idle musing>


Jim said...

That's an interesting question, James. Is it salesmanship or celebration?

Not being a fan of Sinatra (but my daughter likes him) I never bought anything by him- before he died or after. Being something of a fan of Barr, if I didn't have most of his works already, I would most certainly consider it something of a gift were I to find his books on sale at a time when I'm especially cognizant of his contribution to biblical studies.

So, James, perhaps the moguls can, and should be accused of pandering to the mob. But that wouldn't be true of you. First, you actually love the things you sell; and second, there isn't a mob storming Wal-Mart to buy Barr's books!

Your selling them would be a celebration of his life. Not a money making scheme so that you could get rich quick.

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


I do think you have a good question here. I think that it is excessive when you push it onto customers. You are simply providing a service not unlike when persons have a Feschrift written on their behalf. I have notice not long after they have this written they tend to die. I think you would do the right thing also because your heart is in this. My rule of thumb is this - if you take the time to stop and ponder this then your heart is probably in the right place. If you first instinct is to simply make money then maybe it isn't. As I and I think others can tell - your heart is in the right place.


Andy said...

When Shirrin Ebadi won the Nobel prize, we honored her on the homepage and included a link to her treatise on Human Rights in Iran. It made *no* difference in sales for that book.

For me, it was a small joy, that I did something small---I typeset the spine stamping for the book---that was connected with something big---the Nobel Peace Prize.

I think people assume a certain set of intentions are when you create a sale, and that can certainly muddy whatever other intentions you have.

Perhaps some other form of honor is appropriate?

Tyler F. Williams said...

I would think that the person would want people to read his or her books, since that is why they wrote them. James Barr, for example, has made an impact in my own scholarly life and I think that he has a number of works that people should read.

The question of cashing in is interesting, though. I hummed and hawed about puting amazon links on my post on James Barr (if someone does buy a book via my site I get a small percentage). I ended up keeping them in, while for Gerald Wilson's obituary I didn't put them in. Either way, when a good scholar dies, I think we can celebrate his or her life by respecting what they have written -- and what better way than to actually read it. In sum, I would say, go ahead and put a sale on Barr's work. If that makes more people read it then that is a fine tribute!

jps said...

Thanks for the feedback. I've decided to run an "unannounced" sale on the book that Eisenbrauns publishes. You have convinced me that it won't be seen as "cashing in."