The book: the Making of American Buddhism

So I posted a few weeks ago on Twitter about how OUP had rejected my proposed book title — Mid-Century Modern Buddhism — because of the association with mid-century architecture. My editors and I had a lengthy and lively back-and-forth about the title, and we’ve settled on — The Making of American Buddhism.

A couple of reflections on this process.

First and foremost, as I argue (in part) in a forthcoming chapter to Richard Payne’s co-edited Buddhism under Capitalism, the academic study of Buddhism is deeply embedded within the logics and ideologies of late global capitalism. So, on the one hand, it’s not surprising to me in the least that the title of my book was determined in large part by the logics of search engine optimization (SEO). My editor, rightly I think, suggests that no one’s going to find my book if its title is a riff on a much more widely-know architectural movement. And our collective goal is to get people to read this book. Even if my inner-leftist decries the logic of the market, I do want people to read this thing, and they’re only going to read it if it plays nicely with the algorithms that dictate our consumerist lives. (In other words, a book title is perhaps not the most strategic place to start a revolution to overthrow global capitalism.)

Part of the back-and-forth involved lots of discussions about subtitles. I am pleased that we ditched the academic pretension of the subtitle. I know that subtitles can do a lot of work — both in the sense of clarifying a book’s or article’s subjects as well as for SEO — so I am not opposed to them on principle. But I am also impatient with subtitles for the sake of subtitles or merely as a string of SEO-optimized keywords. I rather find something eloquent in the simplicity of a sub-title-less title. As if to say: this. This is the subject of the book you’re about to read.

I am also very aware of the commonality between my soon-to-be Making of American Buddhism and David McMahan’s existing Making of Buddhist Modernism. I find the similarity of structure here, in a word, fun — but I didn’t choose this phrasing as a reference to McMahan’s work (which I respect and am indebted to). Rather, I think we’re using this term “making” in very different ways. My sense of McMahan’s work is that the “making” is, in some ways, abstract, rhetorical. A matter of discourse, if you will. I’m using the term somewhat more literally.

A significant part of my argument is that Japanese American Buddhists literally made things — communities, publications, programs, places, buildings, and so on — and that this infrastructure-building had real and important impacts on the ability of Buddhism to spread and become popularized in the American context. Making in my context refers not just to rhetorical constructions but physical ones, too — the building of American Buddhist infrastructure.

So, needless to say, I’m excited about the title. And excited that we’re moving ever closer to getting this thing in print and, more importantly, in your hands!

With any luck, this’ll be the first of several posts dedicated to the mechanics of academic publishing. Whereas I’m happy to talk about the ideas in my book — you know, the actual scholarship — there’s something to be said about lifting the curtain back to see how the sausage is made. This can be especially valuable for scholars just entering the field who are wholly unaware of how academia, in a very literal sense, works.


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