SELINSGROVE — History books written for college students are typically dry, fact-filled, loaded with footnotes — and not intended for a mass market readership.
But not always.
The latest book by Susquehanna University history professor David Imhoof, “So, About Modern Europe...” breaks the mold for academic tomes with its conversational style and humor.
The target audience as he wrote the book was originally college students in a European history survey class, he said, “and is understood to be kind of a textbook. But I’d like to believe that it also has a broader appeal, for folks who are vaguely interested in history.”
Margaret Menninger, a history professor at Texas State University, and someone who has co-edited a book with Imhoof (”The Total Work of Art”), said, “First of all, this book is a textbook, one used primarily for teaching. It is not specialized, but rather offers an introductory overview of the history of so-called Modern Europe, from around the period of the Enlightenment (the 18th century) to the present.”
There are, however, many textbooks out there on this subject.
“This one is different in two important ways,” she explained. “The first is approach. The book consistently references music as a means of understanding the broader picture. David Imhoof is himself a musician and he thinks in terms of music in many ways. It takes a gifted musician and historian to use something as fleeting as sound to help students ‘get’ the people and places they are reading about.”
The second difference, Menninger noted, is one of style and tone.
“This book is serious, but it doesn’t take itself seriously.” Menninger said. “Many textbooks have a rather plain and dull tone meant to convince the reader that this is serious stuff. This book sparkles. Imhoof strikes a difficult and remarkable balance between a light tone and some dark historical doings, and does so in a way that does not diminish the gravity of the latter.”
Imhoof said he enjoyed writing this book more than almost anything else he’s written.
How he came to write this book in this particular way, with a less academic, more populist approach, is a story in itself.
“When I wrote my first book — “Becoming a Nazi Town” (2013) — my wife read it and said, ‘Wow. That’s a really good book, but there are a lot of footnotes in there.’
For a lot of people footnotes are off-putting. What she was saying was, this is a great book, like from one historian to another. But for those of us who are interested, thoughtful, and just curious, it seems kind of off-putting.
“My wife said, ‘why don’t you sit down. Open a bottle of wine, get your phone out and talk the book that your wrote in a more informal way. Like you teach in class.’ That was an interesting idea,” Imhoof said.
“I thought about it and came to the conclusion that an informal book about a town that most Americans can’t pronounce in Germany, might not be the right thing to do.”
But the idea stuck with him.
“And I figured, maybe I could create a book that was more of a mass market book for people interested in European history,” he explained.
In 2018, Imhoof received an e-mail from Bloomsbury Press representative suggesting that they meet at an upcoming event.
“He was interested in knowing if I was working on anything,” Imhoof said, adding that he had written for Bloomsbury Press before.
At the conference he told the representative from Bloomsbury that he had a “weird idea. A book that was more convesational and even somemwhat irreverant history of modern Europe. He liked the idea.”
But Imhoof shot back, wanting to make himself clear. “Wait a minute. I really think this could be really strange. Very different.”
Bloomsbury liked the idea, although some of the original chapter headings had to be toned down, Imhoof said, laughing.
One chapter about industrialization is also called “Welcome to the Machine,” a musical bow to the Pink Floyd song of the same name.
“Once I started working with Bloomsbury, I suddenly realized I was working with a real commercial press,” he said. “They wanted the book done by year’s end.”
Bloomsbury is an established British press. Most notably they published all of the Harry Potter books.
Imhoof received the book contract in Aug. 2019 and completed the book by Feb. 2020.
“At some point I was writing a chapter per week,” he said, “which was just crazy. But in some ways it was easier to do because a lot of it was drawing from the teaching that I’ve done at Susquehanna University for the last 20 years.”
Bloomsbury was great to work with, he said, “but they definitely kept me on schedule.”
It moved really fast, he said. “I had no intention of writing a textbook. But my editors thought it would make a good textbook.”
One other thing Imhoof wanted to stress was the cost of the book.
“Textbooks are expensive,” he said. “And I lament having to assign my students expensive textbooks. I am always trying to find ways to get older versions and used versions. What a lot of students do now is rent books. But I have kids in college too and I know it’s hard to find a book to rent for less than $40, $50, $70 for a semester.”
Bloomsbury’s business model is to put out a paperback that will cost $20-$30, and give people the ability to own a book for less than it would cost to rent a book for three months. A paperback version of Imhoof’s book sells for $29.95.
Imhoof said he likes the idea of giving students the chance to buy a book for a lot less than it would cost to rent — even if the student then decides to sell it later on.