The More, the Merrier: Mason Provost Achieves Milestone with Latest Book

Posted: September 17, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Peter Stearns with books
Provost Peter Stearns’s many scholarly interests find an outlet in books — and lots of them.

By Colleen Kearney Rich

A new book by Provost Peter Stearns isn’t that unusual; Stearns is a prolific scholar and frequently publishes one or two books a year. What makes his latest product different is the fact that it is the historian’s 100th book.

Cover of Peter Stearns 100th book
Cover of Peter Stearns’s 100th book

Isaac Asimov has done it. So has romance writer Barbara Cartland. But few authors, particularly scholarly ones, achieve such a milestone. With “Revolutions in Sorrow: The American Experience of Death in Global Perspective” published by Paradigm Publishers a few weeks ago, Stearns has joined an elite group. It is no surprise that he is delighted by the accomplishment.

“When I realized I was getting close to 100, I took on a few projects to help boost the numbers,” he says. “It is a frivolous target, but I thought it would be fun.”

As frivolous as the “target” might be, Stearns is particular about how he counts the books he has published. The tally for 100 includes books he has written, co-written, and edited. He doesn’t count new editions unless there have been significant changes to the volume, and he doesn’t count translations at all.

Topical Subjects with History Mixed In

Stearns’s publishing career got off to an early start. He published “European Society in Upheaval: Social History since 1800” in 1967 when he was four years out of graduate school.

“European Society” went through three editions, but it was not Stearns’s dissertation. “It stemmed from my initial teaching assignment,” he says. “For a lot of people, their dissertation is their first book. My dissertation was actually my third or fourth book.”

Peter Stearns
Photos by Evan Cantwell

One of the reasons Stearns is published so widely is that he chooses topical subjects. For example, “Anxious Parents: The History of Modern Childrearing in America” (2003) is about “helicopter parents,” but was written before the term was even coined.

“I don’t use the term in the book because I didn’t know it then, but that is what that book is about,” he says. “I am really interested in picking topics that involve current behaviors that are interesting — and how history can help us understand them. My biggest consistent interest is to develop a historical approach and promote historical understanding for topics that most people don’t think are history.”

Over the years, he has provided a historical perspective for dieting with “Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West”; the post-Sept. 11 world with “American Fear: The Causes and Consequence of High Anxiety”; and jealousy with “Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion in American History.”

A large portion of his scholarly works also focuses on world history. Among the topics receiving Stearns’s analysis from a global perspective are “Global Outrage: The Impact of World Opinion on Contemporary History,” “Growing Up: The History of Childhood in a Global Context,” and “Gender in World History.”

Of all the volumes, Stearns doesn’t really have a favorite, but if he is to single one out it would be “American Cool: Constructing a Twentieth-Century Emotional Style,” published in 1996.

“I think ‘American Cool’ was my most significant single contribution,” he says. “I have had a number of books that have been reasonably widely cited and used, but that’s the one that most fundamentally shaped the field in emotions history.”

Plenty of Sleep and a Lot of Focus

Of course, the first question most people ask is: How does he do it? This question naturally makes the provost chuckle. “People seem to want to believe that I don’t sleep much,” he says, but insists that isn’t true.

He says he writes during odd moments, summers and sometimes parts of weekends. Since moving into administrative work, he has used research assistants for some tasks, but what it comes down to is his ability to focus.

“I can concentrate, and this helps me use odd chunks of time. And [writing] gets easier with time. My first couple books took me as long as they would take anybody, but you develop greater facility over time,” he says.

“The nicest thing is when you’ve finally thought it all through and you have to get it on paper. Then it really goes fast. Sometimes it is even uncomfortable until you get it all down.”

But there is a downside to producing so many volumes. “I have had reviewers comment snidely on how much I produce — even when they liked the book,” he says. “I think you have to recognize that there are drawbacks to writing so much. You open yourself to criticism, and I accept that this is not something everybody should do.”

Stearns has also had the good fortune to work with some of the top publishers in the field, including Routledge and New York University Press. He is currently working on a book on international education, which is a bit of a departure for him.

Probably the key to Stearns’s success is that he actually enjoys the work.

“I find it fun. History is relevant and useful. I find it immensely engaging, which I suppose is the biggest reason why I’ve tried to do so many topics.”

And it doesn’t hurt that he can type really fast.

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