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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Nature’s State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier By Susan Kollin UNC Press 224 pages, $16.95. In the insular world of academic publishing, the golden number is five thousand. Sell 5,000 copies of a book, and you’ve succeeded in covering costs while helping along a scholarly career. Selling 5,000 copies of any title isn’t terribly difficult. If you can convince a notable scholar to do a plug, Library Journal will write a capsule review and, bingo, a couple of thousand research libraries will pick up the book as a matter of course.The writer can help out her own cause by assigning the book to a few big survey courses, guaranteeing another thousand or so sales. Throw in the obligatory purchases by specialists in the field, the author’s extended family and friends, and book-obsessed grad students and you’ve hit the 5,000 benchmark faster than the now tenured author can spend her $23 royalty check. It’s not a system that necessarily encourages great books. Instead, it’s more of a mutual back-scratching arrangement that accepts low paychecks in exchange for secure careers in the exciting world of ideas. Poorly edited, sloppily packaged, and overpriced academic monographs regularly roll off the ivied presses under the assumption read them. For sure, the process has its merits. It does, for example, provide a much-needed refuge for intellectuals, and it allows dry-as-dust but important ideas to find their way into print and make “a contribution” to the field. The problem with this, though, is that every now and then a truly original booka book that should do more than make a mere contribution to knowledgefails to bubble up from academe into the popular media, getting diluted by the system’s relentless pursuit of mediocrity. Susan Kollin’s Nature’s State is such a book. Kollin, an English professor at the University of Montana, puts forth a fascinating and wonderfully counterintuitive argument. In a nutshell, she discovers the origin of American environmentalism in the context of nineteenth-century imperialism. Alaska serves her point well, for it was there that American writers turned to articulate the myth of an unspoiled, completely natural America. This articulation came at a critical cultural moment, as the frontier that had supposedly been renewing the American spirit for over a hundred years was coming to an end. Authors from Jack London to John Muir created both the language and intellectual foundation for modern environmentalism as they portrayed Alaska as an isolated, untarnished wilderness standing in stark contrast to the lower 48. Through their literary efforts to create what amounted to an environmental safety valve for a rapidly industrializing nation, frontier writers contributed to the ongoing, imperialistic project of American nation building. It’s a great argument, primarily because it implicates the tree huggers alongside the loggers, and thus forces liberals to rethink one of their most fundamental assumptions: that nature can and should remain “unspoiled.” Kollin, in essence, forces those of us who want to see the wild, wild world left “pure” to seek sounder justifications for our earnest environmental sentiments. At the risk of sounding immodest, the above paragraph offers a far more coher ent synopsis than anything Kollin herself provides. Nature’s State might present a brilliant thesis, but Kollin’s execution of it is so painfully set in a tired post-struc turalist framework that she ultimately undermines her own argument. If the contemporary environmental movement ever needed a coherent reassessment of its fragmented mission, it would be now. Kollin’s ideas certainly have the potential to boost such a project, but chances are that nobody except loyal Texas Observer readers \(God bless you this book. The perfectly legitimate charges that Kollin levels at land preservationists and nature conservationists will thus go unanswered, and the dialogue that might otherwise have strengthened current environmentalist objectives will never take place. No Charlie Rose appearances for Kollin. The Times’ reviewers never touched this book, nor did Salon, The Nation, Slate, The New Republic, or any other media outlet catering to the opinion-making classes. Why? The question brings us to the confluence of academic publishing and poststructural analysis. Why will this fine argument go unheard? Mainly, language. Post-structuralist thinkers and their editors at academic presses too often nurture hackneyed jargon . that could not be more alienating to the non-specialist. Remember: only 5,000. In an absolutely interminable introduction, Kollin reveals herself to be complicit in this silly verbal racket. Land isn’t explored by American writers, it’s “mapped” and “unmapped.” People don’t have conversations, but “discourses.” Scholars don’t analyze a theme, they “decode” or “encode” it. Writers don’t write narratives, they “construct tropes.” One does not make reference to a place or idea, they “foreground” it. \(It’s perhaps her most annoying tic; Kollin uses some form of “foreground” no less than six times in the intro alone, and a couple of dozen times throughout the than flow. Here’s how she encapsulates her argument: “Nature’s State examines how ideas about the environment shape texts about Alaska, and at the same time help constitute Alaska as a text in its own right.” It’s enough to make your Glacial Prose BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS 26 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 9/13102