The broad-ranging series, which provides fundamental basics on complex, pressing topics, is hitting a major milestone and looking to the future
The piece below was originally published in Publishers Weekly in April 2023.
The world offers no shortage of information. But weeding out all the untruths, dogma, and misinformation has never been more challenging than it is today. And that’s where the Essential Knowledge series from the MIT Press comes in, with its focus on demystifying complex topics in the fields of philosophy, science, technology, linguistics, sociology, history, and more.
And the series is poised to hit a significant milestone, with its 100th title slated for publication in 2024. “Since launching the Essential Knowledge series, we’ve thought and talked a lot about what exactly we mean by essential knowledge—essential to whom,” says Gita Manaktala, editorial director at the MIT Press. “The publication of the 100th book gives us a chance to reflect on the many topics the series has unpacked for readers. It’s also a chance to consider the future of the Essential Knowledge series and the topics we still want to cover.”
With the 100th title hitting shelves next year, it’s the perfect time to revisit the series’ backlist and explore new releases—all written by top experts in their fields. Recent bestsellers and upcoming releases include Machine Learning by Ethem Alpaydin, Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre, Robot Ethics by Mark Coeckelbergh, Whiteness by Martin Lund, Placebos by Kathryn T. Hall, and Gender(s) by Kathryn Bond Stockton.
The editors of the Essential Knowledge series select topics based on what piques the curiosity of today’s readers—and what personally interests them. “Our editors did a lot of brainstorming as we built the Essential Knowledge series pipeline,” Manaktala says. “It’s been fun to talk through the lists of topics that we ourselves were curious to know about, along with lists of the people we’d want to explain these things to us. Who can we gather for this dinner party? The invitation list is long and growing.”
Each book in the series is an entirely original, commissioned work, which means that readers won’t encounter repurposed content excerpted from previously published material. Each book undergoes a process of rigorous peer review, so readers can be confident that each installment in the series is vetted and accurate. The books are also periodically updated, ensuring that each title continues to be timely and germane. In addition to the valuable foundational knowledge each book offers, the titles feature striking cover art and are sleekly designed, making the books portable, giftable, and ideal for collecting.
With so many books in the Essential Knowledge series, there are plenty of fascinating topics for readers to choose from. Philip Laughlin, senior acquisitions editor in the categories of cognitive science, philosophy, linguistics, and bioethics, is particularly excited about author John Shook’s Pragmatism. It’s an example of a topic that he says has become increasingly pertinent in recent years. “The topic was suggested to me years ago, but at the time, I didn’t think it was intriguing enough to merit inclusion in the series,” Laughlin says. “But that was before we saw the steady shift toward authoritarianism in global elections. And, as Richard Rorty has claimed, pragmatism is a form of anti-authoritarianism. I feel the world is ready for a heaping helping of pragmatism.”
As for Jermey N.A. Matthews, senior acquisitions editor in the categories of physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics, his personal favorite book in the Essential Knowledge series is Quantum Entanglement. “Author Jed Brody is a daring writer, and he did a fantastic job laying the groundwork in the early chapters to explain this mind-blowing quantum phenomenon,” Matthews says.
For Matthews, the most gratifying aspect of being involved with the publication of the Essential Knowledge series is witnessing readers discover the books and grow as a result. “The highlight of the Essential Knowledge series is taking them ‘on the road’ to exhibits,” he says, “and watching students, professionals, and lay people alike marvel at the variety and peculiarity of the topics, the design of the covers, the perfect length for travel reading.”
And with 100 books under its belt, the Essential Knowledge series is just getting started. There’s a veritable kaleidoscope of upcoming topics to explore. “The future will be illuminating,” says Manaktala. “Watch this space for entries on animal rights, exoplanets, supercomputing, universal basic income, cryptography, standards, galaxies, blockchain governance, color, gain of function, carbon removal, cyborgs, and artificial general intelligence, among others.”