Saturday, March 13, 2010

On "A History of the Book in America," volume 4, edited by Carl F. Kaestle and Janice A. Radway ****

Covering the years 1880 to 1940, this book delves into the history of publishing and reading not only of the book but of newspapers and magazines. That I enjoyed the text is evident from the length of this write-up (I only wish I could remember and write more); it's quite likely I'll return to read at least a couple of the other four volumes. The work wouldn't be nearly so interesting if it confined itself strictly to the book, for as the contributors show, the different forms of publication were all tied together. Case in point would be many of the literary periodicals of the period. We still have some of these with us of a sort--Harper's, the Atlantic. During this period, however, such magazines were largely started as a means for book publishers to promote their own texts. Harper's, for example, was affiliated with Harper Brothers (later, I believe, Harper and Row, now HarperCollins). Inside, one found reviews of the publisher's books, as well as excerpts and serializations of those books. The magazines, however, were not terribly profitable, and as general magazines like Cosmopolitan entered into the marketplace and published fiction, publishers began to see a decline in interest in their house catalogs. Many stopped publishing their literary journals; others sold them off, as was the case with and Harper's and the Atlantic, thus breaking the tie between the magazine and the book publisher.

Distribution also had something to do with the change in the way books were marketed. Whereas subscription services (salesmen traveling around with a book idea, selling the idea, and then only after orders were placed, actually printing the book for the use of the buyers) and book trade shows (traveling salesmen and bookstore owners traveling to a trade show to interact with publishers and decide what to purchase for the coming year) were regular methods of the trade early in this period, the drop in printing prices, caused by the introduction of faster technological tools, allowed for the introduction of such things as cheap paperback books and larger and slicker magazines that resulted in an industry where trade publishers began sending salesmen to stores rather than having stores come to them and where magazine advertising in a periodical specifically geared around that publisher's own works was no longer as effective.

Another important change during this time had to do with copyright law. Copyrights were largely nill for foreign works reprinted in the United States. Hence, while an American author was protected by copyright, a British author's work wasn't. What should have been a great boon to American authors, able to make money on their work where Brits couldn't, was in fact a tremendous problem. Publishers, with plenty of free overseas material to pillage from, largely chose to reprint foreign works rather than pay an American author for an American work. In time, the United States finally allowed foreign entities the right to copyright as well. Add to this changes in the conception of the author, caused in large part by the philosophy of the Romantic writers of the early nineteenth century. Before the Romantics, the author was seen more like a screenwriter might be seen today--he was just one part in the production of a work, in this case a book, in the case of a screenwriter a movie. The printer, those who helped the author in conceiving the book, and the typesetter were all equal partners. The author, in some ways, was really one of the least important. The Romantics introduced the idea of the author as some kind of creative entity, solitary, apart from all these other more "business-oriented" portions of the process. As such, the author was owed his or her fair share of the book's profits, rather than a simple writer's fee. As the author of the chapter notes, however, who the copyright laws really benefited was the publishers. Anytime the publishers argued on behalf of the authors for copyright protection, they were really arguing on behalf of themselves. If the ideas in books are unique, then the people who publish them can demarcate intellectual property as their own and make a living off of it, giving a percentage of this to the authors as well.

Also of interest during this period was a shift in journalistic standards. Early in the period, newspapers were largely mouthpieces for particular political perspectives. If you were Republican, you read a Republican paper; if you were a Democrat, you read a Democratic paper. This broke down, however, around the turn of the century, when the Democratic Party became exceptionally weak. Populists rose to the fore, but the Democratic publishing machine wanted nothing to do with populism. Hence, newspapers, even of the Democratic stripe, had no desire to push one of the parties. Left without a significant difference of opinion among elite publishers, there wasn't much in the way of partisanship that one could take. Add to this the increasing importance of advertising and of maintaining large circulations. Newspapers, in an effort to gain audience share, couldn't afford to alienate customers. "Objectivity" became the norm for journalistic excellence. I found this discussion particularly interesting, especially in light of the way in which journalism now seems to be moving away from the objectivity (though still claiming to hold itself to the idea of being "fair and balanced") with the proliferation of media choices and the accompanying disintegration of large mainstream audiences into smaller interest groups.

Also in the book are discussions on the creation of academic presses, largely started to share academic ideas (often mostly from their own faculty) among scholars, and eventually to share such ideas with the public; and the creation of scientific and technical publishers (while one might have expected university presses to focus on this, the speed with which science advanced meant that journals had an advantage here).

There is a discussion of the change in censorship codes. The Victorians were squemish on sex to the point of censoring works of literature that were hundreds of years old and wholly acceptable in their time. Postal laws in the United States helped to keep these standards in place, banning people from shipping lewd materials. This censorship, during World War I, gave way to political censorship, then returned to sexual censorship following the war, but on looser terms.

The book also reviews ethnic publishing and religious publishing. Most ethnic presses, the text claims, aimed simultaneously to bring immigrants into the American mainstream and to remind immigrants of their home, bringing them news from across the sea. Generally, such presses only lasted for a generation or two. Second- and third-generation citizens of immigrants no longer had the connection to the homeland to keep such publications around. An exception to this was the Hispanic press, a chapter I particularly enjoyed given some of my personal interest in Hispanic American literature. That press, founded among peoples whose land was subsumed by an invading culture, struggled to keep alive the culture that once was. In some places like New Mexico, Spanish continued to be the language of the majority of inhabitants into the twentieth century, and fresh flows of immigrants from south of the border kept interest in the Spanish publications alive in many other regions, as in California. As with the African American press, much of the publishing had to do with civil rights.

As for religious publishing, Protestant publishing, the book shows, was and is a pervasive field that has been largely ignored in histories and probably deserves a book of its own. (I'd love to see a work comparing Protestant writings to the literary movements of their time--do the two influence one another at all? Why do scholars pay so much attention to high-brow literature but ignore religious texts that in some cases more people actually read?) Jewish publishing aimed to bring together the Jewish community in the United States and failed, but in the process it created a wider dissemination of varying Jewish ideas and cultures. Catholic publishing, by contrast, was largely organized through the church and maintain a more unified voice, though Catholicism's concern with icons (altars, beads) in addition to texts means the publishing takes on a lesser role than in Protestant denominations.

Schools and libraries also changed much during this time. Reading instruction early in the period focused on reading aloud--on elocution; later, however, it focused on reading silently and quickly in order to gather knowledge. In part, this was a change in theories of reading, but it was also a change in the purpose of reading. As more people became literate and stayed in school longer, and as more publications became available, the need to read to (illiterate) others decreased as the need to read more to glean new areas of knowledge increased. Higher education in the United States also changed during this time, as research libraries, once uncommon, began to rival those of Europe, with one key difference--they were more open to the public. Readers could browse the stacks rather than waiting on someone to retrieve a book from the stacks as in the European model. Public libraries also grew, in part with the aid of the Andrew Carnegie's donations. Here, however, there were many debates over what people should be reading in those libraries. Library journals founded during the period and the professionalizing librarians themselves (the Dewey system of classification was created during this period, and the first library schools founded) often aimed to push on to the public "useful" works of "high culture." Ideally, people were to check out something like 75 percent nonfiction; in reality, people actually checked out 75 percent fiction. Some librarians gave in. And as other media began to forge competition, the idea that any reading in and of itself was good began to displace the idea of the "right" kind of reading, for after all, today's reader of paperback romances might one day, with enough reading, become tomorrow's reader of biographies of Einstein. Or, for that matter, of histories of the book.

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