By David Skinner
Ideas matter. A relatively small number can be classed as major historical events. And many times, their best, most eloquent expression has been on paper, stamped in ink, sewn on one side, and bound between hard covers. In the beginning was the word, sure, but there’s also a lot to be said for the book.
Think of Abraham Lincoln’s comment, one hundred and fifty years ago, upon meeting the creator of a book, “So, this is the little lady who made this big war.” He was speaking to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
As we are asked to contemplate the disappearance of books as such, it’s worth pausing over the astonishing range of personal, social, and political purposes that have been served by books: the liberation of individuals, the reinforcement of community, the propagation of orthodoxy, the expansion of self-knowledge, the publication of scientific findings, education and delectation, insult and calumny, the spread of lies and promulgation of facts, public good and private satisfaction. Vast are the aims served by books.
This lesson, among others, is brought home by the ongoing five-volume, many-authored series A History of the Book in America. I have read only volumes four and five: Print in Motion: The Expansion of Publishing and Reading in the United States, 1880-1940, and The Enduring Book: Print Culture in Postwar America. Still, they leave many impressions, more than enough to freshly consider, What is a book?
But first, a question raised by the series, though less intently: Why a large-scale, highly coordinated study of the book, not as a general matter but in America alone? One reason is surely practical—money, manpower, and other resources being finite—but in reading these scores of essays, a different reason comes to mind.
The editors take a broad ecumenical approach to “the book,” situating obvious literary examples in a great welter of printed matter that includes government publications, scientific literature, religious books, trade books, popular magazines, and academic journals. It was said about the philosopher Immanuel Kant that there was no point in writing his biography, since his life could be described only by what he wrote. His oeuvre was his life story. What the editors of A History of the Book in America seem to have undertaken is, in a way, similar: a biography of the American people told as bibliography—part publishing catalog, part reading list.
In 1880, the starting point of volume four, America was increasingly literate if not yet educated. Coeditor Carl F. Kaestle reports that only 9 percent of native-born whites were unable to write; the figure for African Americans, including a multitude of recently emancipated slaves, was 70 percent. Less than 5 percent of the whole population had experienced secondary school, and about 2 percent made it to college. Newspapers reached a small fraction of the nation’s spiraling population.
Books were sold by itinerant salesmen, and for decades distribution would remain the hardest part of the book business. Libraries, however, were growing in number during the post-Civil War period. The American Library Association, founded in 1876, counted three thousand libraries, distributed across the map rather unevenly: New York State claimed five hundred, Idaho one.
Libraries were beloved to the improving minds of Victorian commentators, but the borrowing selections of their patrons begged for correction. In the last decades of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth, here was the dilemma of the library: Experts recommended that novels take up only about 15 percent of shelf space, while more than 70 percent of the books loaned out were, of course, novels.
After 1880, high school education became increasingly widespread and literacy rates steadily climbed. The price of newspapers fell as linotype machines were introduced, and the audience for publications grew to the extent that publishers could turn readers into a commodity to be sold to advertisers. The modern age of marketing began. Land-grant colleges sprouted from the ground after the Morrill Act of 1862, and universities began to see publication as the imprimatur of scientific research and all other forms of scholarship.
These and other trends, the authors show, led to a “culture of print.” Kaestle, however, starts by looking at a handful of nineteenth-century readers before the dawn of widespread literacy, when reading was still an elite activity. Growing up in the 1870s and 1880s, the young Hamilton sisters of Fort Wayne, Indiana, “focused on ‘good’ literature, including works by Dickens, Thackeray, Eliot, and Scott.” Kaestle’s use of quotation marks, indicating a tentative approach to what’s good, is true to the series’ preoccupation with literature as opposed to Literature.
The Hamilton girls, taught by their mother at home before being packed off to the famous Miss Porter’s School in Connecticut, “did not identify with conventional, subordinate female characters.” Encouraged by their progressive-minded parents, sister Edith later became the well-known author of books about mythology, while Alice became the first female professor at Harvard.
Reading this, I wondered if one of the “good” books they read was George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (a plain old good book, if you ask me, though more popular in its day than ours) and, if so, how they reacted to the magnificent speech of Daniel’s mother: “You can never imagine what it is to have a man’s force of genius in you, and yet to suffer the slavery of being a girl.” It may seem bold of a man to ask, but could these most liberated of little women relate to the idea of girlhood as slavery?
If friends are God’s compensation for family, as the bitter-funny saying has it, then books are compensation for our beginnings. From Frederick Douglass’s furtive efforts to teach himself to read and achieve the ultimate liberation of self-possession, to the women whose reading of Vladimir Nabokov and Charles Dickens constitutes incendiary acts of political rebellion, books have offered passage from the bondage of the present to the freedom of an uncertain, yet-to-be written future.
Kaestle’s essay contrasts the experiences of two black nineteenth-century readers. The books they read also offered passage from their circumstances.
Raised on hymn books and scripture in a lumber town north of Chicago, James Corrothers recalled that he’d “never talked Negro dialect, nor done plantation antics. My speech and ways were those of the white community about me.” While working as a journalist, he said he “detested Negro dialect,” and did so until he encountered the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, when “Negro dialect attained a new dignity and beauty.” Trying himself to write in dialect, he, very much a product of the culture of print, found it didn’t come naturally.
Still, print opened Corrothers to an aural experience of his fellow African Americans, and it taught Ida B. Wells how to speak of the black experience to a wider, non-Black audience. The daughter of slaves, Wells as a young girl read some of the same books the Hamilton sisters read, though her home did not offer the same settled domestic life. As Kaestle explains, Wells’s father lost his carpentry business after running afoul of his landlord for casting a vote against the Democratic ticket. Forced to move, Ida Wells learned to stand her ground. Only twenty-two years old at the time, she sued the C & O Railroad for removing her forcibly from a whites-only car. Later, she became prominent as an antilynching crusader, journalist, and public speaker.
The extreme variety of individual experience, a simple point often submerged beneath the broad strokes of social and literary history, receives great respect inside these essays. In addition, the History of the Book series enriches, multiplies even, our sense of what books are.
Who is the largest publisher in the world? In three letters: G.P.O. “In the fiscal year of 1895-96, for example, the United States Government Printing Office (USGPO) produced, bound, and delivered 1,255,454 volumes, requiring 5,457 tons of paper, 490 tons of binder boards, and 51,600 sheepskins.” If the government pamphlet is not your cup of T. S. Eliot, this shouldn’t be for its lack of significance. As Charles A. Seavey and Caroline F. Sloat remind us in their chapter “The Government as Publisher,” after the Civil War, the free public high school and the public lending library began coming, unevenly, into their own. GPO was created to inform America’s increasingly educated public about its government. This was an undertaking of national self-knowledge.
It also informed the American scholar. Between 1880 and 1902, GPO published the seventy-volume War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. No one’s ever pictured himself curling up with the 1890 Bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census, but in it Frederick Jackson Turner discovered a key piece of evidence for his thesis concerning the signal importance of the frontier in American history. Quoting the bulletin’s finding that “there can hardly be said to be a frontier line” any longer, Turner argued, “this brief official statement marks the closing of a great historic movement.”
The American government, Paul S. Boyer reminds us, has also worked to stifle information and repress literature. In 1873, Congress, at the urging of Anthony Comstock and the socially powerful New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, amended the postal code to prohibit the mailing of obscene, lewd, and lascivious materials. Stephen Crane, Kate Chopin, and Theodore Dreiser all suffered for violation of the so-called genteel code. After an unsuccessful attempt to shut down a New York City production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession, Comstock lost his authority as a “special agent” of the postal service. Not that censorship was fatally undermined. Even as late as the twenties (and beyond), works by James Joyce, H. L. Mencken, and D. H. Lawrence were banned for obscenity.
One thinks of Rochelle Gurstein’s description of this history as a contest between the party of reticence and the party of exposure, neither one in my book a dependable friend of human dignity or, for that matter, indignity, as known from the comic and tragic variety of human doings. A great advantage of book culture is that it allows one to have it both ways. Inside a library, one’s dearest contradictions can be accommodated without requiring resolution: the mischievous scatological comedy of Henry Fielding, say, alongside the more edifying work of Henry James.
In reviewing the history of twentieth-century censorship, Boyer in volume four and Donald A. Downs in volume five both include discussions of what is not government censorship but second-order chilling effects. They refer to librarians who avoid adding certain books to their collections and teachers who avoid controversial texts in the classroom. Elsewhere, it is suggested that even editing might be described as censorship. In which case, censorship may as well include every instance of aesthetic and personal and grammatical inhibition. It then, however, becomes indistinguishable from, among other things, personal reserve, professional conventions, and common standards of taste. Of course, I am just a government hack, so go ahead and discount this if you will, but please let’s not call my objection yet another example of Comstockery.
As the nation became more literate, knowledge became more specialized, especially under the influence of scientific progress. The scientist rose to new prominence, distinct from the expert social scientist on the one hand and the literary intellectual on the other. Before this period, the quintessential institution of higher learning was the New England college, in a word, Harvard: anglophile, classical, humanist. In the late nineteenth century, it was Johns Hopkins University, Germanic, science-minded, and eager to publish.
Knowing the old things started to become less important than knowing the new things. Knowledge as culture and personal refinement lost ground to knowledge as information, cumulative and progressive, making new books ever more important. One result was that a standard reference work in science, with revisions and a new cycle of sales every few years, could be highly profitable.
Coeditor Janice Radway quotes the Latinist William Gardner Hale, saying, “It is to the discoverers, in far greater measure than to the transmitters, that the world is under obligation.” Between 1900 and 1920, the number of science journals doubled. And what was published upstream amidst a wave of academic journals and university presses, then forming eddies in the growing textbook industry, made its way downstream in the form of popular science writing. In the twenties, Paul De Kruif became a publishing success starting with Microbe Hunters—which H. L. Mencken blurbed as “one of the noblest chapters in the history of mankind.”
“The Progressive Era had linked research with economic progress and social improvement,” writes Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette in volume four. In 1925, the year when the Scopes trial was being fought in Tennessee, the Chemical Foundation took out a full-page ad in the New York Times Book Review for a book it was selling at cost and giving away to schools. Its title, The Progress—the Romance—the Necessity of Chemistry!, was not only corny, it expressed the ambition of science to transform assumptions about what sorts of knowledge truly counted (to use a telling empirical phrase).
The series is full of these once-you-think-about-it moments. The spotlight shifts from the actor to the prop, and, voilà!, one notices the book becoming the preferred means for so many disparate, interesting ends.
Countless ethnic and religious groups have turned to publishing as a way to build community and preach to the choir. In the year 1915 alone, ninety-one Protestant denominations published 389 periodical titles. The endless distinctions among Protestants were also visible in the many bibles they produced. William Vance Trollinger Jr. attests that 487 English editions of the Bible were published between 1880 and 1940. “When one subtracts Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish editions, the tally comes to approximately 450.”
Women’s and African-American reading groups not only reinforced community bonds—and introduced countless readers to great works of literature—but indirectly and perhaps unwittingly cleared a path to suffrage and other civil rights. In reading highbrow literature and discussing it in something like a classroom atmosphere, many white women’s reading groups created a rather formal semipublic arena for women to grow intellectually. No wonder that in Texas “clubwomen led efforts to establish a women’s dormitory at the University of Texas at Austin, funded local and statewide scholarships for women, and were . . . instrumental in founding what is today Texas Women’s University.” And though reading groups might host visiting suffragist speakers, en masse the reading groups tended to be too conservative for such reforms, even as they trained their members in many a fine point of civic virtue.
While Ida B. Wells was campaigning against lynching, black Americans too looked to books as a source of self-nurturing and social advancement. A black women’s club in Boston set up literary meetings and began issuing a newspaper bearing the club’s name, Woman’s Era. In her chapter, Elizabeth McHenry cites an 1899 report of the Woman’s Era Club: “Not primarily started for Charity, nor yet for self-culture alone, and yet . . . our methods lead directly to these ends.” In a community burdened by 44 percent illiteracy, Woman’s Era connected middle-class black women across the country, and, in the process, encouraged literacy through the establishment of libraries, health through the building of hospitals, and a civic consciousness that would become enormously important in the twentieth century.
With volume five, the story becomes less thematic and the march of progress less seemingly coordinated. Yet there is much in the way of advancement. The illiterate percentage of the population, while individually tragic, is proportionally trivial. In an essay on markets and audiences, Linda M. Scott notes that in 1940 “only 24.1 percent of the population had completed high school; by 1990 nearly 85 percent have graduated.” Even more staggering: “Between 1940 and 1995 the number of Americans with four years of college multiplied five times.”
By the 1940s and the passage of the G.I. Bill, literacy and education had grown to such an extent that, as with the 1890 Bulletin of the Superintendent of the Census, “there can hardly be said to be a frontier line.”
Trade publishing responds with the creation of Penguin Classics and Anchor Books, supplying cheap editions of classic works as the college-student population grows by 78 percent in a single decade. And yet for the publishing industry, distribution difficulties persist. The war fortunately changes that. Beth Luey in volume five writes, “By 1942 Pocket Books sold its paperbacks in more than a thousand outlets nationwide. After the war the number of outlets rose to more than a hundred thousand.”
The balance between fiction and nonfiction also shifts in the postwar culture. In 1959, new fiction titles outnumbered non fiction better than three to two. In 1962, nonfiction outnumbered fiction by more than two to one. The diminishing importance of imaginative literature to intellectual culture could also be seen in the changing role of libraries. In the 1940s, reformers looked to make libraries more relevant, more integral to the communities they served, and more useful.
As an essay in volume five by the late Kenneth Cmiel explains, the modern industrialized society, reformers thought, needed information just as much if not more than it needed culture. Literature with a capital L needed to share shelf-space with literature of the how-to sort. “Communication” was the new watchword. The work of J. D. Bernal drew attention to the fact that scientists could no longer keep up with the constant flow of new research, sometimes found in journals and even less in books. Research libraries needed to provide a “modern information service.” In the 1940s, microfilm was touted as the solution to the growing volume of information that needed storage; by 1964, the rush of data and publication was being called an “information explosion.”
This by itself did not signal the end of leisurely reading or the death of book love in the western world. In 1963, as noted in Cmiel’s essay, the Library of Congress began computerizing its card catalog to make information about books more widely available. Even as funding for books declined to pay for other media, improvements in distribution systems such as interlibrary loan made a greater diversity of books available to individual readers. But in the seventies, as libraries expand their offerings to include, for example, vinyl records of rock and disco music, a funerary note creeps in. Cmiel quotes the head of the Baltimore County Public library saying in 1979 that “preserving knowledge for the ages” was no longer the function of a library. Too much money, for far too long, the librarian complained, had been spent on the “wrong books,” by which he meant those often labeled “good,” “important,” or “worthwhile.”
Not a George Eliot reader, I am guessing.
And though the temptation to be despondent is great, the editors of volume five are optimistic, citing figures on the growing number of books published and purchased every year. Consider the book’s hold on our culture right now, as suggested by the following: “In 1940 Harvard’s library held 4.3 million volumes; by 1990 holdings totaled 11.9 million and were 14.4 million in 2000.” For all the advantages of the digital book—low production costs, spatial efficiency—the old-fashioned book with its beautifully simple structure is proving surprisingly resilient.
The book, I kept noticing while reading these essays, is a self-contained utterance. It is finished, the very opposite of a “slug” you encounter on a website casting about for visitors to contribute writing and research. It is much more than a slug, much more than the most basic information readily available. It is unqualifiable, except by other books. It can’t be taken back, though one does hear stories of people trying. Like those political ads of late, the author can’t help but “approve this message.”
The discrete physical embodiment of text, it makes the perfect gift, the perfect giveaway, the perfect method of saying, “Consider the following . . .” We often think of imaginative literature when we think of book-reading, along with notional scenes of people entering other worlds through books. What the History of the Book series shows so clearly is that the world we know, the communities to which we already belong, are reified and reinforced by books. Such is the incredible and incredibly flexible power of this primitive technology. Behold the book: It is limited, but perfect.