The UBIQUITOUS Book

By Skinner, David | Humanities, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

The UBIQUITOUS Book


Skinner, David, Humanities


the UBIQUITOUS Book

IDEAS MATTER. ARELATIVELYSMALL NUMBER CAN BE CLASSED AS MAJOR HISTORICAL EVENTS. AND MANY TIMi-XS, 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 To m 'tí 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 Postivar 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 conies 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 starring 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. …

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