Friday, May 28, 2010

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes

A brief time out from obsessing over all the exciting new forthcoming books to shine a light on a deserving backlist title.

In 2001, Yale published a devastatingly brilliant work of social history by Jonathan Rose called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. (This is the old edition jacket image.) This year we're bringing out a new, larger format second edition.

If there’s such a thing as a community of readers, this book should be among our founding documents. It’s as much a “people’s history” as Howard Zinn or Studs Terkel might have done with the same material. It’s practically an oral history.

Lurking beneath the bland, academic sounding title is one of the wisest, slyest, wittiest pieces of writing on books and readers I’ve ever encountered.

Rose’s guiding proposition is that historically, in Britain anyway, books and reading were NOT actually the exclusive purview of elites, but were appropriated by working people to further themselves in truly original and astonishing ways. We owe not only books as we know them to those 18th century reading obsessives, but also much of our politics.

This is absolutely a first-rate scholarly book, but it’s not a boring, demanding one. Rose relies heavily on the power of individual anecdote and oddball incident to make his case. For anyone interested in books, reading, labor history, radical history, and eccentric characters, this is a cornucopia of rich, hilarious stories.

Like many booksellers, I had a somewhat unsettled relationship with my own higher education, and largely taught myself what seemed important to know through the books I haphazardly read. Rose is out to redeem the reputation of the autodidact.

The British working masses were the original autodidacts! And the Bible was the original autodidactic text! (Not, alas, for me. “How can you know anything about art if you don’t know anything about the Bible?” my friend and colleague Uwe once correctly challenged me.)

I’m as excited about this new paperback edition as I am about anything we’ve published this year.

Yes, there are a few obstacles. The title makes it seem like something you’d be forced to read in a required history course. Flip through it and you’ll see lots of charts, graphs, and unfamiliar names. And at $33, the price may scare off a few casual readers. Though I defy you to find a more rewarding reading experience for six cents a page.

A brief sampling of his subjects:

- The flourishing of autodidactic culture among Scottish weavers in the 18th century resulted in one of the highest literacy levels in the world. Weavers as a group were “legendary readers,” noted for their habit of “reading at the loom.”

- Intellectual proclivities among tradesmen were intolerable to 18th century gentlemen. In 1812, radical tailor Francis Place lamented that “to accumulate books, and to be supposed to know something of their contents…was an abominable offense in a tailor, if not a crime; had it been known to all my customers that I accumulated a considerable library in which I spent all the leisure time I could spare…half of them at the least would have left me.”

- Autodidactic workers who taught themselves to read were markedly less deferential to power. Ferment was linked directly to print. After the First World War, historian Robert Roberts pointed out that “many more books, periodicals and newspapers were to be seen in ordinary homes. My mother recalled the plaint of our burial club collector. ‘Some of ‘em are reading mad!’ he grumbled. ‘They buy paper after paper, but won’t pay the weekly penny these days to bury their dead!”

- In the mid- 19th Century, Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe had a greater working-class readership than any book save the Bible.

- Rose describes the flowering of the “Mutual Improvement Societies” in early 20th century working class Britain- self-organized groups of a dozen to upwards of 100 people who met regularly in their own homes or churches. A member would typically deliver a paper on politics, religion, ethics, literature, or other “useful knowledge”, followed by discussion. “The aim was to develop verbal and intellectual skills among people who had never been encouraged to speak or think.”

- “In the first years of the 19th Century, shepherds in the Cheviot Hills maintained a kind of circulating library, leaving books they had read in designated nooks and crannies in boundary walls. The next shepherd who came that way could borrow it and leave another in its place, so that each volume was gradually carried through a circuit of 30 to 40 miles, on which the shepherds only occasionally met.”

- In 1854, Samuel Taylor, a passionate literacy advocate and a clay worker, began to read aloud from Crimean War dispatches published in The Times in a market square in Hanley. These readings attracted 8-10,000 people. The authorities welcomed them as “a way of keeping the lower orders out of pubs and music halls” and offered use of the town hall. Initially free, he began charging a penny, and by 1858 the movement had swept Staffordshire towns, attracting 60-70,000 people for selected readings from the works of popular writers. (In a district containing 100,000 people!)

- And yet… any kind of serious sustained writing by working-class people often ran against the grain of working-class culture, and was considered selfish and unneighborly. Reading was acceptable providing it was a collective activity, but solitary writing was suspect. Novelist Margaret Thomson Davis recalls her mother scolding “There’s a lot more important things you could be doing than sitting there scribbling. Give that floor a good scrub, for instance.”

There are so many quiet backlist treasures passively sitting on warehouse shelves, waiting for discovery by booksellers and readers. The reappearance of this one is cause for celebration.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


It was sort of a tough week to begin selling the fall lists. One Chicago appointment I had with a chain buyer was truncated because the buyer had just been let go. The same afternoon, I showed up for my appointment with one of the smartest art museum buying teams in the country only to learn that one of them had been laid off this week.

To top it off, I ducked into a doorway on Wabash to make a couple phone calls and found that I was standing across the street from the empty shell that was once the spectacular Prairie Avenue Bookshop, one of the saddest of the many sad closings last year.

But then I ended the week with a full day with the Seminary Coop/57th Street Bookstore bibliophiles in Hyde Park, followed by a morning with the irrepressible Roberta Rubin at the Book Stall in Winnetka. Both of these encounters left me optimistic again.

There are not many apparent similarities between these two bookselling dynamos on opposite sides of what is irritatingly called “Chicagoland.” But one big similarity is that they are both in books for the long haul, and see a future in the printed word.

Last week I came across an offhand reference in a news article that instantly clarified what I loathe about the corporate world. In a story that aimed to explain who knew what when amongst the derivative traders who brought on the meltdown, some anonymous broker acknowledged that everybody knew what they were doing was dangerous and not sustainable. But he said the widespread attitude was IBGYBG, i.e. “I’ll Be Gone, You’ll Be Gone” before the piper need be paid.

Of course, I’ve heard variations of this cynical sentiment fairly often among my colleagues in the book business. I’ve said something like it myself. It often takes a form like “I’d love to get another five years out of books but after that, I don’t care if they disappear. IBGYBG.”

But when a couple bitter reps exchange this sentiment over beers, we don’t have the power to bring down the entire economy with our cynicism.

The more I think of it, IBGYBG explains a lot. Global warming? It’s so complicated and hard, and anyway, IBGYBG. The national debt? Same thing. It’s a kind of necrophilic libertarianism, and once you realize the attitude is widespread enough to have its own acronym, you notice it everywhere.

Bookselling and publishing is the antithesis of this thinking. We have many terrifying unknowns in our future, but the book (in whatever format) has long-term staying power.

Unlike the gangsters making millions trading commodities they neither understand nor care about, we sell a product we actually love.

Publishers routinely spend years (sometimes decades) bringing a book project to fruition. (See Harvard’s exciting resurrection of the 1960 series Image of the Black in Western Art this year, among other examples).

People under thirty- even apparently sane ones- still contemplate and plan for a future in bookstores.

Bookstore patrons react with alarm and consternation when their favorite shops are in jeopardy, as did the flood of Hyde Park fans of Seminary Coop when word leaked out that the store’s building is being converted to (speaking of retrograde economic attitudes) the Milton Friedman Institute. (Not to worry, the Coop is safe!)

And not to get too anecdotal about it, but I was struck by how many people on the rush hour red line up to Addison the other day were deeply engrossed in books printed on paper.

There are many unknowns in the book future. In the face of the widespread misconception that except for the cost of paper and shipping a book should be free, how can sale of digital content be monetized? Will Google’s muscle-flexing in the book industry ultimately be a force for good or evil? And will there eventually be a gadget so alluring that we will forsake everything for its pleasures, including books?

But the book industry ethos seems to be WBHYBH- we’ll be here, you’ll be here. We’re not sure how, we’re working out the details, but the resilience of booksellers and their products is the perfect antidote to the hateful cynicism of the corporate death wish.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sequels, Knock-offs, Look-alikes: sorting authentic from wannabe

One of the keenest pleasures for reps and booksellers alike is seeing a worthy book with modest expectations get traction and work. Even better when it’s not just a shooting star but develops staying power.

Case in point: a couple years ago, The MIT Press published a little book by Matthew Frederick called 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School. It quickly generated the much coveted “in-house buzz,” and the reps quickly got a positive reaction from booksellers. Those who trusted their instincts and displayed the book got the same reaction from their customers, over 100,000 of whom had purchased a copy by last month.

The book had what all of us say we’re always looking for, i.e. there was nothing else really like it. Essentially a series of inspirational drawings matched with smart, witty maxims about making a successful life in the creative arts, the package was irresistible- small landscape format, paper over board, and a great price. It appealed to people well beyond the field.

Of course the paradox is that as soon as a publisher has a bona fide success story, the hunt is on to duplicate it. And how, by definition, can the sequel be anything but a pale, inauthentic imitation of the original?

It’s a quandary. MIT Press prides itself on originality and editors are passionate about the integrity of their books. Though there were moments when I thought to myself “this is such a great idea, why don’t we do “101 Things I Learned in X, Y, and Z” school,” it was hard to imagine that these could truly replicate the charm and sense of discovery surrounding the original.

Now, thanks to one of the corporate publishing giants, we’ll have a good case study in whether this particular great idea can be successfully cookie-cuttered.

The four copy cat books in their series- “101 Things I Learned in Culinary, Business, Film and Fashion School,” are impressive knock-offs. At first glance, they mimic every design element of the original. And in theory anyway, the concept might be transferable to the other subjects.

But when I perused the collection at a bookstore the other day, the bookseller was anxious point out the deficiencies. The covers are vastly inferior to the original, the binding is shoddy, the whole approach seemed more top-down than bottom-up.

This is a store that took delight in having sold dozens of copies of the original by keeping it on the front counter, and it was always on the booksellers’ hand-selling radar. The store, along with publisher, rep, author and customer, got to share in the feeling of having found something unique.

This bookseller greeted the arrival of the knock-offs with a sigh. “This just diminishes the original,” he thought. He didn’t say it this way, but I imagine his deflated feeling as something akin to the way I used to feel when some piece of political iconography or social critique turns up in a jeans ad or an army recruitment campaign. Can’t we have anything authentic anymore without it being co-opted and transformed into a cheap commodity, or twisted to sell someone else’s idea?

We’ll see how the sales go. Perhaps I’ll be wrong and the public will eat up the concept and the 101’s will proliferate like the Idiot Guides that once colonized bookstores like a bad virus. But meanwhile, my bookseller friend is responding to the challenge by upping his order on 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School and making sure it’s on display upfront.

To end this rant on a happier note, let me suggest a more elegant way to solve the “how can we duplicate this success” dilemma.

One of the most successful books published by Yale University Press in the past decade was Ernst Gombrich’s A Little History of the World. Like the Frederick book, it was adopted with love by booksellers and readers everywhere and has become a backlist staple. And like the Frederick, a big part of the appeal was the unique voice and gorgeous design.

But instead of rushing to the obvious and pumping out carbon copies of the book- little histories of X, Y and Z narrated in charming grandfatherly voices- Yale waited until the right book came along to make the comparison. This book should have some of the qualities of the Gombrich and should appeal to readers in the same way, but must be absolutely original. Would it exist had there been no Ernst Gombrich? The answer must be yes. (Would Fashion, Business, Culinary and Film exist without Architecture? Doubtful.)

This book, just published, is David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language. The design, tone and concept have much in common with A Little History of the World. And there’s a hope, of course, that it will have some of the same readership. But this is an attempt to make lightning strike again by offering up another authentic, original book- not a set of mix and match imposters.

Again, I may be proved wrong, but I think this wonderful book will succeed both on its own merits and on its tip of the design hat to Little History. It’s the best, most organic, most interesting kind of sequel publishing.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Living with Mailing Labels

Around ten years ago, we reps were issued our first computers. Dial-up, aol accounts, little orange screens- they left much to be desired when set beside our current flashy Dell Vostros.

But I remember one thing the customer database program on those little machines did quite well: when you wanted to print a batch of mailing labels, you hit a button called “print labels.”

Sorry, this is going to be one of those whiny, insider, why should anyone else care posts. But I spent the better part of a morning doing battle with Mail Merge in an effort to print a batch of mailing labels, and I need to vent.

Labels are not an insignificant part of our job. For all the hype in publishing media about digital catalogs, our customers prefer the traditional, printed versions by a landslide.

We send out copies of these new fall catalogs to hundreds of booksellers, sometimes heavily annotated for their particular stores. And each season I groan when I think about the bookends of the process: at the start, figuring out once again how to print address labels; at the end, hauling 200-plus two pound priority mail envelopes to the post office.

A couple seasons ago, defeated by the cumbersome semi-annual ritual of label-wrangling, I switched over to the US Post Office label printing program. Though arcane and bizarre in many ways, it got the job done.

Alas, in the switchover to our new laptops my beloved Shipping Assistant has disappeared, and my 265 saved addresses with it. I briefly considered just bearing down and re-entering everything, but the USPS website was so hostile it seemed like I’d have to hack my way back in to use it. And these days you don’t want to even think about that.

So I reverted to Outlook’s label printing procedure. Maybe it’s smoother than it was in earlier incarnations, I stupidly told myself.

Though it’s a business-oriented contact database designed for organizing interactions with customers, the designers apparently don't consider label printing an important enough function to warrant its own button. Indeed, the first counter-intuitive thing you have to do to make labels happen is to leave the program entirely and switch to a Word document.

I could kill my modest blog readership entirely right now by marching you through the fifteen tedious and confusing steps I had to download and print to accomplish my goal. But I can’t bear to revisit them. Suffice it to say that labels miraculously appeared just at the moment when I’d reached the breaking point, poised to pick up that ancient technology- a pen- to begin writing out my addresses.

But not so fast. Try getting them to align properly! I switched my animosity to the printer, which inflexibly refused to allow me to adjust the feed so three lines of address could actually appear coherently on the same label.

This too was eventually mastered, and, eureka, I had a pristine set of mailing labels. I suppose I could have called my colleagues, Adena and Patricia, both of whom are savvier on this than I am. But I am a man, in this respect anyway. Unfortunately, I had to spoil about two dozen sheets of blank labels to get six usable ones. Still, a victory over technology is a victory, and I will savor it.

But what am I saying? Why am I at war with my technology when it’s supposed to be my friend?

I think maybe Don Norman has the answer. He’s been writing about the sometimes mystifying design quirks of everyday objects for years. This fall he has a new book, Living with Complexity, in which he defends the idea of complexity against the allure of oversimplification. It’s not complexity that’s the problem, Norman insists, its bad design!

Exhibit A: the Microsoft Outlook label making circus.