March 9, 2010

republican glory, republican bookselling

I'm nearly finished with Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, and the experience of actually reading the thing has made me think more about publishing and bookbinding.

I want to be sympathetic to cries of the downfall of the "independent bookseller". However, by and large, the independent bookseller has been less diverse and more restrictive of choice than either of the big boxes or especially Amazon in particular has made it possible for me to acquire all sorts of texts my lack of formal affiliation or financial largesse would have otherwise left inaccessible. Rather than participating in the further leveling of taste into easily marketed sub-cultures, the absolute vastness that is Amazon has made literary eccentricity a bit more possible, whatever my affections for independent business are. Even the most banal mall Waldenbooks would have been an improvement over the only non-religious bookshop in my hometown, and the eventual opening of a Barnes & Noble just over the county line was a definite improvement to the area's retail offerings, though it came after we had moved away. (That said, the local library was excellently stocked and staffed in a way that has left me unable to bear most city and suburban libraries. I have this–almost certainly false–romantic image of an Empire of small Kentucky town libraries carefully safeguarding culture while their city sisters have fallen to decadence.)

Connected to this is my–far greater–lack of concern about cries about the death of publishing. Books are dying not from being overpriced (when one considers how few persons actually buy books–a hard image for a reader from a family of readers–something like the mark down offered by Amazon seems very reasonable), its been in the way that the book as an instrument for the transmission of knowledge and art has been overtaken by a model where the book is designed to catch eyes on the shelf and drive impulse sales.

This means that a book like Empire of Liberty, with its near-800 pages of (approx.) 9"x6.5" dimensions is placed in a single volume, bold-spine reaching out to the browser. In an age when books where printed to be read, this would have been in at least two volumes of smaller dimensions, maybe three or more.

When the Peter Jackson "Rings" films started coming out and all those mass market one-volume paperbacks of The Lord of the Rings started popping up everywhere, I was pretty horrified, even though they were far easier to hold than Empire of Liberty. I stand by my 3-volume edition of LotR for a simple reason: If a book is too unwieldy to be comfortably read in the bath or laying on the couch, it is not made for human beings to read, but as a billboard. Obviously this involves some willful ignorance of the history of publishing and the manners in which persons have read, but few readers are prone to read extensively at a desk or table (unless eating), except when a text is technical and requires constant reference and interaction. There is no reason that a work of popular scholarship needs to be three pounds.

Despite this, I'm not thrilled about the concept of e-books, either, even if the "e-ink" screens are more like paper. Part of it is an aversion to the need to "charge" my book like any number of other appliances I'm reliant on (laptop, cell phone); when I camp to get away from electric noise, I don't camp to get away from books! Another part is the end of easy interaction with a text, and (sometimes) interaction with previous readers. Another part is the trend towards multi-functionality that makes me ultimately sure that any e-reader will ultimately be used largely for pursuits other than reading (hello, iPad). However, I have some vague hope that the ultimate trend to selling digital licenses for content rather than the published content itself will lead to some revival of bookbinding. Imagine: Being able to select the paper, dimensions and cover materials for each book you purchase; being able to divide into volumes, being able to select library binding for children's books, etc. I have no illusions that this isn't as technocratic a wonder as the whole "e-book" dream, but I think this actually puts technology to the purpose of enhancing the experience and enjoyment of those human beings we call readers, rather than divorcing them from their traditional comforts of smelling fresh books and old bindings.

• • •

That said, Empire of Liberty as a book is rather fascinating. Wood largely navigates a strong path between the various ideologically-inspired readings of the period to attempt to relate it more as it was and as it was experienced. This can become particularly notable in his treatments of controversial subjects like the religiosity of the Founders where he (for one example) denies pictures of Washington as a devout, orthodox Anglican and as a deistic freethinker.

Woods also relates the words of the Founders and other political writers of the period in a very honest fashion; you do not come away with any sort of impression of the Constitution as it is read by any judicial school, for example. The best example of this is in his near-rehabilitation of the Federalists, where he at least gives them the dignity of having convictions, and reasons for them. There is nothing of the modernizing modeling that takes place in some biographies of the Founders, rather Woods does a fairly good job of letting them speak for themselves, and in conversation with more popular voices.

I like also that the book manages to restore something of the strangeness of the whole American incident; readers will come away with the impression it is very little like the world they were taught in school. I thought myself knowledgeable (for a non-specialist) in the period, and Woods managed to surprise me quite a few times, especially in his coverage of how very real political antagonisms over the French Revolution were in the 1790s in America.

Reading American history is always an interesting time for me, emotionally, because I have strong patriotic feelings towards America (it is my country, after all), but a lot of mixed feelings towards Americanism. I suppose my career as a reactionary began at the age of nine when I decided to subvert an assignment given by my teacher from a letter from a colonist supporting the Revolution to a letter from a colonist who was supporting King George, instead.

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