Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gotta Love Those Romance Titles (or: the price of freedom is eternal kitsch)

The American politicians and publishers who, in the title of John Hench's prize-winning book, sought to use "Books as Weapons" in the war against fascism, thought they were making the world free for democracy. Of course, they were also making the world free for free markets, and thereby, not just for Hemingway, Steinbeck, Saroyan, and the other authors whom they held up as models of civic engagement and cultural achievement, but also for all sorts of literary trash.

To put it another way: the price of liberty is eternal kitsch. Of course, that's the price of "totalitarianism," too, though in different ways and for different reasons. While I was in Prague this spring, I saw a massive and fascinating exhibition on the stifling of modernism and the avant-garde, first, by the Nazis, and then by the communists. 

For many of us, the romance novel epitomizes American literary kitsch. To be sure, the genre and its readership have become the subject of scholarly study: one thinks first and foremost of the pioneering work of Janice Radway, who provocatively argued against the dominant condescension toward both.

Sorry, I digressed: I was starting to risk venturing into the serious, which is not at all my purpose here.

Anyway, when it comes to the romance novel, many of just appreciate the lame titles and cheesy cover art. The titles may not be as distinctive and clever as those of classic country and western songs, but like them, they do adhere to certain conventions and constitute a sort of subgenre in their own right. In this case, though, one suspects that the humor is accidental, or at any rate, if implicitly part of the publishers' intent, not uppermost in the minds of their consumers.

This spring, as the Amherst Historical Commission prepared to put forward a request for Community Preservation Act funds for the restoration of paintings hanging in the Jones Library (still need to post about that), I took a stroll through the building to re-familiarize myself with the location of each work of art.

Lo and behold, I came across one of the canvases— Paul Dominique's late 19th-century "Arabs Mounted in Battle"—hanging over: the romance collection.

To me, it actually seemed entirely appropriate. Whereas some might see a glaring contrast between this "high" work of art—after all, it's an oil painting more than a hundred years old, in an elaborate gilded frame (what more need one know?)—and the genre literature of mass cultural production below, I see but variations on a theme.

To be sure, the painting is "historically significant" (otherwise we could not fund its preservation), and reasonably competent, but it is a typical piece of orientalism, depicting the exotic "otherness" of Arab culture for the delight of the western viewer. Unlike a book published in a pressrun of tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, Dominique's painting is a cultural product that exists in but one exemplar, and yet for all that, it is interchangeable with dozens if not hundreds of others. In its own way, it is every bit as conventional as the romance novel—and conventional ideals, representations, and sentiments are the hallmarks of kitsch.

And of course the connection doesn't end there. The Arab male has long functioned as a figure combining danger and allure. One need but think of Valentino and the vogue of "the sheik" theme, derived from the novel of the same name by E. M. Hull (whose real name was not the same: Edith Maude Winstanely). In fact, as the publishers of the new edition remind us, "The Sheik is recognized as the immediate precursor to the modern romance novel." Apparently, the theme has even been making something of a comeback. Oy (as they say). [this ¶ was accidentally omitted from the original upload.]

A classic debate in library philosophy has been whether to collect comprehensively or selectively: as much as possible, or only "the best": what Matthew Battles called the distinction between the "universal" and "Parnassan" ideals of the library. On the local level, this most often gets translated into debates about whether to purchase popular fiction, controversial political works, and the like. Romance novels are among the most contentious genres. The limited evidence suggests that most public libraries do have fairly extensive holdings of romances, though precise patterns of acquisition and funding are less clear. Most libraries have a romance novel collection because there is public demand for it and they serve the public; and there's nothing wrong with that.

Damn. I keep getting serious. Must. Stop. Now.

So, back to those romance titles and covers. One of my favorite "tweeps" and library bloggers, Rita Meade, a.k.a. Screwy Decimal (here, the blog; here, the Twitter account; further: 1, 2, 3) has made a minor art of chronicling the inanity and inadvertent humor of romance titles and romance novel culture—to which she adds her own very intentional humor under the rubric, "Romance Title of the Day," e.g.:
• 'Sex in the Middle Ages.' Well, I hope they practiced serf sex.

 • 'His Virgin Secretary.' Well, I guess it's something to put on the ol' resume.

'His Pregnancy Bargain.' I love when a man puts the "us" in uterus
I promised Rita I'd share some of our local examples.

At any rate, without further ado, here's my modest contribution. My favorite is One Fine Cowboy: He's got a way with horses. . . and with women . . . . Feel free to supply your own commentary. The possibilities are almost endless.

The Dangerous Baron Leigh

One Fine Cowboy

A Pregnant Proposal

Confessions of a Viscount
Your tax dollars at work.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Walking the Walk and Tweeting the Talk

According to a new survey released this week, web search engines and email are the most popular forms of digital media among the US adult population: some 92 percent of us use them, 60 percent of us, daily. Nearly half of us use social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook. What is interesting is not just the increase in overall use of SNS (nearly doubled from 2008 to 2010), but also the changing demographic: both older and more gender-balanced. The average age of the social network site user has risen from 33 to 38, with half over 35. And, at 56 percent, women's participation now slightly outnumbers that of men. However, only 13 percent of us are on Twitter (though world-wide, we are 200-million strong).

Is Twitter, as so many acquaintances dismissively say, a faddish and foolish exercise in narcissism—a sort of metaphorical modern mashup of the twentieth-century "pet rock" and vanity license plate—or, as others maintain, a valuable social, intellectual, and marketing tool?  As an inveterate tweeter, I of course incline toward the latter opinion. The usage statistic alone, absent more granular data, could support either view. If it's a fad, though, it's certainly restricted to a relatively small population, but which: the proverbial "early adapters"? (if so, what is the profile?) gen-Xers? And just how do they use it? One of my "tweeps" (to you non-users: a Twitter friend, someone I "follow" or who "follows" me) perfectly summarized the competing views last month in a nice little blogpost entitled, "How to Use Twitter (and Why It’s Not a Waste of Time." There, she lovingly and originally characterized Twitter as: "the semi-colon of social media – people have an idea of your existence but many have not fully grasped your usefulness and beauty."

We are only beginning to study the significance of new social media, and Twitter is arguably the least-studied and least-understood among them. To be sure, there have been some rather silly pieces about use of Twitter in the classroom (spare me, please; I'd be happy if my students used spellcheck intelligently), but relatively few rigorous studies of its real value in the academic and cultural sphere, proper. I hope to address that question eventually. In the meantime, I instead wanted to do something much more modest, namely: share one example of how my colleagues and I recently employed Twitter for both academic and social purposes.

As I mentioned in my brief post on the SHARP conference on the book in art and science, social media are coming to play an increasingly important role in our gatherings, and not just in a trivial or recreational way. Last year, in Helsinki, we made full use of a variety of media. For example, we live-streamed some of the main events, such as keynotes and plenaries. Most novel, however, was our use of Twitter. Several of us began to tweet coverage of the events, simply because we tweet all the time. Several people who could not attend said that this coverage not only allowed them to experience the events from a distance, but even inspired them to join the organization. We could not have hoped for a more encouraging result.

This year, as an experiment, we decided to make tweeting an official activity. Many officers on the Executive Council—the President, Vice President, Treasurer ("That, uh, that, that would be me," as Bob Newhart used to say), Recording Secretary, and Membership Secretary—are already individually active (to varying degrees) on Twitter, and there is in addition a general SHARP Twitter account as well as a special one for this conference. "Official" here meant: explicitly endorsed and encouraged from above. In order to lend some material incentive to that moral exhortation, we even offered a prize—in the form of copies of the winner of the annual Book Award—to the ten top tweeters. (Among other things, that meant putting our money where our mouth was—and your Treasurer, I can assure you, does not disburse your funds lightly). We generated over 2000 tweets, archived here.

There were many pleasures, chief among them, the rewarding feeling of belonging to a community within a community (which is to say, as far as I was concerned, a more intimate alliance rather than any form of snobbery), and the excitement at the prospect of finally meeting at the conference, or at a separate "tweet-up" after hours, face to face, people whom one knew only by their usernames, and via 140-character snippets of conversation.

In the course of our (real-life as well as virtual) conversations, SHARP Board member George Williams, by day a professor of English at the University of South Carolina Upstate, who at night dons the cape and tights of heroic editor of the "ProfHacker" blog on at the Chronicle of Higher Education, asked the more active tweeters to write up brief reflections on their use of this social networking tool at the conference for his column.

Here's the beginning of my contribution:
To tweet or not to tweet? If I do not tweet for myself, who will tweet for me? If I tweet only for myself, what am I? Twitter, as one of my non-SHARP “tweeps” says, is the most misunderstood of social media. To wary outsiders, for whom it represents an exercise in egotism, I gently explain that it all depends on what you are looking for and whom you choose to follow. In the 4 years I’ve been on Twitter, it has become one of my most valuable research and networking tools. Frankly, I am much more interested in what total strangers on Twitter are reading than what my Facebook friends had for lunch or their kids did at the birthday party. . . .
George's introduction and the rest of the individual contributions can be found here.

What do you think? Comments welcome.

Books Into Battle: John Hench Wins Distinguished Award for Study of Propaganda and Publishing During World War II

It's always a pleasure to witness the announcement of the book award at the annual general meeting of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP).

I would have said it's "suspenseful," for that it is, too—for most members and conference attendees—just a little bit less so for me. As a member of the Executive Council of the organization, I get a heads-up well in advance of the actual moment (sworn to secrecy, if-I-told-you-I'd-have-to-kill-you, and all that sort of thing). And, as Treasurer, I have to write a congratulatory letter—and a check in the amount of $ 1000—to the winner:

 (Cornell University Press)

Even though I knew the outcome, this year's award was special in several ways. For one thing, as part of our promotion of Twitter at the conference, we promised a copy of the prize-winning book to the top ten tweeters. The volume thus got even more publicity than usual. For another, the winner was both an active SHARP member and a participant at the conference. Above all, though, I was absolutely delighted because that winner was John B. Hench, a man whose learning and generosity are matched only by his modesty.

When I started my career here in western Massachusetts, a colleague, knowing of my interest in the history of the book, brought to my attention the rich array of activities at the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester. I got the best possible introduction to its resources, programming, and staff when I attended a summer seminar. It was invigorating to find myself again in the company of people who understood my research interests, even though I worked on Europe and they worked on the United States.

It was there that I got to know John, then director of publications. I was touched that he made a point of welcoming me personally. (Among other things, it was nice to meet another transplanted Midwesterner turned New Englander.) We saw each other periodically at AAS events and corresponded occasionally in the interim. Throughout the years, John worked tirelessly on behalf of the institution and its patrons, rising to the position of Vice President for Collections and Programs. When he retired in 2006, the AAS honored his accomplishments and the spirit of service that he embodied by putting his name on the post-dissertation fellowship program that he created. As the announcement noted, the budget of that program alone was by then greater than the budget of the entire institution when John came to work there in 1973.  It's hard to think of a more fitting way to celebrate his contribution to the organization, the field, and the careers of other scholars.

After I joined SHARP more than a decade ago, I was very pleased to learn that John was an active member. As chance, or irony, would have it, I haven't managed to make it to the AAS as often as I used to, so even though John and I live only about an hour and a half away from one another, I found myself more likely to run into him at least once a year at our conference in  places as distant as France or Finland. In fact, I still recall our meeting in Helsinki last year. As usual, we talked during the receptions and coffee breaks, and on at least one occasion, we also had lunch together. In addition, though, John came to my panel, where I gave a rather sweeping and speculative talk, testing some ideas on a subject I was just beginning to grapple with. He made a point of speaking to me immediately afterward and offering words of encouragement. Weighing the fact that John is just about the nicest guy in the world against the fact that he is also one of the smartest, who is invariably polite but does not dispense empty praise, I was simultaneously humbled and elated to conclude that my incipient idea was just perhaps not entirely nutty, and worth pursuing, after all.

My paper and one other on the panel dealt wholly or in part with Nazi Germany. Through SHARP, I had learned more and more about the breadth of John's knowledge and interests. If anything, he seemed to become even more active as he approached and then entered retirement. Having dedicated his career to the service of others at the AAS, he had begun to share results of a fascinating new research project, which involved not early America, but America in the era of World War II. I missed the 2003 conference in Claremont, California, where John first shared that research with SHARP members, but I did hear him speak about it in The Hague in 2006 and Minneapolis in 2007. John also explained the origins of the project in a recent interview:
Hench recalled how the war years had colored his upbringing. His father, a physician who was 46 when he volunteered for military service, was a collector of interesting, quirky books. His library included several of the editions published for soldiers fighting abroad.
Over time, Hench himself amassed a collection of ephemera. The assemblage included “ration cards, pamphlets, that sort of thing — really home-front propaganda — and some books on subjects such as how to behave in wartime: how to give a party, what to write to your husband, to be wary of the charms of an attractive man who was 4-F but otherwise fit,” he said with a laugh.
As he sought interesting material, he ran across a copy of an Overseas Edition. It was completely new to him, and his interest was piqued. After some initial research, Hench realized he had a potential book in the making.
What fascinated him, he said, was the idea that governments took books and culture so seriously as to see them as elements of national identity and weapons in a war of ideas. The title derives from a slogan of the World War II Council on Books in Wartime: “Books as Weapons in the War of Ideas.” As the interviewer explains, "The Nazis were portraying Americans as crass people who sought world domination. The books were intended to give Europeans an idea of the lives and values of ordinary Americans and to promote democracy." In order to counter the German view—and gain a foothold in new global economy—the United States government and military in effect got into the book business:
Some 5 million books published under the imprints of Overseas Editions and Transatlantic Editions were distributed in the ongoing effort. Some were translated into European languages, while many others were in English. They were chosen for the elites, who, it was believed, would influence their families and business and political leaders.
“It would be hard to find another time when the government bought into the professional ideology of publishers, with the power to mold minds and shape history,” Hench said.
It was, as Hench says elsewhere, an attempt to win the peace as well as the war—and new markets in the process.

The DeLong Prize Committee this year comprised Chair Marija Dalbello (USA), Amadio Arboleda (Japan), and Francis Galloway (South Africa), assisted by intern Lucy McClune. SHARP Director of Publications and Awards Claire Squires (Scotland) oversaw the entire process. As the Committee put it:

This is a book about war but it is also a book about the diplomacy of books. As an international and comparative history of wartime publishing, it presents deeply contextualized accounts, offering multiple contemporary perspectives, a true mark of scholarship that constructs the book trade as an international phenomenon. It will for sure make its mark in many fields, but it is deeply embedded in our own.
In making the presentation, Chair Marija Dalbello also cited an evocative passage from the text:
Only weeks after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, a surprising cargo—crates of books—joined the flood of troop reinforcements, weapons and ammunition, food, and medicine onto Normandy beaches. The books were destined for French bookshops, to be followed by millions more American books (in translation but also in English) ultimately distributed throughout Europe and the rest of the world. The British were doing similar work, which was uneasily coordinated with that of the Americans within the Psychological Warfare Division of General Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, under General Eisenhower's command.

Last fall, the AAS honored John by calling upon him to deliver the prestigious annual James Russell Wiggins Lecture in the History of the Book in American Culture. Both the title—"Random Notes from a Book History Bureaucrat"—and the content reflect John's self-deprecating spirit. Although the focus there was on John's career at the AAS, he also talked about the research behind his new book.

John Hench-Nov. 16, 2010 from American Antiquarian Society on Vimeo.

He talks more specifically about the book in this C-SPAN interview in the spring of last year, commenting on, among other things, the place of the US and its culture in the upheavals of our contemporary world.

Congratulations, again, John, on your well-deserved honors: couldn't happen to a nicer or smarter guy.

Background and resources

SHARP began awarding an annual book prize in 1998. Since 2004, the award has been known as the George A. and Jean S. DeLong Book History Prize, in honor of the family that endowed it.

List of winners.

On the new SHARP blog, Director of Publications and Awards Claire Squires (Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication), offers some reflections on the history and significance of literary prizes, a topic on which she recently spoke at a conference in Tübingen.


The SHARP blog now has two perfect follow-ups:

In the first, Amadio Aboleda talks about his experience as a DeLong Prize juror. His remarks are not only germane to that rather esoteric task, but in fact pertain to most of what we as scholars do when we unavoidably have to make sense of works outside our field or area of personal expertise:
By the end of March, I had five books and no idea of how to go about reading them. None of them were in my own field of Japanese book publishing culture and many covered topics about which I knew little or nothing. . . . I was also worried that taking more time than other jurors to read books outside my own sphere of interest might delay a final decision. However, as I delved into unfamiliar pages I was reminded of my wonderful experience as a definition editor of the American Heritage Dictionary. Each editor had to read a certain number of books in a loosely defined area of their expertise every week to "absorb" information. The Dictionary had arranged with the New York Public Library main branch on Fifth Avenue to allow the definitions editors to request books that would be delivered to our office. I had the good fortune of being paid to read books. I realized that reading the entry books as a juror also could be considered good fortune and felt encouraged.
(read the rest: "Ying and Yang of a DeLong Book Prize Juror")

In fact, it is an example that I could cite when explaining to students the task they face in any new class.

In the second, John Hench himself responds to the award:
Like a fine piece of jazz, every book is both a collaboration and an improvisation. If there is anything we have learned from the study of book history, it is to understand the roles that mediators and even meddlers of all kinds play in the process that turns a gleam in an author’s eye into a published book. And anyone who has ever written a book knows that it is also a product of trial, error, and reconcepualization, that is, of improvisation. I would never have written Books as Weapons: Propaganda, Publishing, and the Battle for Global Markets had I not decided, about a dozen years ago, to begin to collect books, magazines, and newspapers published by private and governmental organizations to advance particular wartime agendas. In doing so, I stood on the shoulders of my father, smitten for life by the “gentle madness” of book collecting, whose stateside service in the army medical corps left me with a lifelong interest in World War II. I already knew about most of the wartime publication series. 
He goes on to discuss both the substance of his quest and the evolution of his research (much, again, thanks to exchanges of ideas with friends and colleagues), down to the choice of the final title.

(read the rest: "Collaboration and Improvisation")

New Director at the Jones Library

From: To Find the Principles

 On Tuesday evening (August 9), the Trustees of the Jones Library selected Sharon Sharry, of the Greenfield Library to become the new Director of our public library.

I've been covering the search over on the main and history blog site, simply because that's where most other Jones Library coverage has been, given that it has involved primarily historic preservation and local politics.

It's an exciting and welcome development: staff and residents are energized and inspired, and one can only wish Ms. Sharry all possible luck and success. She can lead the Jones knowing that the town is behind her.

Here are links to the main recent posts:

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
Update: New Director at the Jones Library (and some advice on new media needs)
Initial report on the choice of Sharon Sharry as Director
Report on candidate presentation by Sharon Sharry
Report on candidate presentation by Christopher Lindquist

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Back From DC With a Sharpened Appetite for Bookish Matters

It's now been about two weeks since I returned from the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP) in Washington, DC—feeling, as always—as one of my tweeps put it—"post-conf malaise mixd w/urge to wrk," "so grand that I was sad to leave that collegiality."

This year's theme was science, art, and the history of the book, though, as always, conference papers and panels were not restricted to that theme. One of the best panels I attended had nothing to do with any of that and was right up my alley: it dealt with the book trade in the Third Reich. Incidentally, it took place in the first session of the first day, an auspicious start. I won't attempt to report on the conference here for the moment, instead simply hoping to act on that sense of collegiality, inspiration, and "urge to work" by posting here more frequently now on various topics related to the history of the book. I'm afraid that even trying to keep up with the historical and historic-preservation topics on the "home blog"—To Find the Principles—has been almost more than I can manage these days.

In the meantime, a few scenes from the conference.
The Executive Council (EC) at work: President Leslie Howsam in the center, Vice President Ian Gadd, at left.

Key topics included finances (they are sound, and we agreed not to raise membership fees this year); future conference sites (2012: Dublin; 2013: Philadelphia); adapting our listserve to the newer needs and standards of the current digital culture; new initiatives to support student participation and general scholarly research, and the continuing internationalization of the organization.

Among the firsts for this EC meeting: remote participation. Director of Publications and Awards Claire Squires, just returned from a conference in Tübingen, "Skyped in" from to her home base at the University of Stirling, where she is Director of the Stirling Centre for International Publishing and Communication.

The officers have done business by Skype on several occasions, just not at an EC meeting. The real first, however: first cat to attend an EC meeting, and from Scotland, via Skype. Now that's progress.

The EC meeting took place in the elegant quarters of the Corcoran Gallery and School of Art + Design, one of the conference hosts, and site of pre-conference program activities.

In the atrium:  "Painting Big": works by Chris Martin. (Ever wonder how they manipulate and mount such mammoth works? Videos on the website explain that, too.)

Conference registration at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, MD, also the site of the opening keynote and welcome reception.  Security was extremely tight here because the Library is located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health), so we had to allow additional time for visitors to travel by metro, pass through checkpoints, obtain ID badges, and so forth.

One of the distinctive features of this conference was the co-hosting by multiple organizations. Although most SHARP conferences hold events at multiple sites, there is generally a principal institutional sponsor and venue—often, for example, a university or major library. This year's conference, meticulously organized by SHARP Membership Secretary Eleanor Shevlin and Casey Smith, Interim Chair of the Arts and Humanities at the Corcoran, was a logistical triumph as well as a great intellectual success. Despite the need to move large numbers of people back and forth between venues—many of which, this being DC, involved security checkpoints—there were no disasters or even delays. Movement

Eleanor Shevlin introduces Jonathan Topham (Senior Lecturer in the History of Science, University of Lees), who delivered the keynote lecture, "Why the History of Science Matters to Book History."

The first full day of sessions took place at the Library of Congress.

Welcome, but let's see what's in your pockets and that bag. Security checks even at a library: the contemporary world.

I didn't blog during the conference, and I probably won't write in detail about most of the proceedings. However, we did cover the proceedings live via Twitter, and with great success. More on that in the next post.