Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

In Media Res

with 5 comments

It’s not Sunday, of course, it’s Monday, but it’s a national holiday, so I’ve put a CD on, and in honor of it being only the second time I’ve had to put on the heat since last April, I’m listening to actual Hildegarde, as well as things Hildegarde herself probably heard–Anonymous 4’s O Yoolis Night and 11,000 Virgins. The book I’ve got is not something I’d recommend to the general pu blic.  It’s not that it’s actively bad, although it is that, sometimes. It’s mostly that it’s written at a level suitable for a brightish high school freshman, and it’s as tendentious in its cheerleading for the Middle Ages as any Enlightenment era tract ever was in its denigration of the same period.

And it’s interesting for me to know that I get just as annoyed with innacuracies about the middle ages when they’re on my side as when they’re on the other. 

At any rate, the book is called How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, and I do thank it for reminding me about Father Francisco di Vitoria, whom I hadn’t thought about in many years.   He’s the Catholic priest in the early Sixteenth Century who came out with the first declaration that, all men having been born to natural liberty, all–regardless of race, religion, or level of civilization–had natural rights “to life, to culture and to property.”

Honestly, intellectual history is an interesting thing.

What got to me this morning, though, was looking on the spine and discovering that the book had been published by Regnery, a small Christian house that has become something of a powerhouse by producing Christian-right political work over the past fifteen or so years.

That in itself isn’t much of an issue.  Every book I could think of that would directly counter this one has been published by Prometheus Press, an arm of the Council for Secular Humanism and its Centers for Inquiry.  

But it seems to me that an awful lot of issues oriented publishing is now taking place through small presses, and that so is a lot of the publishing of classical works.  One of the things I have on my coffee table waiting for me to have the courage to start in on it is a volume called The  Great  Tradition, an anthology of writing about the nature of education starting with sources from the Greeks and coming down to the Twentieth Century.  I’m a little afraid to start reading it because the damned thing is big and heavy enough, even in paperback, to serve as furniture.

It’s also published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which is an organization working to promote the teaching and study of the Canon–meaning all of it, including works of philosophy and geometry–in American secondary and high education.

I’ve got no problem with organizations like ISI–or CSH, for that matter–publishing what they think are important works in the fields in which they are concerned.  I just find it odd that so little of this sort of thing is being published by major mainstream publishers.

It’s true enough that the audience for classics is limited, but it’s also true that  classics are not very expensive to publish.  By definition, most of that work is in the public domain, and even where it is not–translations, after all, carry their own copyright–payments to interested parties tend not to be high.  And if they are, any classic that has been around long enough has translations that are in the public domain too, although the language might be a little archaic in some ways.

I’m not saying that we are in any way hurting for available texts of the great works of the Great Tradition.  We’re not.  There’s a lot available out there, from the relativel expensive to buy (like Penguin Classics) to the admirably cheap. Barnes and Noble has a publishing program in classics that’s absolutely wonderful, including a two-volume, chronologically arranged edition of the complete  Sherlock  Holmes that is the best portable collection available, anywhere.

What strikes me here is what seems to be a major shift in the self-understanding of the business by the people most heavily engaged in it.  In the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, publishers routinely produced volumes of philosophy, history, literature, poetry, drama, whose sales must have been majorly to libraries–works fifty or a hundred or a thousand years old, but part of that Conversation that is Western Civilization.

These days, though, not only do publishers do very little of this–or, at least, the majors do very little of it–but more and more of the libraries I walk into don’t seem to have much in the way of this stuff, either.  In most of the smal towns around here, somebody who wanted Jane Austen or Thomas Hobbes or Cicero would have to get them on interlibrary loan. 

Connecticut has an excellent interlibrary loan system, one that allows readers to take books out of any library in the state, but such a system only goes so far.  It assumes, for instance, that the reader already knows what it is he wants to read.  I’d never heard of Jane Austen the first time I walked into the library in my small town.  I discovered her by systematically raiding the shelves of the second-floor classic literature section–Austen and Dickens, Dostoyevski and Tolstoy, Balzac and Flaubert.

The philosophy came later, in high school, when I discovered the Yale Co-op, the bookstore of Yale University and therefore carrying all the important works in the Humanistic tradition you could want.  But in those days, most decent sized bookstores carried ‘all that stuff,” and I don’t believe it was because the sales were great.

I suppose you can forgive the smaller bookstores because space is money and they’re barely keeping their heads above water as it is–and I can’t fault Barnes and Noble or Borders, because the superstores cary a wide selection of classics–but I don’t understand what’s going on with the publishers, or the libraries.

Too many of the publishers seem to have redefined themselves as “entertainment content providers.”

Too many of the libraries seem to be forced into chasing popularity over principle.

Written by janeh

October 12th, 2009 at 11:24 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'In Media Res'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'In Media Res'.

  1. I wouldn’t be so hard on the libraries. They have limited space (don’t we all) and probably implement some kind of algorithm relating number of requests vs. copies in the system. New best-sellers are bought in quantity, and as they age, copies are eliminated from the system.

    Classics probably don’t cycle out very quickly. Libraries can’t stock enough of each to provide them in case of local school assignments, so they integrate them into the “rarely requested” formula

    It’s the same deal with mysteries. Where I might find a new author to me, I may have to gather their entire backlog of writing from the catalog of the system, rather than in my local branch. The ways I find that new author are different than they used to be. Formerly, I would scan the shelves to see if there was anything I hadn’t read. On rare occasions, I’d hunt down some NYT Bestseller List authors. Now, I read RAM, I read Amazon reviews, I read blogs, etc.

    What we might consider to get people more interested in the classics is, say…blogging about them. Oh wait, you are!


    12 Oct 09 at 11:43 am

  2. The classics are not alone in this regard. I’m picking up a nice hardcover collection of Poul Anderson’s short stories one volume at a time–from the New England Science Fiction Association. My Leigh Brackett is coming from Haffner and Paizo, and the new edition of Roger Zelazny’s early work was from iBooks. All these are established well-regarded SF authors, largely past the fifty-year rule. But it’s not just SF. My Georgette Heyers are from Sourcebooks, and My Miss Marples are coming from Black Dog & Lowenthal. I pulled five Sabatini novels off my shelves, and found five publishers. The only one I’d ever heard of was Bibliobazaar. John Curry is slowly getting the classic wargaming volumes back into print–from Lulu.com. This actually gets worse for critical and biographic material. I realized scanning recent purchases for exceptions that I’d started counting Baen Books as a major. It’s no wonder they don’t sound cheerful on Publisher’s Row.

    [Honorable exception: Ballantine Books has done an incredible job on Robert E. Howard in recent years, putting all his best material into print, checking against manuscripts to get as close as possible to his original text, and including biographical and critical material in each volume. They tell me sales are only so-so, but I hope they eventually make good money on these. They will have earned every cent.]

    Several things going on, I think: the majors are thinking like Hollywood studios, looking for the book with a fabulous rate of return rather than steady sales. Also, they’re slowly turning to stone. Their overhead costs are high, and at least on paper that kills their profits on a small steady seller. The libaries have opted to boost circulation numbers by stocking recent popular fiction, politics and self-help. Since in six months no one will want those books anyway, they need paperbacks or fake hardbacks. (Am I not supposed to call “perfect binding” that? Too late.) Anyway, that means libraries feed the same trends. They don’t want one copy of the McManus Beowulf translation in library binding, but two of The Audacity of Hope or Unfit for Command. (Which explains why libraries have to run book sales twice a year: the loser’s books are sold off the next spring, and the winner’s the next fall.)

    At the same time, It’s now easier and cheaper than ever to turn a text into a printed book. Scanners and OCR programs turn the typed or printed words into something which a printer can turn out quite cheaply as the orders come in. I doubt any of the publishers I mentioned above, except possibly Baen, even own a press. Certainly none of them have typesetters.

    So printing the book with slow steady sales, the title in public domain only a few people want and the labor of love only a few hundred people will ever buy is now the province of the small presses.

    As for finding new books, I worked library shelves in my youth too–but then I had one of the best municipal libraries in the country to back me up. It’s not a procedure I could recommend in the DC region. Neither is asking a bookstore clerk here for suggestions. These days, I just go to Amazon, and rely on their sales software. Ask for a title and if it’s in print they’ll sell it to you in seconds, then recommend other books by that author, and other books purchased by people who bought that title. Look up an author in Wikipedia, and his titles will start showing up in your Amazon recommendations. Tell Amazon you have a book or don’t want a particular title, and it will never recommend it again–but it may offer other titles based on what it knows you own, even if you didn’t buy it from Amazon.
    You’ll not get that sort of service out of a Borders or a Barnes & Noble. No human salesman that good would be wasted selling books.

    People who think everything was better in the Good Old Days should suck a milkshake through a paper straw.


    12 Oct 09 at 2:18 pm

  3. In Alabama and Florida where I have worked, very large public libraries with enough shelf space for classics often do have them. This is particularly true if the libraries have existed for many years. Both libraries I have worked in while in Florida are small ones. In the first library here, I was not involved in weeding the shelves and, indeed, classics that had low circulation figures were deleted. I am now director of a library even smaller than my previous one. We have a few classics here and there and I am keeping them. For 30 plus years this library was staffed by volunteers who generally had no library education. With that in mind, I consider it sheer luck that we have any classics at all. However, if I have a request for a classic, or any other material we don’t have that is available for purchase and that I feel someone else other than the person requesting it will read, I buy it. Smaller libraries with very small budgets have to justify purchases and yes, demand does win over quality. If it’s not going to be used, then I don’t buy it. At one time, there was a canon of print holdings considered essential for all libraries. That is no longer true. As library hours, staff and even libraries themselves are being slashed, librarians have to please their public.


    12 Oct 09 at 2:29 pm

    My library will soon conduct a user preference survey to determine if our current materials and programs satisfy our community–those who have library cards and those who do not. If classics or any other materials (or programs and services for that matter) the library does not currently have are desired by our public, then I plan to provide them. Unfortunately, small libraries, at least, can’t provide an introduction to the classics by stocking all of them on their shelves. I expect that’s a service that secondary and higher education institutions will provide.


    12 Oct 09 at 2:48 pm

  5. Where libraries are concerned, as jem says, we’re all working with limited resources, which seem to get more limited every year. A really small library especially has to please their patrons. If the community is generally well-educated, they’ll have the classics. If not, they may not be able to. The first library I worked in was in a blue collar resort town, with a budget which allowed us to buy about 30 adult books a quarter. You can imagine how carefully those books were vetted. We also added a lot of donations, which tend to be the popular books.

    I left there as soon as I could, largely because there was practically nothing there I wanted to read! Since then, I’ve worked in somewhat larger libraries. Even the one in the community with a population which was 50% Spanish-speaking immigrants had Austen and the rest.

    As a general rule, a library with a very small budget will concentrate on what the majority wants–if they don’t, they’re likely to end up with no budget at all. Only a larger library has the luxury of buying for the minority as well.

    As far as publishing is concerned, I think the bean counters took over the big publishing houses years ago, and couldn’t care less about anything which doesn’t make them money. Preferably lots of money. The good news is that there are small presses popping up like mushrooms after a rain. From what I’ve been reading in Publisher’s Weekly, a lot of them are started & staffed by people who were laid off from the the big publishing houses. They’re the ones who got into the business because they really love books. They have plenty of experience in publishing–apparently lots of top-quality, senior people are being shoved out the door these days. They’re not taking it laying down. And in these days of desktop publishing and print-on-demand, it doesn’t take much in the way of money to get started.

    Lee B

    12 Oct 09 at 9:51 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 800 access attempts in the last 7 days.