The continuing brouhaha* between Hachette Book Group and amazon.com may seem to us like some totally unprecedented firestorm born of the collision between, well, an old immovable object like print culture and an irresistible force such as digital publishing. But, no, while this firestorm may well result from a modern collision, it is certainly not unprecedented. In our nation’s past (ahem! let me put on my professorial hat for a moment) technological change in the production of texts has produced intense anxiety over and over again. In plain English, what that means is that every time a new technology comes along allowing more books to be published faster with wider circulation, somebody goes bonkers. Why? Because the access of the people to more and different and wider forms of publishing innately challenges all established forms of authority. And that’s always a danger to the powers that be.
Let’s consider, for example, the agita that arrived on the shores of the New World with the delivery of the first printing press in 1638. Immigration to New England was, of course, a Christian endeavor and the press was intended primarily for the spiritual edification of the colonists. In a theocracy, it is essential that control of print—meaning the control over the production and distribution of texts—remains in the hands of the church and the government, which are one and the same. The first book in America? The Bay Psalm Book, of course.
But print is innately democratizing. Thirty years later, in an American colony much less doctrinaire than Massachusetts, William Berkeley, the Governor of Virginia opined: “I thank God every day that there are no free schools nor printing in the Colony of Virginia.” He hoped “we shall not have these [for a] hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!” (1671) Allow the hoi polloi access to the spreading of new and “disobedient” ideas, and, who knows, perhaps a century or so in the future you may have yourself a Revolution incited largely by Deists who’ve read “heretical” books.
A similar anxiety arose in male-dominated early-nineteenth-century America when the innovative horse-powered and steam-powered presses allowed the faster and cheaper production of books, which then became more affordable. This raised a kind of moral panic in polite society about women’s love of novel-reading. In 1802, The New England Quarterly, carried an article entitled “Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity,” in which the novel was bashed as “the powerful engine with which the seducer attacks the female heart.” Oh, really? That susceptible, are we?
And let’s not even talk about the paperback dime novel during the Gilded Age, and said dime novel’s tendency to arouse seditious sentiments in the hearts of the unruly lower classes against exploitative millionaire industrialists. Hmm. Does this somehow seem to parallel the rise of labor unions?
Now we live under the dogma of Capitalism and the rule of the One-Percent. The outraged righteousness against that upstart, amazon.com, by the monopolistic, multi-national “legacy” publishing establishment with its iron grip on what books get to be published and receive the establishment stamp of approval . . . well, talk about anxiety! Once again, the barbarians are at the gate!
Joanne Dobson, June 9, 2014
Joanne Dobson’s new novel, The Kashmiri Shawl, the story of a 19th century American missionary who searches for her dark-skinned child, has just come out, and is our featured book this week.