On Popularity and Self-Publishing

My wife is a knitter, and she’s explained to me the subtle difference observed, among those in her guild, when referring to someone’s work as “handmade” or “homemade.”  Both acknowledge the difference between the sweater you spent months on and something mass-produced.  The former, though, implies that for the piece in question that difference is measured in care and craftsmanship, while the latter measures it in imperfections.  It’s the difference between, “You made that yourself?!” and “You made that yourself, huh?” Continue reading

Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life


William J. Gilmore’s Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life is an odd book. Published by University of Tennessee Press in 1989, it was not particularly well reviewed—its oddness frustrated readers. Gilmore set out to “learn how the American version of modern civilization began to influence the lives of the overwhelming majority of rural Americans” by making a fine-grained, comprehensive study of the reading, purchasing, and—less comprehensively—thinking habits of the people who lived in the Upper Connecticut River Valley between 1780 and 1835 (xx). Along the way, there are references to contemporary events Iran and Iraq, Isaac Asimov, corn-husking frolics, and the meaning of human happiness. Paul Johnson, with characteristic precision and wit, summarized the book’s problems in his JAH review (September 1990): Continue reading

Make your Mark


Some friends asked me last week how I felt, as an historian, about the current assault on the teaching of cursive in public schools, and I had to admit that I didn’t know this was a thing. Long story short, with classroom time always at a premium, many school districts have replaced instruction in cursive writing with instruction in typing, the latter seemingly more relevant to our times. Apparently, concern over students’ resulting inability to read or write script has been growing for a while, but a Wall Street Journal story at the end of January brought the issue new prominence. Many people seem to think that continuing to teach students to write in cursive is important, and a handful of state legislatures have introduced bills to rectify the situation.

The question has a neat resonance with the history of education: writing may go back to being thought of pedagogically as a craft, just as it was before the nineteenth century, when it was something that boys learned while girls learned to sew. (See, in particular, E. Jennifer Monaghan’s work on this history). Beyond that, though, two central pieces of the “save cursive” argument resonate with historical questions. Continue reading

A Stack of Bibles

President Barack Obama takes the oath of office, Jan. 21, 2013.  <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/imagecache/embedded_img_full/image/image_file/20130121-oath.jpeg">Official White House photo by Sonya N. Hebert.</a>

As has been widely reported, on Monday President Obama swore on a stack of bibles to uphold the Constitution. On one hand, maybe doubling-up on the sacred iconography will reassure those on the right who doubt the President’s sincerity, but the primary purpose was to honor two periods of American history simultaneously. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and the bibles were direct material links to those eras: one was the bible on which Abraham Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861, and the other belonged to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

United in this one event, they are very different books. The Lincoln bible has, for all intents and purposes, never been used.  Continue reading

About a Book


Ceci n’est pas une book.

She was encased in stolen books, buried in them as if in dirt. The thought of the countless hundreds of thousands of names that surrounded her, vainly scrawled in top right-hand corners – the weight of all that ignored ink, the endless proclamations that this is mine this is mine, every one of them snubbed simply and imperiously….The ease with which those little commands were broken.

She felt as if all around her, morose ghosts were milling, unable to accept that the volumes were no longer theirs.

China Miéville, The Scar

So, on the heels of Christopher’s eloquent framing of the questions of historical distance, a material-texts take on the joys of negotiating that distance by using dead people’s books: Continue reading