November 21, 2011

the beer won't buy itself

Dan McCarthy, Moonlight, 2009

* In today's excerpt - in the 1800s, new printing technologies led to an explosion of new books. The total value of books sold increased from $3.5 million to $12.5 million between 1830 and 1860, and the number of magazines grew from under 100 to over 600 between 1825 and 1850. Prominent among the new books were ornate gift books and "mammoth weeklies" - the largest reaching nearly eleven feet tall. With the current explosion of blogs and other writings on the internet, some people lament the unchecked libel, plagiarism, and lack of fact-checking - and hold printed newspapers, magazines and books as examples of responsible behavior. Yet similar charges were being made against printed publications in the 1800s.

-- From The Fabrication of American Literature, by Lara Langer Cohen

"A rapid succession of technological and economic innovations in the early nineteenth century transformed the early republican period's largely artisanal print shops into a major commercial industry. Improvements to the flat-bed press in the 1810s and 1820s, the introduction of horsepower in the 1820s and steam power a few years later, and the invention of the cylinder press in the 1830s greatly sped up production rates, as did the development of the stereotyping and electrotyping processes in the 1810s and 1840s, respectively. Former hand processes like paper and board manufacturing, typesetting, and binding were swiftly mechanized. By 1830 a single machine could make paper on rolls (rather than sheet by sheet, as hand production required) and cut it to size.

"The introduction in the 1820s of cased bind­ings, covers assembled separately and then sewn to the printed pages, was especially transformative. In the past, publishers had generally issued books in paper wrappers or pasteboard covers, which readers then had bound as they chose or could afford. Cased bindings allowed publishers to issue books in uniform editions with fixed prices. For sure sellers, publishers would produce books in multiple bindings, each tailored to different tastes and budgets; thus in 1856 a reader looking for Irving's Sketch-Book could buy an edition bound in cloth for $1.25, with illustrations and gilt decora­tion for $2.25, or in elegant morocco covers for $3.50.

"Improved paper-making and binding techniques made possible two of the most spectacular feats of antebellum print technology: the ornate gift books, or literary annu­als, which flourished around mid-century, and the 'mammoth weeklies' of the 1840s. Published at the end of the year to be exchanged as holiday presents, gift books compiled sentimental poetry, short fiction, and essays, but the real appeal lay in their alluring exteriors: heavily embossed leather or watered silk bindings bedecked with elaborate ornaments, color illustra­tions, marbled endpapers, copious amounts of gilding, and even mother-of-pearl. The mammoth weeklies also capitalized on visual impact. Gigantic newspapers containing fiction (usually British reprints), some news, and usually incongruous illustrations, the mammoths competed to offer the largest editions; when the Universal Yankee Nation (motto: 'The Largest Paper in All Creation') emerged as the victor, it reached nearly eleven feet tall. ...

"The unmoored claims of the printed book elicited constant questions from its very beginnings: Was it a 'true copy' or did it misrepresent the manuscript, intentionally or unintentionally? Did the author named really write it? Was it the kind of text its title purported it to be? Could its contents be trusted? Moreover, the print culture of the early nineteenth-century United States possessed a peculiar volatility all its own: it was a 'culture of reprinting,' in Meredith McGill's words, in which 'cir­culation outstripped authorial and editorial control.' ... In the whirl of reprinting, no text was fixed. Magazine editors regularly republished each other's articles, British and American 'bookaneers' competed to issue first editions on each shore or undersell existing editions, and writers often found their words altered, cut, rearranged, or attributed to others, or had unfamiliar words attributed to them. Printed texts cited, commented upon, and reappropriated each other to an extent that compares with the most viral internet meme. ...

"Gift books more starkly illustrate the dubious achievements of ante­bellum literary publishing, for next to their sumptuousness, their most characteristic feature was their spuriousness. Publishers routinely repack­aged pages from old gift books in new bindings, took pages from unsold periodicals and rebound them as gift books, or erased the gilt date from the bindings of the old annuals and restamped them with the current year, much as a counterfeiter would erase the dollar amount from a bill and replace it with a higher number." [via]

* Live footage of Husker Du, from Philadelphia, 1983.

* "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut." -- Ernest Hemingway


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