Ideas and Commodities: The Image of the Book
by Trish Travis

In The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood argue for anthropology’s need to see "goods as an information system." "Instead of supposing that goods are primarily needed for subsistence plus competitive display," they argue, "let us assume that they are needed for making visible and stable the categories of culture." (59) "This approach to goods," they continue, "emphasizing their double roles in providing subsistence and in drawing lines of social relationships [is]… the way to a proper understanding of why people need goods."

Over the course of the 20th century, anthropology has developed a sophisticated mode of inquiry into the deep structures of traditional societies: their kinship networks, totems and taboos, and foodways. Douglas and Isherwood want to use that methodology to examine our complex consumer culture. In order to begin that exercise, they invoke Claude Levi-Strauss’s work on the nature and purpose of food restrictions among the [?people?]. It was not dietary or gastronomic criteria that allowed and disallowed certain foods, Levi-Strauss argued in Totemism. On the contrary, Douglas and Isherwood remind us, "animals which are tabooed are chosen…because they are good to think, not because they are good to eat." Animals that are good to think. What exactly does this mean? The anthropologists explain:

If it is said that the essential function of language is its capacity for poetry, we shall assume that the essential function of consumption is its capacity to make sense… Forget that commodities are good for eating, clothing, and shelter; forget their usefulness and try instead the idea that commodities are good for thinking; treat them as a nonverbal medium for the human creative faculty. (62)

Douglas and Isherwood ask us to consider commodities from the wrong end round: to think of them not for their use value, for what we do with them, but for the spaces and hierarchies, the rituals and relationships, that their very existence makes possible in a culture. My paper today is an attempt to consider the twentieth-century book in light of Douglas and Isherwood’s injunctions. That is to say that for today, I want to forget for a moment that books are good for reading, and consider instead the way they are good for thinking. I want to put aside books as texts, and to think structurally, of books as books.

Separate (yet inseparable) from their lives as texts, books live for us as commodities, as a specific kind of for-profit media form within a saturated communications environment. Yet thinking about the book as a commodity, as a good that is good for thinking, does not come naturally. It is difficult, and not merely for a literary critic trained to think of the book as a TEXT. Our typical mode of encounter with animals is to eat them, hence the pre-Levi-Straussian anthropologists’ assumption that the way to understand their meanings is through eating practices-- through diet, nutrition, gastronomy, taste. Just so with books: typically, we read them, and in so doing take them into ourselves. Our varying decoding practices are our traditional focus of study, and the act of internalizing texts has been naturalized to the point that it is difficult to think of books in any other way. Attempts, for instance, to get my students, or even my grandmother, to describe the book they’re reading almost invariably yield a description of story, or of the point where the story interacts with individual interpretive experience-- the "theme." But if we want to think about books as a communications medium, we need to inquire less into what ideas books are about, and more into what ideas books enable. The first step in this process of figuring out how books are good to think is determining why it is so difficult to do so.

One could make an argument that the book’s own history mitigates against seeing it as a commodity. For centuries, after all, the book’s primary place was at the center of religious practice. It is historically associated, as a result, with the evanescent, spiritual, not-for-profit world. But printed books, as Elizabeth Eisenstein and Raymond Williams have shown, have always had as much of a secular as a spiritual existence. Their history in the modern west is synonymous with the development of industrial production and the rise of consumer culture that went with it. If the book has maintained some sort of transcendent identity, it has done so despite its position at the center of the world of goods, not because of some privileged position outside it.

Another, more precisely historical way of explaining why it is hard to think of books as goods and not as texts, lies in contemporary methods of reading instruction. These inculcate in us a habit of thinking about books that is so strong we might well call it ideological. In Professing Literature, Gerald Graff traces the rise to dominance, over the last century, of what he calls "positivistic," "explicatory" criticism. This critical style emphasizes the need to penetrate INTO books, rather than to reckon with their EXTERNAL, material or cultural existences. Book historian Janice Radway develops this idea further, arguing that proper "explicatory" reading assumes an "official" idea of the book as "a complex but fixed object containing several layers of meaning that can be peeled away like the shell and skin of an almond to reveal the text’s true core of significance." (RR, 5). Graff’s and Radway’s accounts of reading pedagogy show the extent to which our official ideas of reading figure the book as an object to be penetrated, with meaning that inheres in its contents, rather than in its points of intersection with the culture around it. Their observations of reading instruction are drawn from the highest reaches of the academy. But the interpretive tendency, the habit of mind, they describe trickles down from the groves of academe to the level of primary school, forming an interpretive norm within which we all live.

The interpretive environment created by official reading instruction, then, along with the nominally sacred place books have in our common sense understanding of history, helps explain why it is difficult to think of books as something other than texts. Neither of these explanations, however seems sufficient. I contend that we need to look deeper into the media environment within which books circulate in order better to understand the specific ways in which books are good to think-- and, equally important, to understand the reasons why we hesitate to think of them as goods of this kind.

So far today I’ve spoken about a constant-- a persistent intransigence when it comes to seeing books as goods. The conference theme, however, is not Media Constants, but Media in Transition, so let me explain where the "transition" part comes in. Our will to see the modern book as separate from the world of commodities result from the larger transition from an artisanal to an industrial media environment. Like journalism and electronic communications, the book industry participated in the shift into what we can loosely term the culture-industrial mode of production that began, in the U.S., in the late-19th century. Unlike their confreres at newspapers and magazines, and later in radio, cinema, and television, however, book industry workers retained–even cultivated–a curiously anti-modern attitude towards the world around them. This attitude centered on the nature of books and their attendant place in culture. Even as they tried to modernize the production and distribution of books, book men (as they liked to call themselves) strove valiantly to disregard and disavow the book’s identity as a product, as a commodity. They worked instead to present books to the public as objects immune to the commodification that hallmarked the times.

In the remainder of this talk, I want briefly to provide a few examples of book men’s descriptions of the book as a non-commodity. As I mentioned earlier, the trade-wide move to elevate the book above other goods began in earnest in the late 19th century, as industrialized America evolved into a national consumer economy. Increased purchasing power, new goods (and traditional goods packaged in new ways), and new forms of display and sale all contributed to this change. Trade books, which had originally been sold through printers and stationers, and then largely through specialty shops, were caught up in this consumer revolution. The immediate implications of this change were not attractive to the book trade, and a Los Angeles newspaper ad from 1885 demonstrates why:

[For Sale:] Also 1000 volumes of standard novels, printed on extra heavy paper, bound in cloth, and books that sell everywhere for $1 per volume. Our price for next Saturday, 10 cents. These books are now on sale in our muslin underwear department. These books are sold in connection with other goods...


By purchasing 6 pairs of lisle hose at 49 cents per pair, you may, by paying 10 cents extra, have the choice of our entire stock of novels, or by paying 25 cents, the choice out of the poetical works...

Throughout the 1870s and ‘80s, book men were in an uproar over the sale of books in these "bazaars" or department stores. This was in part because department stores were notorious for selling books below retail price in order to lure buyers into their establishments. But, as this ad should make clear, more than mere profit was at stake. Publishing historian Donald Sheehan has argued that department stores selling books posed a problem for the book trade because "many retailers... had entered the trade and accepted its meager monetary rewards because they wished to escape an association with ‘mere merchandise.’" What was at stake, Sheehan argues, was not just economic but cultural capital: a "lack of proper distinctions between books and other products sold in the large retail stores... [meant publishers and booksellers] experienced a distinct loss in their psychic income as well as in their pocketbooks when books and lisle hose were combined under a single roof" (S, 220-221).

Faced, then, with the prospect that their precious books would be piled haphazardly on tables alongside muslin underwear and four-button gloves, book men needed to find a discursive way to distinguish their goods from the world of commodities around them. One way that they did this was to shun one key aspect of the world of modern goods, namely, the advertising of them. While all around them national ad campaigns transformed the profitability of household items and reshaped the communications media that relied on advertising, trade publishers remained relatively faithful to the traditional forms of genteel advertising they had used since the antebellum period. Sheehan describes "the attitude... towards advertising [as] generally apathetic, one might almost say hostile" (177).

Accordingly, the book trade was subject to ridicule at the hands of other, more "modern" media. In 1885, the New York Times attacked the trade’s stodginess:

When a man desires to sell a new hair dye, does he content himself with announcing the fact once, or even twice, by a few lines inserted in a newspaper? He knows better than that... But publishers know nothing about the art of advertising, and consequently few books sell.

An editorial in the trade journal Publishers Weekly rebutted the Times’ charge by reiterating the "specialness" of books and the necessity of their remove from the market. "If literature and art are to be treated as common merchandise... it will make commonplace the manners of our people and their intelligence restricted to the counting-room. (S, 35).

A desire to secure the cultural distinction of their products, of themselves, and, by extension, of the national culture, underpinned book men’s turn of the century anti-commodification rhetoric. They did not fashion their sense of cultural snobbery out of whole cloth, however, but grounded it in a material reality Unlike the rationalized and vertically integrated culture industries around it–the Hollywood studio system is the perfect example–book publishing resisted effective advertising. As William Ellsworth of The Century Company, explained:

The reader of [the novel] ‘Hugh Wynne’ doesn’t go forth and buy another copy as soon as he has read the first; in fact, that is the last thing he does. He is through with ‘Hugh Wynne’ forever, and he turns to another book, an entirely fresh one, probably born in the brain of another writer and turned out from the factory of another publisher. For he is not impressed by the publisher’s name...; the reader doesn’t say, as he lays down ‘Hugh Wynne’, ‘Give me The Century Company’s books or none.’" [Quoted in Sheehan, 187.]

Thus book men took the antiquated structure of their business–an economic liability–and made them into an asset. As Alfred Harcourt explained

The publisher’s problem and the toothpaste manufacturer's problem are quite different. During the course of a year some publishers issue several hundred new books, and many issue at least one hundred–that is, one every three business days. And besides these there are already on their lists from several hundred to several thousand older titles, each requiring cataloguing and detailed attention. The cosmetic manufacturer would throw up his hands at the idea of a new product every three days (S, 27-28).

These early examples illustrate that, as the media environment around them became increasingly commodified, book men emphasized the residual aspects of artisanal manufacture in book production and distribution–to distinguish books from other, commercial, media. That need to make distinctions has continued, keeping pace with the communications revolutions of the twentieth century.

Speaking for the Council on Books in Wartime in 1943, journalist Anne O’Hare McCormick argued for more liberal postal regulations for books during the War. "To post office authorities," she explained, "a book is just another commodity, like soap or electric bulbs, and so not entitled to priority. [Given the circumstances] I should think that the only thing that should have priority over American books is dynamite" (5-6). At the same rally, Assistant Secretary of State Adolph Berle echoed her sentiments with a clarion call: "Books in Wartime! They must be something more than objects of trade!" (7). In interviews with me this summer, publishers who had worked during the War and into the present voiced the same sentiments. During the 1960s, information and technology companies began acquiring publishing houses as a way to break into the lucrative textbook market. Charles Ellis, the CEO of John Wiley, remembered the way publishers perceived this as an affront to their special mission: "What we produce[d was] books or magazines-- IBM produce[d] a ‘product’... [People] hated that-- didn’t like to think of what they did as making toothpaste or carrots." (25/6/99) Remarking on the wave of acquisition and conglomerations in publishing today, Simon Michael Bessie, former editor at Knopf and head of Athenaeum Press, echoed this sentiment: saying the new bottom-line oriented corporate publishers "speak a different language-- they don’t talk about books, but about ‘the product.’" And Jack Macrae, of Henry Holt, denigrates the current management of Borders and Barnes and Noble bookstores for being "not interested in [selling] books, but in units."

We don’t often think about the publishing industry as anything other than a selection and distribution network for books. But these examples, which can be multiplied dozens of times over, suggest that the industry’s role in framing our idea of books is in fact pronounced, if easy to overlook. The tenacious anti-commodity discourse coming from the book industry itself, I would argue, working hand in hand with the educational trends I described earlier, shapes our "natural" disinclination to think of books as goods. It is this discourse, in short, that invites us to see books as good to read, and discourages us from seeing them as good to think. Paradoxically, however, it is also this discourse AND its very tenacity that DO make books good to think. Because clearly the reason that books are particularly good goods with which to think is that they are goods which pretend not to be goods at all. As such, they allow us to continue to imagine, to believe in, a sphere beyond the realm of commerce, inhabited by people who are interested in something larger than "units," "products," and "commodities." It is not much of an exaggeration to argue, I think, that indeed, books allow us to think we ARE such people, and as such, are sanctioned or sanctified in particular ways. By the specific ways in which they participate in and shape the world of goods, books allow us to believe that there is an escape from or an alternative to that world. Is this belief a reification of lived existence, or a utopian alternative to it? Are books best for reading, or for thinking? These are the questions I hope to have raised today.