Sunday, March 08, 2009

Thinking about the book trade in Africa...

It is worth reflecting on the American book trade of the 19th century... A fine place to start is Sarah Wadsworth. In the Company of Books: Literature and Its "Classes" in Nineteenth-Century America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006. xiii + 278 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-55849-540-1; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-55849-541-8.

An extract from Donald K. Pickens' review on H-Net:

One of the delightful surprises of Wadsworth's text is her analysis of Louisa May Alcott's career. Alcott was more than the sweet narrative that is Little Women. This is no criticism of the novel, but a recognition that Alcott, more than Twain, was creatively able to move in this segmented market, producing sequels that sold (p. 46). She knew her readers and, like the other literary artists discussed in In the Company of Books, Alcott wanted to write beyond the social expectation of the market.

Wadsworth's treatment of the connotation of "high brow"/"low brow" is balanced. There was a "near obsession with the cultural status of books, reading, and various types of readers" (p. 98). Publishers overran the market with cheap material. Critics claimed "cheap," in both senses of the word. By subscription and by a series of volumes such as "Blue and Gold," the coffee table book made its appearance. Some of these (and it is true to this day) were to be seen but not read. By century's end the door-to-door subscription had come to the end. The most successful example of that marketing device was Twain's help in selling U.S. Grant's account of the Civil War.

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