Print Culture History in Modern America

Science in Print: Essays on the History of Science and the Culture of Print edited by Rima D. Apple, Gregory J. Downey, and Stephen L. Vaughn. Madison, Wl: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012. 235 pp. $34.95 (paperback) ISBN 978-029928614-9.

Education and the Culture of Print in Modern America edited by Adam R. Nelson and John L. Rudolph. Madison, Wl: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. 225 pp. $29.95 (paperback) ISBN 978-029923614-4.

Readers of Information & Culture will be interested in these attractive and thought-provoking volumes from the Wisconsin series in Print Culture History in Modern America for two related reasons. Most immediately, a midstream change in the sponsoring center—its title, director, and identity shifted from ‘modern’ culture to ‘digital’ culture—neatly parallels the shift that this journal itself underwent from a library-based endeavor to an information-centered one. More profoundly, both volumes spotlight the significant insights that the well-developed study of print culture might offer to the still-developing field of information culture. The concepts, approaches, and historiographic debates in print culture are, thus far, a mostly untapped resource for understanding digital culture. Even this conference-and-book series’ exploration of major American institutions—religion, education, science—might inspire scholars of digital culture.

Adam Nelson, in an introduction to the education volume, sets print culture into its wide-ranging scholarly context. Scholars of print culture, he notes, have inclined toward either the potent production of print or the creative consumption of print, albeit with significant insightful blurring between the two. Scholars such as Elizabeth Eisenstein or Adrian Johns accent the ways that the production of texts themselves are significant shapers of print culture, while literary scholars following in the wake of Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984) stress instead the ability of consumer-readers to subvert the intentions of print producers and create new, unintended meanings from texts of many types. Education scholars have likewise tended to stress either the power of educational institutions, including schools, libraries, and government, or the power of individual students or workers to resist such power and authority. The most satisfying chapters in these two books spend time and effort working out the complexities and ambiguities between these two ideal-type perspectives. The result is a “middle ground” and “a more nuanced view” (5) of the balance between individuals and institutions. Students of software, computer gaming, blogs, and many other instances of digital culture have something to learn here.

Many chapters in the education volume show the persisting influence of Radway’s “reader-response” perspective. Radway’s romance-reading women were not trapped by the highly structured means of production for romance novels; instead, to a significant degree, they fashioned their own readings and meanings out of these highly formulaic texts. Local networks of trusted intermediaries, such as booksellers, guided readers in their discerning choices. Similarly, several of these chapters, while acknowledging the power of the educational machines that created, selected, and approved textbooks, manuals, and magazines, call attention to the power of individual readers to challenge or modify dominant intentions. Chapters by Ryan Anderson, Frank Tobias Higbie, and Jane Greer indicate that readers might exercise significant autonomy. Anderson closely follows the fan letters of a popular young-adult magazine, showing that these readers formed an active community that vigorously debated the strengths and weaknesses of different fictional characters, typically formulaic heroes. Anderson argues that the readers’ letters allowed them to “express their own interests and exert their own authority as individuals” (original emphasis) and that, even as readers were learning about “achieving success in the adult world, they challenged the idea that adults knew what was best for them” (72). Anderson firmly places these young-adult letters in the historical context of early 20th century American comprehensive high-school reform.

The intentional mixing of formal and informal modes of education is also a prominent theme of Higbie, who maintains “American working people . . . pieced together their education [through] personal experience, reading, political organizing, public lectures, and discussions with others” (104). Largely excluded from the comprehensive high schools, these working-class people drew on newspapers, self-study pamphlets, cheap books, public lectures, and union halls. Even the adventure stories of Zane Gray, in the words of Richard Wright (recalling his childhood in segregated Mississippi), “enlarged my knowledge of the world” (108). Greer examines the efforts of Working Woman, a Communist Party magazine in the 1930s, to encourage its readers to become themselves producers of text. In addition to letters, groups of women wrote stories such as “Stockyard Stella” and collaborative poems. Chapters by Michael Benjamin and Robert Orsi also illustrate “the complicated processes by which the authority of authorship can be claimed by members of marginalized populations” (130).

The second volume under review, Science in Print, has a stronger emphasis on the production of texts. Chapters by Meghan Doherty, Robin Rider, Lynn Nyhart, and others attend closely to the specific bookmaking techniques, research traditions, and publishing practices that created notable scientific works, from early algebra textbooks to serial scientific expedition reports as well as medical journals and dictionaries. Attention to audiences in this volume mostly relies on indirect evidence, such as Kate McDowell’s essay on children’s science books and evolution as well as Sally Kohlstedt’s account of the nature-study movement. Explicit attention to individual readers is prominent only in Bertrum MacDonald’s chapter on the Smithsonian Institution’s subscription support for field scientists in Canada. The reader-response perspective is not prominent. As James Secord’s forward makes clear, we are still in need of a fully rounded print-culture history of the scientific journal and the scientific article as a defining aspect of professional science (xi).

Students of digital culture might take inspiration in several ways from these volumes. Together, these two books suggest that close attention to the conditions of production of digital culture might be revealing. The graphical and textual tools used to structure information on the page and screen have changed dramatically over time, suggesting lines of productive inquiry. One notable aspect of digital culture might be the deep mixing of graphical, textural, and database tools (not to mention advertising); there are intriguing analogies between Facebook and Twitter today and the interactive readers’ letters from print culture. A first generation of literary analysis of digital culture is already at hand. What may be especially fruitful is greater explicit attention to actual consumers and users of digital media.

Thomas J. Misa, Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota