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Teaching Print Culture: A Case Study At Governors State University

January 17, 2008

Historians interested in print culture would do well to take note of this Chicago Tribune story. Written by Patrick T. Reardon and titled “Readers owe debt of gratitude to Penguin Books,” the piece outlines the efforts of Rosemary Johnsen, a literature professor at Governors State University. Johnsen’s institution is located a University Park, IL—a Chicago suburb. What follows are excerpts from Reardon’s article interspersed with my commentary.

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– “The seven graduate students who signed up for Rosemary Johnsen’s seminar at Governors State University in south suburban University Park last September expected to be studying English literature. What they got was a revolution.”
– “Johnsen, an assistant English professor, designed the course to focus on Penguin Books, which turned the book world on its head in 1935 by publishing quality paperback books at affordable prices. Her students were amazed.”

TL: I understand that the term is a forward looking pun in the piece, but it nevertheless seems a bit melodramatic to allude to the teaching of print culture as “a revolution”—especially when organizations like SHARP have been dealing with the topic for years. It may have been a eye-opener for Professor Johnsen’s graduate students, but it’s nothing new to the history profession.

-” ‘We take for granted this idea that you can buy nice-looking, unabridged books in paperback,” she says, “but, in 1935, that wasn’t true. There were either expensive books, or there was pulp. It’s hard to grasp it was a revolutionary idea because it was so successful.’ “

TL: Again, not to belabor the point, but what was revolutionary in 1935 is, well, history today.

– “It was also an idea that, in the United States, Pocket Books copied in 1939.”
– “Because book companies usually publish a wide array of titles, ranging from romance to reference to religion, they don’t have much of a corporate persona. Penguin, founded by Allen Lane [right] in London, has published thousands of titles on every subject imaginable. But, during its years of independence and now as a division of Penguin Group, it has created and fostered a strong identity through the use of a common design strategy for its covers.”
– ” ‘Everyone knows the Penguin logo,’ says Johnsen. ‘Penguin books are high quality but [financially] accessible, and there’s often an element of fun in it.’ “

TL: Fun. That’s a new one by me.

– “And controversy. The idea of quality paperbacks was itself the source of controversy originally. Later, in the 1960s, company executives found themselves on trial for obscenity — and ultimately acquitted — for publishing the first unabridged version of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” [1960 cover, left]

TL: This is a seminal moment in both the history of print culture and U.S. free speech laws. Check out this Wikipedia entry for more—at least the outlines of the controversy.

– “In the 1980s, the company continued to court criticism by publishing Spycatcher by Peter Wright and Paul Greengrass, an expose of British intelligence operations, and Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a novel attacked by Islamic fundamentalists as blasphemous.

TL: I just heard that Salman Rushdie’s papers are held by Emory University. What a coup for them!

– “In the seminar, Johnsen’s students used the history of Penguin and its books — including works by Agatha Christie, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, John Buchan and Lawrence — to study the literary landscape of the mid- and late-20th Century.”

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The last quote partially explains why studying print culture also works well in a history course: it can be used to analyze the cultural, social, and intellectual landscape of a nation over time. Of course one can also study the objects themselves via close reading in a literature context.

Kudos to Mr. Reardon of the Tribune for making an issue of the study of print culture in a daily newspaper. – TL

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