A Feeling for Books
Radway’s book, along with her earlier Reading the Romance, is a classic of readership studies. It is organized into three broad sections (which will be summarized in greater detail below):
- a study of current practices at the Book-of-the-Month club (BMC) in the 1980s;
- a history of the BMC, as well as an examination of the ways in which it “sold” a particular idea of culture to an expanding middle class;
- a personal reminiscence of being a young member of that expanding middle class and having some of her tastes and interests formed by the BMC.
While the first section was clearly necessary as a starting point for the project, it is in many ways the weakest of the book; Radway’s interest is clearly for the readers (or club members) rather than the editors (except in so far as they are readers). Indeed, examination of the reading habits of club members is the primary (and surprising) thing missing from this volume – an omission that Radway’s personal account attempts to mitigate at least partially. Some points raised in passing: the different definitions of what it means to be a reader – the institutionalization of this position: only the editors are really readers, the consumers are important not as readers but as buyers (whether they read or not is irrelevant) (41f.):
the club had never assembled the resources or thought it necessary to conduct extensive research into the reading behavior of its members. The research that had been done had focused instead on the act of purchase itself, on all the things that might motivate a reader to buy a book (41).
The first section focuses on Radway’s experiences as a researcher visiting the BMC offices in the early 1980s. The introduction and first chapter cover Radway’s anxiety about her own middlebrow tastes and the tension this causes in being a thoroughly ‘disciplined’ member of academia (1–14, 21–28). Her first summer studying the team at the BMC in 1985 looks briefly at the ways the club defined itself in opposition to both the Literary Guild (popular reading materials) and high-brow literary or ‘academic’ culture (29–45). The second chapter discusses the implications of increased oversight by Time, Inc., into the BMC’s day-to-day activity during 1986, with the concomitant open emphasis on the club’s financial viability, which had previously been a tacit element of editorial meetings (esp. 49ff.): ‘the club’s literary decisions, despite their ritual presentation as such, were in fact designed not to serve only the abstract cause of culture or “the literary,” but rather were pragmatically oriented to meet the needs of book buyers, people looking for books to display, to give as gifts, or to read’ (53f.). The main tension remained trying to sustain the precarious balance between financial and cultural capital (63).1
…growing international concentration within the industry was making it harder for the club to find good, serious books […] the new global industry structure and its attention to the financial bottom line apparently favored blockbuster books that appealed to extremely large, international audiences of occasional readers (90).
The second section examines the history of the BMC and explores how what was essentially a marketing ploy developed into an arbiter of middle-class (or middle-brow) taste (still, in other words, a marketing ploy, but a ponderously successful one). It makes the distinction between mass-produced/mass-circulated books (129–137) and literary books (137–142), while pointing out that books were used for many things besides reading, e.g., for gifts, to embellish the home, etc. – in short, that books were (and are) commodities (142–151). Radway then moves on to summarize the career of Harry Scherman, founder of the BMC and as canny a book marketer as one could hope to find, because of his “renegade willingness to treat books as if they were no different from other consumer goods such as mouthwash, automobiles, and oatmeal” (155). The Little Leather Library was a significant precursor of the BMC, a collection of small leather-bound editions of the plays of Shakespeare to be sold with Whitman’s chocolates and later at Woolworths (158–163).2 The development of the BMC sprang out of “the problem of how to distribute goods in numbers adequate to an accelerated and ever-more-efficient production system” (168ff.), and the creation of the selection committee was an effort to lend cultural authority to the BMC’s selections (176–86). This naturally leads into a discussion of middle-class status anxiety (basing this critique on Bourdieu’s work on distinction), and suggests that one of the reasons for the BMC’s success was the Scherman’s skill “at mobilizing the language and symbolism of individuality, choice, and agency while simultaneously taking advantage of the economic benefits offered by the principles of automation” (192; 190–301).3
The final section of the book relates Radway’s own experiences with the BMC as a convalescent teenager. She gives a close reading of several of the BMC’s selections and attempts to assess the intended impact on literary taste; books considered include: Shakespeare of London (320–324), Marjorie Morningstar (325–331), Gods, Graves, and Scholars (331–336), To Kill a Mockingbird (337–347). Her discussions of these books are frank and often surprising, especially as she weighs up how different they seem upon rereading at a different stage of life (and in a different professional class). As she concludes:
Middlebrow books performed the necessary ideological labor of drawing the precise outlines and purposes of professional-managerial class work, and they helped to imagine the interior life of the person that might make it possible. They modeled a form of subjectivity precisely because we had already reaped certain benefits from the accident of our middle-class birth and the educational prerogatives that came with it. Perhaps it was the very intensity of the particular desires these books cultivated that prevented so many of us from seeing that the value of knowledge and expertise they celebrated was dependent in the end on a prior act of exclusion whereby alternative knowledges possessed by others were construed as ignorance or naivete or, even worse, as lack of ambition in the first place (351).
Books & articles to add to reading list
- John Tebbel. A History of Book Publishing in the United States. 4 vols. New York: Bowker, 1972–81.
- Martha Woodmansee. The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.
- Radway was not allowed access to financial information, due both to the organization’s self-interest and Radway’s lack of interest at the time. This rather limits the scope of the study, but the transparency is helpful. She was allowed access to editorial matters (though this ended up being shaped by unsettled organizational structure) mostly because the lead time on academic studies is on a longer scale than the business cycle (55f.). A somewhat superficial overview of the financials is available in Al Silverman’s memoir The Time of Their Lives. [↩]
- There is also an interesting discussion of the perceived “worth” of classics and difficulty of persuading potential book buyers to invest in the unknown quantity of a new book (163–168). [↩]
- It is perhaps a surprise that such a large swath of the book should be dispensed with in one short reference, but the finer details and scandals of the history of the club and age in which it was developed are of less interest than the lessons resulting from that history. Other readers may disagree and may find further information on the following topics: alternate book clubs (198ff.); criticism of the BMC (205ff., 223ff., 253ff.); the professional expert (235ff., 247ff., ); status anxiety from established upper-middle class professionals (242ff.); the formation of middle-class taste (261–301). [↩]