Friday, September 05, 2014

Booknote: Read Me

Dwight Garner, Read Me: a Century of Classic American Book Advertisements. New York: Ecco, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-06-157219-7.

I borrowed this one from Madison County Public Library, Berea branch.

This book shows advertising for books how it used to be. For readers like me, the book highlights the contrast with today's book advertising juggernauts to a simpler time. I noticed as I read that some things do not change: tone, use of images and photos, blurbs, so on. The media and tools have changed. For instance, we have bloggers like me (and certainly more famous bloggers) who write book reviews and do other book promotion work. Still, much of the messaging when it comes to selling books remains the same. As a very humble book blogger, I can see that some of the old advertisements can still teach us a useful thing or two.

The book starts with a foreword by Dave Eggers reminding us of our role as readers to keep literacy alive. He does so with some light humor as he also argues that this is a book about "the most essential undertaking ever by mankind-- the creation of ads promoting books. . . " (xiv). After all, if reading is essential (and I will certainly agree it is), then book publishers and authors have to get their books in our hands so we can read and do our part.

Next, the author provides an introduction that gives an overview on the history of book advertising. Garner writes on the history of book advertising. Garner writes on publishing a book:

"In reality, getting a serious book published and into a potential reader's line of sight is a long, difficult, sometimes anguished process, involving an intellectual and commercial conga line of dozens of people" (1). 

Nowadays, thanks to technology and various self-publishing options, many authors and their books can bypass much if not all of that conga line. The debate whether some of those who bypass the conga line are "serious" or have quality is neither here nor there. The fact is we have come quite a distance, and book advertising has changed as well. This book is like a time capsule showing us what used to be.

Another fascinating thing is that many of the ads are for writers who we know as classic, canonical, famous, etc. Even folks like Steinbeck, Updike, and Kerouac had to start somewhere. We see the big shots of today "at moments before their careers were ensured, before their personae had hardened into those of 'famous writers'. . . " (2). The author has chosen ads  from old newspapers, journals, and magazines. We see authors and works that may be classics, but we also see quite a few now forgotten works and also a popular book or two that may not be a "classic" but is certainly well-known. We get a very diverse sampling in each chapter; the book features ten chapters, one for each decade from the 1910s to the 1990s.

This is mostly a book to browse. Pick out the ads that catch your eye and read them. Looking through the decades, you get a good sense of American publishing history and advertising history. Different decades emphasized different things in the quest to draw readers to books. In the end, this was a cool book that I really liked.

I am giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

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