June 16, 2012 § 8 Comments

Open any book published by the University of Missouri Press and you will see this on the copyright page:

Copyright © year by
The Curators of the University of Missouri
University of Missouri Press, Columbia Missouri

Most universities have trustees, but Missouri has curators. I like that word.

The verb “curate” may have gone pop, overused to the point where no one wants to hear it anymore, but “the Curators of the University of Missouri,” that sounds solid.

One imagines wise and gentle souls taking care, not of souls, but (according to the university’s official description) new degree programs, endowed chairs, centers and institutes. Whoever dubbed them “curators” wanted to use a word that carried weight, maybe even freight. Cribbing from various dictionaries we find that under the Roman emperor Augustus, curators administered matters of transportation involving roads and the Tiber. The Romans also used the word in the same way it would later be used in British law, meaning the guardian of a minor or an incompetent person. A curator is a manager, overseer, steward, superintendent, keeper, he who cares for or takes charge of a thing.

The Board of Curators is defined on the university’s website:

“The University of Missouri, which refers to the institution, in all of its parts, persons, property and relationships wherever situated, owned, operated, controlled, managed or otherwise regulated, is under the supervision or direction of The Board of Curators of the University of Missouri…”

So, why would this supervisory body, with its officers and standing committees, these men of the world (very few women on the board apparently), many of them lawyers,  sign the death warrant of the University of Missouri Press?

Why would these guardians of copyright, the stewards of the 2000 titles published by the press, forfeit their property, abdicate their responsibility, throwing the precious cultural legacy of the their much-beloved university into the trash?

No, you say? The language describing the role of the Board of Curators within the university is mere boilerplate, like a legal contract that no one reads and is never enforced?

Therefore, you tell me, it is the president and the administrators of the UM System who actually make the decisions, because the Board of Curators simply enjoy having their photographs on the university website?

Well, let me tell you something: if the curators are complicit in the killing of the press it is like the librarian of Congress setting his building ablaze. If the Board of Curators is like the Board of Directors at a corporation, than those who sit on such a board would be guilty of violating their fiduciary responsibility to the people of Missouri.

But, no matter who is ultimately responsible, Mr. Wolfe for his ignorance, Mr. Graham for what appears to be his personal animus against the University of Missouri Press, the other administrators, the curators, the point is this: they have hurt their authors, they have injured them irreparably, they have interfered with the promotion, sale, profit, reputation, career (especially in the case of untenured faculty) of their own authors, the very people the university vowed to help.

Can anyone imagine that a reviewer will pay attention to, or take seriously, a book that, last week, came into her hands when she reads that the press is being shut down? What irresponsible behavior on the part of the gang that is calling the shots, what arrogance for them to take it upon themselves to tell people that their life’s labor is beneath contempt, worth nothing more than an electronic notice sent en masse?

What will happen to the books? What will happen to the reputation of this once widely respected university? How many people will follow Mary Ratchford Douglass’s example and cease their giving to the university because of this unacceptable decision to raze that temple of art and knowledge we call the University of Missouri Press?

On June 26th and 27th, The Board of Curators holds its annual meeting in Columbia.  I urge you to go to this meeting and ask to be heard during the public comment period, and speak openly and clearly and tell them to save the University of Missouri Press.



From Iowa With Love

March 15, 2012 § 13 Comments

I asked the woman at the front desk if those were oil storage tanks a few hundred yards behind the Coralville, IA motel where I had spent the night. “I think” she said hesitantly, ” it’s a petroleum processing plant.”

They looked, from the outside at least, exactly like the tanks James Bond blows up in the movie Goldfinger.

So, behind me were petroleum tanks, in front of me, a gas station, and in my car, books, galleys (ARC’s), catalogs, order forms, the tools of an unrepentant book salesman of the old school. It was winter in Iowa, but mild for the Midwest in February, and I felt lucky. I had driven from Chicago, darkness catching up with me a couple hours after I had left, but no ice, snow or wind. I had the luxury of putting the European weather nightmare out of mind.

Driving past small Illinois towns invisible from highway 88, I was reminded of the fact that I have spent the last thirty years moving like a pencil point from bookstore city to bookstore town, my fly-over (or drive-by) country being any place that lacked commerce in books.

Who knows what splendor or squalor, what pathos or adventure I may have missed because of my book-centric reading of the road atlas? But I must repeat I’ve been lucky, because through snow, heat, rain or gloom of night, I knew I was promoting the sale of a worthy product, something that provided a unique and lasting kind of pleasure to thousands of people.

In my corner of the book business, many of us rarely thought in terms of “millions” of readers, and we still don’t. Most books never sell enough to pay the authors minimum wage for the time they have spent writing them. For every book that is reprinted after the initial press run, how many are dropped without a word? For every book that makes the New York Times list in a particular year, thousands and thousands are remaindered, pulped, forgotten.

Presto! Through the digidemain of Apple/Amazon/Google, millions of ipads and e-readers beg for content, causing some publishers and authors to drool over the gold in them thar hills. Amanda Hocking is every aspiring author’s Steve Jobs. A woman who is one of my Facebook “friends” recently wrote in praise of an author who succeeded by paying shills to post positive reviews on Amazon and other sites: “She’s my hero,” this woman wrote.

Enter Brucejquiller riding his horse into Iowa City, hitching it on the post in front of Prairie Lights. There, like an apparition in the dust of the road, stood Jim Harris, the former owner of the store, feeding a parking meter as if it were about to bite. I hadn’t seen Jim in donkey’s years. “Jim!” I cried, “Jim Harris!”

“Who is that?” he replied, peering at me hatless from a hundred yards away, suspicion written all over his face.

“Bruce Miller!” I replied.

“Oh” as he turned away, ” I didn’t recognize you with your scull cap on. I have to pay attention to this meter.” I looked back at my car reflexively for a moment, and Jim was gone.  What he called my “scull cap” is a common sort of  knit hat.

Like a dog shaking off the cold I shook off the dust of Jim Harris and entered Prairie Lights, one of the best bookstores in the country and in short order I spotted Paul Ingram, compulsive reader, able buyer, enthusiastic reviewer and the keeper of “Paul’s Corner.” Paul’s videotaped book reviews ought to be on the websites of a hundred stores at least. NPR producers take note, “60 minutes” set your clock, here’s your man, someone whose infectious love of books might please millions.

So…I talked, Paul bought, his pen striking the catalogs decisively. We were partying like it was 1985, the last time we had worked together. Every now and then he picked up a galley from the stack I had brought and breezed through it. After looking through BLUE HIGHWAYS REVISITED from the University of Missouri Press, Paul kind of weighed the over-sized galley in one hand. “This is really good” he said, “I’ll try it.” I sold him everything from soup to nuts. From DEBATES IN THE DIGITAL HUMANITIES, ISLAND OF THE DOOMED and LEAK


We know the give-and-take of the book buying process is far from perfect. But, not to worry, we reps and buyers will soon be replaced by customer-driven, crowd-sourced algorithms, and the automated process will be much more efficient, a better business model. The most technologically up-to-date library system will become the model for retail bookstores.

Once the bookstore as we’ve known it ceases to exist, the Horde Mind that Jeron Lanier writes about will then coalesce around the creation of an online bookstore museum with countless live links. The museum site may double as a tool for the quick and easy diagnosis of carpel tunnel syndrome, severe eye-strain, and Online Addiction  Syndrome. It won’t be long before contentious debates erupt, and malicious kindle fanatics render the museum unusable through hack attack.

But, I digress.

Paul is quite open-minded, and reads more than anyone I know. I suppose if he had a national platform from which to stimulate the reading (and sale) of books, the publishers would make him a god, and I would no longer have the pleasure of working with him.

Another old friend of mine is Jan Weissmiller, a poet and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who, like Vaclav Havel, has ascended from the grass roots to run the show, that is, she was a buyer for the store and now co-owns it.  Everyone knows it isn’t easy to run a bookstore in the age of Bezos (not that it was ever easy), but behold: PRAIRIE LIGHTS SELLS WAGON-LOADS OF BOOKS!

(And so do many other stores….which reminds me…..the biggest problem some stores had this last Christmas –Roberta Rubin, for example, who owns the fabulous Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, IL– was re-stocking. The publishers ran out of  books. Did they send too many copies to the giant warehouses? Did they fall for the propaganda of the Digi-Industrial Complex and decide that print was dead? I guess we’ll never know.)

Of course, stores like Prairie Lights would sell more but for the popularity of that finger clickin’ good, Almighty River of Conveyer Belts. Can’t you feel the power coursing through you, from finger tips to elbow when you click that button, imagining the book flying hither on dangerous rapids as you move away from your screen, or set it down on a table?

Curious though, that all across the land, from California to the New York highlands, writers and academics who say they can’t afford to shop in stores, flex their digits instead of their legs, jamming their money through the thin filament of the internet. And yet, many of these same people, when their book is published, beg their local bookstore to host an event, and prowl the aisles checking to see if the blessed object is prominently displayed!

So, grad students, professors, poets and writers everywhere, I beseech you: leave your apartments and houses, or if you can’t, let your fingers do the walking at the website of your local bookstore! You can’t afford it? You can’t help to keep solvent  the place that fosters the imagination of a broad public? The place where readers work and thrive, attempting to make money for you, selling your books day in and day out?

The truth is you can. If you buy ten books a month, buy three at the store. If you buy scholarly books you will find that the Mighty River of Conveyors no longer discounts them, so, yes, drag yourself the few blocks you need to walk and pick up the book at Prairie Lights, City Lights, Common Good Books, University of Minnesota Bookstore, Seminary Coop, Rainbow Coop, Left Bank Books, Books and Books, Lemuria Books:______________your local store name here.

But getting back to Jan Weissmiller. I said Paul bought everything from soup to nuts, but, the enthusiasm of the moment carried me away, because Jan buys the poetry. And who better to have as a poetry buyer than a poet and bibliophile like Jan?  She works tirelessly on behalf of authors because she believes in them, she believes in the store, she believes in books, and she believes, dear reader, in you.

If you read her book of poetry, IN DIVIDED LIGHT, you will read about the seasons, about grief, about people and you can’t help but notice what a thoughtful observer she is of things outside herself. It makes sense then, that she is also an editor (along with Jerry Harp) of A POETRY CRITICISM READER.

So, the day after my messy bar-food lunch with Paul, Jan and I had a diced cucumber salad sort of lunch: thus I had the best of both worlds, the ale-swilling milieu of the workin’ man, and gilt-edged club of the factory owner. A happy “High and Low” experience nothing at all like the Kurosawa film.

After lunch with Jan, I climbed into my coupe, motoring over to the offices of the University of Iowa Press. It was the first time I had been to the house (one of the oldest in Iowa City) where the press makes its home. It is one of the most beautiful offices I have ever seen. And I have to say that at U Iowa Press, they not only know how to treat authors, but sales reps as well. Despite the fact that everyone on staff had mountains of work to do, they all, including Allison Means whom I’ve known for many years, took the time to greet me, answer any questions I might have, and show me around.

My only disappointment was that Jim McCoy, the director of the press, was out of the office that day. I saw Jim at the AWP meeting in Chicago and I told him when I grow up I want to run a well-oiled machine like he does, which is how the operations of the press appeared to me. I also wanted to see him that day to tell him how well I was selling THE LEGACY OF DAVID FOSTER WALLACE and some of the other books on the list, the memoir TRESPASSES for example, and the poetry anthology CITY OF THE BIG SHOULDERS.

So, having seen everyone in Iowa City I had wanted to see, I retired the coupe, grabbed the reins of my horse and pack animal, and headed West.

MANUFACTURING HYSTERIA by Jay Feldman, 400 pages, $28.95, Pantheon Books

September 17, 2011 § 2 Comments

a History of Scapegoating, Surveillance and Secrecy in Modern America

“…Oh, a lawless people is bad enough, but a lawless government is infinitely worse.”-Alabama congressman George Huddleston, quoted in Chapter seven, “A Lawless Government.”

(Unattributed quotations in this review are the words of Jay Feldman.)

Before I read Jay Feldman’s disturbing new book about the illegal actions and extra-legal regions of our government, I tended to think that violations of the constitutional rights of individuals and groups were a sidelight of American history, isolated incidents like salmonella outbreaks, extreme examples of systemic failures that proved the system worked reasonably well most of the time.

I can no longer view this country’s history with the same equanimity.

Like Steven Kinzer’s OVERTHROW, Jay Feldman’s MANUFACTURING HYSTERIA deftly narrates a half-buried through-line of American history, turning over rocks, shining a flashlight on dark corners. Feldman’s book is well documented, including a small number of footnotes, a large number of endnotes and an extensive bibliography. This is not an extended opinion piece, but a thorough review of the historical record. Feldman pulls together information from a variety of sources, from well-known books to obscure pamphlets, archival documents, congressional hearings and reports.

The numbered chapters also have titles (a tradition I wish more authors would observe) taken from key quotations that clearly express the subject and catch the spirit of the prose.

If Studs Terkel were alive today, he would be talking about this book, jumping at the chance to interview its author. (I often listened to his radio show on WFMT FM while driving downtown to call on Kroch’s and Brentano’s. Come to think of it, his show outlasted K&B by a couple of years, as they went belly-up in 1995.)

Jay Feldman

Feldman begins with the story of how the United States government, in concert with private interests, whipped up public support for war against the Kaiser, using fear of foreign subversion to attack “hyphenates”—German-Americans and other immigrants—which broadened into a campaign against political dissent and a war on labor.

While not yet supporting war with Germany overtly, Woodrow Wilson’s December 1915 address to Congress captures the mood of American xenophobia, and here I am quoting just a portion of Feldman’s citation:

“…There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags…who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life; who have…sought to destroy our industries…and to debase our politics to the uses of foreign intrigue…We are without adequate federal laws to deal with it. I urge you to enact such laws at the earliest possible moment…Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out…”

As the “preparedness” movement gained steam, and war fever took hold in the country, anyone who, like Wisconsin’s Senator Robert La Follette, opposed the war was vilified. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a letter to a friend that La Follette “had shown himself to be an unhung traitor, and if the war should come, he ought to be hung.”

In April of 1917 Wilson addressed congress to request a declaration of war.

Woodrow Wilson

“The repression” Feldman says, “began immediately after Congress declared war, as the Wilson administration unleashed an all-out assault on dissent, with a three-pronged attack of legislation, propaganda, and surveillance.”

An updated version of the Alien Enemies Act was passed. Feldman notes that Wilson secretly issued an executive order on April 7th that gave the heads of civil service departments the power to dismiss any employee who they felt might be a security risk, and many people lost their jobs.

Wilson created a propaganda arm, “the Committee on Public Information” to foster support for war among the populace. Despite Attorney General Thomas Gregory’s statement that “talk of spies” was “hysteria,” Gregory recruited members of “patriotic vigilance organizations” like The National Security League to inform on their neighbors. Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Simon Guggenheim, the Koch Brothers of their age, funded this group. Furthermore, says Feldman, people everywhere were “actively encouraged to spy on their neighbors.”

Cornelius Vanderbilt

“The government” he tells us “also instituted a practice of factory surveillance called the Plant Protection Section in companies with defense contracts which may have amounted to thirty-seven thousand firms.” Not only did workers spy on workers, but also “PPS members infiltrated unions, filing reports on organizing efforts, strike tactics, and leaders’ activities, and often causing dissention in the ranks. They opened mail, broke into homes, and employed a variety of other illegal tactics in gathering information on ‘suspects.’ ”

A mob mentality ruled the country, and innocent people were beaten, imprisoned and even, like Robert Paul Prager and Frank Little, lynched for their political beliefs or their nationality. The American Protective League, another “patriotic” group, worked with law enforcement agencies to raid public places in search of draft dodgers.

The Sedition Act of May,1918 made it illegal to say or write anything negative about the government, the constitution, the flag or the military.

The political and social repression of Wilson’s war years set the gold standard for ensuing crises.

The end of the war caused or added to economic uncertainty. “Inflation soared as prices and the cost of living doubled from what they had been before the war.” The job market was flooded with returning veterans. Labor unions, which had “for the most part patriotically suspended in support of the war effort,” resumed efforts to improve the lot of their members.

“The resulting clash between labor and management” Feldman says, “would become one of the primary fronts on which the government waged its new battles against radicalism. In this campaign, the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Investigation, and the General Intelligence Division would function as outright instruments of capital, defending management against the upstart ambitions of labor and fanning the public’s fears of radicals.”

The International Workers of the World served as a perfect bogeyman and its members were blamed for violent acts they did not commit, attacked verbally and physically by vigilantes and the government and eventually the group was destroyed.

One of the great strengths of this book is in the amazing quotations of politicians, government officials, prominent citizens, newspaper editorials, and policy documents. Here’s one from Ole Hanson, the mayor of Seattle, quoted in the New York Times of May 2, 1919:

The government, Hanson said, “was on the wrong track in starting conferences instead of cemeteries in dealing with the I.W.W….I trust Washington will buck up and clean up and either hang or incarcerate for life all the anarchists in the country. If the government doesn’t clean them up I will. I’ll give up my mayorship and start through the country. We will hold meetings and have hanging places…The conspiracy to overthrow the government is widespread. It permeates every State in the Union.”

A series of bombings by an obscure group of anarchists gave the fear mongers just what they needed. Even though government officials knew the source of these violent acts, they chose to use the bombings as an excuse for repression against groups of which they disapproved. And Race riots in the summer of 1919 were blamed on Bolsheviks accused of stirring up “negro rioters.”

Out of the boiling cauldron of the red scare J. Edgar’s Hoover, like a sour scum, rose to the top.

A. Mitchell Palmer

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer saw communist conspiracies everywhere, and he appointed Hoover, who had been working for the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, to head the newly created General Intelligence Division.

“Using the skills he had learned as a cataloger at the Library of Congress, Hoover established a cross-referenced index-card system called ‘the Editorial Card Index.’ ” By the end of 1920 it contained over 200,000 cards with information on individuals, groups, and publications. One year later the index had grown to 450,000.

Who could have predicted that library science would provide the government with tools of political repression?

After WWI was over and the Sedition Act expired, the government concentrated on the deportation of “alien radicals under the Alien Act of October 16, 1919.” In a sweep by immigration officers in February of 1919, just before a general strike in Seattle was to begin, 40 men were arrested and deported. The Chicago Tribune described them as a “motley company of IWW supporters, bearded labor fanatics, and Bolshevist agitators.”

The Seattle Times said immigrants had to be taught, “This is a country of Americans, by Americans, and for Americans.”

The Washington Post described the action as the “serious cleaning up” of “bewhiskered, ranting, howling, mentally warped, law-defying aliens” and “international misfits.”

“The fall of 1919” Feldman says, “saw three landmark labor strikes, each of which was seized upon by the government, business interests, and the press as evidence of a radical conspiracy in the labor movement, thereby adding fuel to the already hotly blazing red scare.”

Attorney General Palmer’s round-ups of suspect individuals (the “Palmer Raids”) were, by his own admission in a public address on December 31st, 1919, calculated to forestall the spread of radical ideas, rather than to arrest criminal activity.

The assistant secretary of labor, Louis Post, wrote in his journal, “At present there are signs of an overthrow of our government as a free government. It is going on under cover of a vigorous drive against ‘anarchists,’ an anarchist being almost anybody who objects to government of the people by tories and for financial interests.”

Because Post canceled many illegitimate deportation warrants, Palmer and Hoover did their best to discredit him, compiling a file of 350 pages, almost as long as the book I am reviewing here. When they failed to find anything incriminating, Congress called for his impeachment, and the House Rules Committee summoned Post to hearings. But the proceedings backfired (having an effect not unlike the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings) as Post’s testimony made monkeys of his inquisitors and helped turn public opinion against Palmer.

“The red scare balloon was rapidly deflating, but the purposes behind the witch hunt had been accomplished. First, the radical movement had been quashed. Membership in the two Communist parties took a precipitous drop from seventy thousand to sixteen thousand, and the parties were driven underground. The IWW was all but finished. The Socialist Party moved toward the center and ceased to be a factor in American politics.”

In 1921 a Senate subcommittee investigated “allegations of illegal activities by the Justice Department.” The final report, deliberately delayed by Sen. Thomas Sterling of South Dakota, the subcommittee’s chairman, was a whitewash.

Sen. Thomas J. Walsh of Montana issued the committee’s minority report, and the passage quoted in this book is one for the ages:

“It is only in such times that the guarantees of the Constitution are of any practical value. In seasons of calm no one thinks of denying them; they are accorded as a matter of course. It is rare except when the public mind is stirred by some overwhelming catastrophe or is aghast at some hideous crime, or otherwise overwrought, that one is required to appeal to his constitutional rights. If, in such times, the Constitution is not a shield, the encomiums which statesmen and jurists have paid it are fustian.”

Our legal system and attendant experts endlessly and with great passion dispute what constitutes free speech: the case of the Nazis in Skokie, the gay-haters at military funerals, etc. Meanwhile, illegal wiretapping past and present goes unpunished, as if “freedom of speech” applies only to the question of what one is allowed to say in public.

But back to the book…

In 1924 Attorney General Harry Daugherty used the Bureau of Investigation to search for incriminating material about Montana Senator Burton Wheeler who had “called for an investigation into the Justice Department’s failure to prosecute both antitrust cases and the celebrated Teapot Dome case, in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall received $400,000 for secretly leasing U.S. Navy oil reserves in Wyoming and California to private oil companies….”

J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar Hoover along with the Bureau of Investigation’s director, William Burns, worked on this case. Wheeler was indicted on a bogus charge and later cleared of any wrongdoing.

The Brookhart Committee, chaired by Senator Smith W. Brookhart of Iowa, appointed Wheeler as its prosecutor. This committee found out that the Bureau “had been investigating critics of the Justice Department since 1921.” Not only did they investigate legislators, but also private citizens. The BI tried to get a lawyer named Zechariah Chafee fired from his Harvard teaching position.

After the hearings, President Calvin Coolidge asked Attorney General Daugherty to resign. In his place he appointed Harlan Fiske Stone, a political conservative and staunch advocate of civil liberties. Stone put an end to the Bureau of Investigation’s political investigations, firing Director Burns, and appointing J. Edgar Hoover as the acting Director. Stone’s policy asserted that the activities of the bureau had to be limited “strictly to violations of law.”

Hoover fell in line, abolishing the General Intelligence Division, and putting on such a convincing show that he was concerned about civil liberties, that the head of the ACLU endorsed his appointment. Because Attorney General Stone was unable to get the person he wanted to take the appointment, Hoover ended up as Director.

Hoover’s career provides some of the glue that holds this book together. The steady growth of his power through the building of a huge network of domestic surveillance and covert action set precedents that appear to have ensured the recurrence of nightmares past.

Feldman tells us that the 1920’s was “a relatively open and tolerant time….” but “the phantoms of xenophobia and antiradical hysteria unleashed during the war and red scare were not completely laid to rest.”

As the depression took hold Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were attacked by various groups, vilified and blamed for the unemployment suffered by American citizens. Estimates vary as to how many people were deported (citizens and non-citizens alike) in the early 1930’s (and many fled), but it was somewhere between half a million and a million.

Immigration officials under the authority of the Department of Labor carried out this massive effort using secret proceedings, and the suspects had no right of appeal.

Back to Hoover: Even as he “kept the bureau from becoming too deeply involved in the investigation of radicals between 1924 and 1934, other developments” increased his agency’s power. “It became a clearinghouse for fingerprints” built “a state-of-the-art crime laboratory” and was assigned “greater responsibilities” by new federal crime bills passed in 1934.

Not quite halfway through the book, we learn that in 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt asked the Bureau of Investigation and other agencies to investigate the German-American Bund and other Nazi groups. While this directive was “a distinct break” with Stone’s prohibition, FDR limited his investigative order to “the connection of German diplomats in this country to the domestic Nazi movement…” But Hoover extended the boundaries of this order. “The Pandora’s box was open…The Bureau of Investigation was on the threshold of reclaiming its role as the nation’s secret police force.”

FDR called Hoover in August, 1936 for another meeting during which FDR said he wanted information about subversive activities by fascists and communists. (At this point the Bureau’s name had been changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.) “…In sanctioning such secret investigations of ‘subversives,’ FDR started Hoover down a path the FBI director would zealously pursue for four decades, a path that would soon lead to serious abuses of power and invasions of privacy by the FBI as it carried out covert and often illegal scrutiny of tens of thousands of individuals and organizations, the vast majority of whom were guilty of absolutely nothing.”

Hoover deceived Roosevelt and Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, whose cooperation was needed to make technically legal what was essentially illegal activity, and all three of them deceived congress. Hoover went on to start a new Editorial Card Index and reestablish the General Intelligence Division as the General Intelligence Section.

Cordell Hull and FDR

As another world war approached, FDR “issued a directive appointing the FBI to take charge of investigative work in matters relating to sabotage, espionage, and violations of the neutrality regulations.”

Hoover now compiled a new list—the Custodial Detention Index—of the names of people who might prove a danger to the country “in time of war or national emergency.” This list became known as the “ABC list” because it contained “the A list of supposedly irrefutably dangerous individuals; the B list of the potentially dangerous; and the C list of those who merely merited surveillance.”

There was no legal basis for such a list during peacetime. Neither was there a legal basis for FDR’s secret order allowing Attorney General Robert Jackson to wiretap “persons suspected of subversive activities against the Government of the United States, including suspected spies.”

Internment camps were set up in Montana and North Dakota. Hoover, working with the Office of Naval Intelligence, and The Military Intelligence Division, added rapidly to his list of names. Attorney General Jackson wrote to Hoover early in 1941, to remind him of the Stone guidelines of 1924, and that matters of opinion could not be the basis for FBI action.

“…None of these persons today” Hoover responded to Jackson, “has violated a specific Federal law now in force and effect, but many of them will come within the category for internment or prosecution as a result of regulations and laws which may be enacted in the event of a declaration of war. To wait until then to gather such information or conduct such investigations would be suicidal.”

“By December 10th, three days after Pearl Harbor, nearly 2300 individuals had been taken into custody including 1,291 Japanese, 857 Germans and 147 Italians. On December 17th, Hoover officially widened the net to include U.S. citizens.” Thousands of “utterly harmless individuals” were arrested. (The genuine spies who were arrested—450 Japanese Intelligence agents for example—were not planning acts of Sabotage or the “fifth column strategy” that Hoover had warned of.)

Detainees were not allowed to have lawyers during the hearings held after their arrest. According to Edward Ennis, head of the Enemy Alien Control Unit, Doubts were resolved “in favor of the government.” By the end of 1942, the entire Japanese and Japanese-American populations of the west coast— approximately 112,000 people, almost 70% of whom were U.S. citizens—had been ‘relocated’ to ten inland concentration camps.”

In the chapter entitled, “A Jap is a Jap,” (the words of Fourth Army Lt. General John L DeWitt) Feldman shows that the plan to intern the Japanese was not simply a direct result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but grew out of the Alien Enemy Control Program and that, “the process began at least five years before Pearl Harbor, with concerns over national security, and was originally aimed at Communists, Fascists and Nazis. By December, 1939 it had evolved into hysteria directed at German, Italian, and Japanese Aliens, as J. Edgar Hoover began compiling the notorious ABC list. After Pearl Harbor, the idea of rounding up all the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans on the West Coast gained incremental acceptance.”

“Suspicion and surveillance of Japanese aliens and Japanese-Americans had been building for decades. As early as 1920” he explains, “when the Bureau of Investigation’s General Intelligence Division was responsible for monitoring the Nikkei community in the United States, the BI conducted extensive investigations of Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans throughout the West, South, and Southwest—not for having committed any illegal activity, but merely for being of Japanese descent.”

Such investigations continued throughout the 1930’s. Investigative reports of the early 1940’s that suggested most Japanese Hawaiians and Japanese Americans were loyal to the United States were ignored.

Feldman clearly outlines the U.S. government’s internal debates and the politics leading up to the imprisonment of the Japanese residents and citizens in America. For example, he explains that Attorney General Frances Biddle had qualms about rounding up the entire community based on the Constitution and intelligence reports showing the lack of a threat from these communities. It was Major Karl R. Bendetsen, an aide to the Army’s provost marshal general Allen Gullion, who was the most racist and effective of those pushing for mass internment, telling Father Hugh T. Lavery of the Catholic Maryknoll Center in Los Angeles that children in his orphanage “If they have one drop of Japanese blood, they must go to camp.” Father Lavery described him as “a little Hitler.”

On January 25, 1942 the War department published the report of the Roberts Commission on Pearl Harbor, which incorrectly concluded “that there had been espionage leading up to the attack by both “Japanese Consular agents…and other persons having no open relations with the Japanese Foreign Service.” This increased the climate of anger towards the ethnic Japanese.

The virulently anti-Japanese rhetoric flew from many sources, newspaper columnists among them:

“Herd ‘em up, pack ‘em off and give ‘em the inside room in the badlands. Let ‘em be pinched, hurt, hungry, and dead up against it…Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them.”

And another: “A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched…So, a Japanese-American, born of Japanese parents, nurtured upon Japanese traditions…almost inevitably and with the rarest of exceptions grows up to be a Japanese not an American.”

The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, before the Roberts Report was released, had endorsed the idea of relocating Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans. Congressman Leland L. Ford of California said, “other loyal Americans are enlisting in the Army and Navy and Air Forces and are willing to give their lives for their country, and if these men are willing to make their contribution to the safety and welfare of the country…it is not asking too much of the Japanese to make theirs in the form of permitting themselves to be placed in concentration camps, although they may be loyal.”

Nonetheless, says Feldman, “the commonly accepted understanding of the relocation and internment as having been based exclusively on racism-–a constantly perpetuated interpretation—is one of the most serious misunderstandings of World War II domestic history…” You must read the book to fully understand the underpinnings of this persuasive argument.

FDR was fully on-board with the plan to intern the Japanese and refused to speak out against his Secretary of the Navy’s false reports of Japanese “fifth column” activity in Hawaii. Indeed, one of the themes of this book is the failure of many liberal politicians and activists to stand up for civil liberties.

Several groups representing “powerful agricultural interests” wrote to California’s attorney general, Earl Warren, in support of mass evacuation as these interests coveted the rich agricultural land owned by Japanese farmers. (It would have been interesting to know if any of them ever got their land back.)

Pressure from various quarters combined with war hysteria led to physical attacks on Japanese, and despite the opposition of attorney general Frances Biddle and others, FDR issued order 9066 in February, 1942, and the evacuation of Japanese, aliens and citizens alike began on March 31st. Thousands of German-Americans and Italian-Americans were also detained, “and in some cases held up to three years after the end of the war.”

Another shocking piece of forgotten history discussed in this book is that “the United States conspired with the governments of more than fifteen Latin American countries to identify, arrest, and deport to the United States, with little or no evidence and no legal proceedings, more than sixty-two hundred Latin Americans of German, Japanese, and Italian ancestry, including eighty-one German Jews, some of whom had spent time in Nazi concentration camps.”

The end of WW II brought the cold war and Harry Truman, like FDR before him, opened the door to another round of surveillance and illegal activity by the FBI. Just as J. Edgar Hoover ignored attorney general Biddle’s 1943 order to end the keeping of the Custodial Detention Index (or ABC list), assistant FBI director Milton Ladd came up with the idea in 1946 for a secret program (the attorney general would not be notified) to produce propaganda about the extreme dangers of American Communism and to isolate communists from any strong supporters of civil liberties such as liberals, labor unions and religious leaders. In this way, Communists might be detained, if necessary, without any significant public outcry. The “Custodial Detention Index” was renamed the “Security Index.”

The FBI, with the help of the House Un-American Activities Committee, launched this sequel to the red scare. While many books have covered HUAC’s activities, Feldman’s work provides an overview of the historical attack on civil liberties, explaining the politics and highlighting little-known facts.

In 1945 congress voted to make HUAC a permanent House committee. During the 207—186 vote in favor of this action, “forty New Dealers—including Lyndon Baines Johnson of Texas—were reluctant to take a stand and voted a neutral ‘present.’ ”

By endorsing anti-communism and “red-baiting” by “anti-New Deal Republicans seeking to recapture the government after fifteen years of Democratic control” liberal Democrats were “eager to disassociate themselves from any taint of Communist leanings or affiliations. In so doing, they validated the FBI’s strategy of eliminating liberals’ traditional support for radicals and radical ideas.” In other words, by softening up the liberal stomach for unqualified support of the U.S. constitution’s bill of rights, Hoover and his allies were able to control the expression of ideas. One could argue that we are still suffering the consequences of these actions today.

Labor unrest and spy scandals in 1945 and 1946 helped the Republicans win control of congress, and Truman created The Employees Loyalty Program that “called for a loyalty investigation of every potential new employee of executive branch departments and for the termination of ‘disloyal’ employees,” who could be dismissed without due process. This plan “was used as a model for state and municipal loyalty programs, and the practice of blacklisting crept into private industry as well.”

In 1948 a federal grand jury in New York “indicted twelve high-level Communist Party officials charging them with violating the Smith Act…In effect, Communists were now being indicted simply for being Communists, even though the Communist Party was not outlawed…”

Feldman quotes Fred J. Cook (author of The Nightmare Decade), who said that the attacks on Communists were a “smoke screen,” and that “the real foe, was always the American liberal—the New Dealer, the innovator, the idealist who saw injustices in American society….”

“Through intimidation” Feldman tells us, “the great majority of these voices were silenced.”

A few days after the New York indictments the greatly expanded staff of HUAC “launched a sensational inquiry into espionage within the federal government.” Three days later the Justice Department sent the FBI a secret plan referred to as the Department’s Portfolio, that “provided for suspending habeas corpus; arresting all individuals on the Security Index under one ‘master warrant,’ without any criminal charges…in its intentions and provisions, the Justice Department Portfolio was a blueprint for a police state.”

After Mao came to power in China and the Soviet Union developed the Bomb, “the primary threat to national security was now perceived not to be an external power, but unpatriotic and disloyal Americans.”

In this atmosphere, Senator Joe McCarthy saw his chance to break out of his obscurity as a little-known Senator from Wisconsin. He gave his famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in February of 1950 charging that the State Department was infested with Communists. The more the department denied his allegations, the wilder his claims became. On the evening of February 20th McCarthy addressed a nearly empty senate chamber for five hours. “The entire speech was a bluff, one of the most fraudulent and mendacious presentations ever witnessed on the floor of the U.S. Senate.”

Senator Joe McCarthy

Once McCarthy became a national figure, portrayed in a positive light in many newspapers, J. Edgar Hoover began working with him, supplying him with information.

The Republican Party, with a few exceptions, backed him.

The Korean War and the Rosenberg spy case fed a “new wave of panic” and “congress passed the Internal Security Act of 1950 on September 12th.” The law required groups considered Communist-influenced to register with the government and created a Subversive Activities Control Board that had the power to label groups unfit to work for the government or private companies “engaged in defense work.”

“The most ominous aspect of the law…” says Feldman, “was the provision for a preventive detention program –proposed by seven liberal Democratic senators, including Hubert Humphrey…Estes Kefauver …and Herbert Lehman…that empowered the president, in time of national emergency, ‘to detain…each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe…probably will engage in, or probably will conspire with others to engage in, acts of espionage or sabotage.” Although Truman vetoed he bill, he was overridden.

The bill was, according to Republican Senator William Langer (ND), “one of the most vicious, most dangerous pieces of legislation against the people that has ever been passed.”

The GOP, while still in the minority, gained strength in the 1950 congressional elections based on attacking the opposition as soft on communism. Responding to pressure, Truman decided in April of 1951 to “tighten the loyalty program criteria,” which meant that “reasonable grounds” for dismissal from executive branch employment became “a reasonable doubt.” Feldman quotes Athan Theoharis, who points out that this seemingly minor change “legitimized the tactics of McCarthy” and contributed to “an escalatory process that could not be reversed.”

A few months later Truman attacked McCarthyist tactics without mentioning the powerful senator by name. McCarthy became even more powerful after the Republicans swept the 1952 presidential and congressional elections, “becoming chairman of both the Senate Committee on Government Operations and that committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.”

McCarthy went on to attack “the State Department’s communications arm, the International Information Administration” and its radio network, Voice of America, for promoting Communist authors. His list included John Dewey, Edna Ferber, Dashiell Hammett, W.H. Auden, John Paul Sartre, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Theodore H. White among others. As a result, the International Information Administration purged hundreds of books from its library shelves “and in some cases they were even burned or pulped.”

McCarthy’s ambition and recklessness led him to attack anyone who dared criticize him or resist his demands. When he attacked Eisenhower and the Army he had gone too far.

As we all know, the Army-McCarthy hearings (beginning on April 22, 1954) televised by ABC, ended his career, and he was “condemned” by the senate in October.

“McCarthy was done, but McCarthyism lived on.”

Entitled, “There Were Many Wrecked Lives,” chapter thirteen begins with the information that in 1953 Eisenhower had made it even easier for the government to fire someone for “disloyalty.” Employees of the government could now be fired for “alcohol abuse, homosexuality, psychological disorders, associating with radicals” or anything that struck department heads as suspicious or showed that person to be untrustworthy.

Attacks on teachers and the apparatus of higher education started with the cold war and increased during its campaigns. Communists had to be removed from the educational system at all levels. In 1949 HUAC demanded lists of textbooks from eighty-one colleges and universities, and Truman endorsed the National Education Association’s policy that “members of the Communist Party shall not be employed in America’s schools.”

In 1953 Eisenhower fed this fire with statements at his second press conference, and J. Edgar Hoover took up the theme, while HUAC and its senate equivalent held hearings in major cities, exposing “communists” in the schools. In Flint, Michigan auto workers “who had been subpoenaed and appeared before the committee were dragged from their factories and beaten by mobs. Some families were evicted from their homes and forced into hiding…” Rep. Kit Clardy of Michigan, a HUAC member, praised these actions, saying, “This is the best kind of reaction there could have been to our hearings.”

There is more, but I do not wish to be accused of recounting the entire book, so I’ll leave the important subject of purges against the educational system in the hope that you will read the book.

McCarthy and some of his supporters liked to talk about “communists and queers.” Feldman says, “the ‘queer hunt’ now became an integral facet of the larger witch hunt.”

Nearly “a thousand State Department employees were dismissed for ‘sex perversion’ during the Cold war years.”

But hunting for undesirables, political and otherwise didn’t stop with government employees. The CIA began in February of 1953 “keeping track of all correspondence sent between the United States and the Soviet Union that passed through the New York postal facilities.” Over time this activity “grew to encompass much wider parameters. By the Vietnam War, the program was targeting domestic dissenters and war protesters, and its main purpose had become bolstering the FBI’s internal security functions.” These actions were “in direct contravention of the CIA’s charter.”

The Rockefeller Commission report on the CIA makes it plain that, in Feldman’s words, “the CIA was fully aware of the illegality of the program…By 1959, the CIA was opening 13,000 pieces of mail a year. The New York City project continued until 1973, and in its final year alone CIA agents handled 4.35 million pieces of mail, examining the outsides of 2.3 million of them, photographing the exteriors of 33,000, and opening 8,700. Mail interception was also carried out for shorter periods of time in San Francisco, New Orleans and Hawaii.”

MANUFACTURING HYSTERIA is a work of history, but also a warning about the precarious nature of the civil liberties most Americans take for granted. One has only to read two recent newspaper articles, “CIA Examining Legality of Work With Police Dept.” and “FBI Focusing on Security Over Ordinary Crime”   to find cause for alarm about the safety of the rights and privacy of our citizens.

Although “the second great red scare had subsided by the end of the 1950’s…the undemocratic methods used to crush the Communist Party and hound gays would continue to be used against political minority groups for another decade and a half.”

Chapters fourteen and fifteen are rich in detail about how the law enforcement ethos of the first red scare of 1919-20 was applied to ordinary citizens in the 1960’s and 1970’s by the FBI, CIA, NSA, IRS, Army Intelligence, and other departments and agencies of government. “Abuses by the FBI alone included extortion, mail and wire fraud, inciting violence, and sending obscene materials through the mail.” The ramped-up Counter-Intelligence Program or COINTELPRO created in 1956 to disrupt the functioning of the Communist Party of the U.S., was expanded in 1960 to include the NAACP and the Boy Scouts of America, among many others, and, “by the time the decade was out, the FBI had files on more than 430,000 law-abiding individuals and organizations…”

Hoover’s constant surveillance of Martin Luther King and his attempts to discredit King and drive him to despair provide a window on the modus operandi of the FBI and its many enablers in government. King was sent an anonymous note suggesting he commit suicide, and a recording of King’s sexual activity in a hotel room was mailed to his wife. A similar FBI campaign was waged against the Black Panther Party and many others, including nationalist groups and individuals in Puerto Rico.

But when the Bureau launched CONITELPRO-WHG (White Hate Groups), right-wing groups like The John Birch society and the White Citizens Councils were never investigated.

The Church Committee investigation called COINTELPRO “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association and the propagation of dangerous ideas…”

Both LBJ and Richard Nixon approved of Operation CHAOS, a CIA operation aimed at “supporting the FBI’s internal security work.”

These are just a few of the things discussed in this book.

I would like to add that as a politically active high school student in the 1960’s it was easy to see how the culture of repression filtered down to me. A Chicago Policeman threatened me with arrest for leafleting downtown in support of the Conspiracy 8, (later, the Conspiracy 7) “without a permit.” I did as he ordered and took the train home. A right-wing history teacher called Mrs. Derry at New Trier High School East, caught me passing out handbills in support of a “moratorium” against the Vietnam War, and snatched the paper from my hands.

New Trier East High School

My former high school English teacher told me years later that the Principle of New Trier had asked him to report “any seditious activity” on the part of students. These are very minor incidents, but they illustrate how widely repressive forces can cast their nets.

My only criticism of the book is that the Epilogue might have contained a bit more substance about the Bush (and Obama) years, but of course, many books have been written about the trashing of the constitution under Bush.

Oh, and one small quibble. The discussion of the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark fails to mention Edward Hanrahan, the cook county state’s attorney who was a key figure in the murder. My recollection is that state’s attorney’s police carried out the raid, not the Chicago Police Department.

Fred Hampton

I believe MANUFACTURING HYSTERIA ought to be taught in every high school and undergraduate American history program in the land. Until a broader public understands the patterns of repression and thought control exercised by the government in times of crisis, we are all at risk of becoming the victims of such repression.

[Buy this book at Seminary Coop, or your favorite independent bookstore.]


August 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

In February Brucejquiller posted an essay entitled, MUSEUMS TRASH THEIR BOOKS that cited examples of museums of all sorts outsourcing bookstore operations or drastically scaling back their book inventory to make way more profitable items.

Museum shops, like all brick-and-mortar bookstores, are struggling against the Amazon juggernaut and the poor economy. Pressure to reduce inventory is constantly at hand.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Paul Schumacher, the book buyer at The Walker Art Center. He is doing his best to carry the most unusual art books possible, and looking for books not available on Amazon.

The Taschen Books take-over of display space at the Art Institute of Chicago’s store, an arrangement first revealed on this blog last April, set a shocking new precedent. We are still waiting to see if other stores choose to follow this lead.

(As it happens the Art Institute bookstore employs one of the most knowledgeable and capable book buyers inside or outside of the museum world, an artist of highly original work named Brent Riley.)

An attempt at a survey was made by brucejquiller in order to find out how art museums view the future of their stores. Turned down by 109  grant-making institutions and government agencies, rejected by 42 interns whose free labor was sought, this blogger gave up on any serious pretensions to completeness and used his nimble fingers to e-mail the ten most popular American art museums as defined by a couple of websites responsive to a google search for “ten most popular art museums.”

Five questions were sent to the media contacts of these museums.  The Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art told me my questions would be answered, but this never happened.

I considered posing as a News of the World reporter, threatening to hack all museum phones if responses to the survey were not forthcoming, but, on the stern advice of the Brucejquiller legal team, I abandoned this plan of action. So, my failure to wake the sleeping giants notwithstanding, here are the questions and answers I have to offer:

BRUCEJQUILLER: How do you see the future of your store?

STUART HATA, Director of Retail Operations, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Books are central to the educational mission of the Museum Stores of the de Young and Legion of Honor. We are known for our astute selection of quality art books and significant publications that directly reflect the collections and exhibitions of the Museums. We are also very proud to be the leading art history bookstore of the Western US. Books have always been and will always remain a key category in our Museum Stores.

BERNARD BONNET, Book Buyer, Museum of Fine Arts Houston: A museum store, especially in cities like Houston that do not benefit from tourism, depends mainly on the museum’s exhibitions and activities. At the MFAH, the bookstore, in addition to its own program of events, is always involved in all the ones organized by our Education, Public Programs and Curatorial departments. We are also working hard to develop our own identity, beyond our affiliation to the MFAH, by developing a kind of customer service one finds in independent bookstores. At the MFAH, there is a long tradition of support for books, not only in the Retail Department but also in our library which is one of the best ressources for researchers and art amateurs in Texas and beyond. Our Publications Department is also extremely active and our catalogues and books are distributed in the world by our partner Yale University Press.

BRUCEJQUILLER: Have you cut back on staff and book selection in the last few years?

BERNARD BONNET: Not really. The book team involved in the buying and receiving is the same. The sales staff fluctuates with the seasons and exhibitions. We have reduced or suppressed some of the book departments in the store like Fashion and Decorative Art, and now we carry only the strongest new titles and/or the ones directly related to the museum activity. Also, our buying is fairly conservative and prudent. Regarding the purchase of exhibition catalogues, the book buyer is always consulted on the contracts by the Curatorial or Publications Departments and he decides on the final quantity which is not always the case in other museums. The first consequence of this practice is that we have considerably reduced the quantities.

BRUCEJQUILLER: What position do books occupy as part of your product mix, that is, what percentage of your display space do the books take up? Do you consider books particularly important, or are they a necessary evil, because clearly other things are more profitable?

STUART HATA: Books take up 40% of the store’s space. We feature books throughout the store and especially at the front entrances. We also have a special section devoted to the Museum publications published by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Books are also our best selling product category in our stores and directly fulfill the educational mission of the Museum Stores.

CHLOE SIMON, Museum Stores Manager, J. Paul Getty Museum: The size of the Center Store is approximately 1,800 sq. ft, dedicating a little over 400 linear feet to book display (with additional square footage for books within changing displays alongside merchandise); the Villa Store is approximately 1,335 sq. ft. with about 200 linear feet for books (with additional square footage for books within changing displays alongside merchandise). We are committed to offering an excellent selection of publications to our visitors that support the Museum’s mission and reflect all areas of the Museum’s collections, and we dedicate a significant amount of space to book display.

BERNARD BONNET: The books occupy more or less a third of the store. The collection (around 8,000 titles) is located in the back of the store and organized by sections (Modern and Ancient Art, Civilizations, American and European Arts, Reference, Architecture, Decorative Arts and Children Books). The museum catalogues have a prominent place. The books and catalogues along with the gifts related to the current or upcoming exhibitions and events, are displayed in the front of the store.

An evil is never necessary and books are not evil … It is true that the margin generated by books is less important and that the books require more attention and work (single unit purchases, special orders, returns, etc …) At the MFAH, we do consider that books are important. We are ready to adapt to the evolution of the book business (online sales, e-books).

BRUCEJQUILLER: Would you consider or are you now considering entering into the sort of arrangement with Taschen or another publisher that the Art Institute of Chicago recently did, that is, 25% of their book display space turned over to Taschen?

STUART HATA: We are not considering entering into this type of agreement.

CHLOE SIMON: We would not consider this type of arrangement with any specific publisher. Our goal is to provide a broad selection of related titles to our visitors at various price points, and this is something we achieve by obtaining books from a number of publishers without requiring that a certain percentage of our stock come from any particular vendors.

BERNARD BONNET: Clearly: no. A Taschen store is not a bookstore: it is just a Taschen store… Our bookstore is based on the quality and the diversity of our collection. We carry the best books published by Taschen and we are always open to collaborate with them on special events, lectures, signings… Why should we give up a considerable part of our retail space? Our relationship with Taschen is, however, excellent and we are one of their very best museum accounts. It is not by chance that they did not approach us with this type of offer. As book professionals, we buy the books we want and display them the way we want.

The press release announcing the Art Institute deal quoted David Thurm, Chief Operating Officer of the Art Institute of Chicago: “…We are very excited to be the first American museum to partner with TASCHEN in this innovative way, and we look forward to TASCHEN flourishing even further in our retail spaces.”

Thurm’s “even further” will likely spell the end of the Art Institute’s bookstore as we knew it. Let’s be glad there are museums willing to draw the line against giving up control over their stores.


July 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Joe Knowles, Associate Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune, has told brucejquiller in an e-mail exchange that the newspaper will carry some content exclusive to its printed edition: “I think you’ll see some content that is print-only, so we can keep it out of the aggregation pool. If we are charging people for the paper and calling it premium (as opposed to putting it online for free) we need to restrict the access somehow.”

I asked if his paper planned to install a pay wall for online readers as the New York Times did recently.

“We have been experimenting with restricting access to some content online,” Knowles said. “You’ll have to register to get certain things. Eventually there may be some sort of pay system, but I don’t think we have it all figured out yet. I don’t know if anyone has it all figured out yet. Inevitably, the model will have to change. The current free-for-all system isn’t smart or sustainable.”

The Tribune announced significant changes in a June 15th spadea. While the announcement included news that the Tribune’s website had been redesigned and reorganized, most of the space was devoted to details of the print expansion, and how the weekly addition of 40—44 pages would be allocated. A love letter from publisher Tony Hunter and editor Gerry Kern to subscribers introduced these changes:

“Dear readers:

Today’s Chicago Tribune marks the debut of a bigger, better newspaper created to meet the expectations of our most loyal readers. For the past week, we’ve highlighted the pages that will be filled with expanded news coverage.

Starting today, you will find those extra news pages throughout your newspaper each day, presented in a fresh new design and typography. We’ve added depth, dimension and range to our news report. That means more coverage on the topics you asked for. We’ve strengthened the newspaper for readers who are serious about their news and love their daily experience with the newspaper…”

The letter concluded with recognition of a simple fact rarely mentioned in broadcast media reports or in the press (my italics):

Despite technological change, the printed paper remains very special to many people. We are investing in the paper to ensure it is vital and rewarding. By doing so, the Chicago Tribune is charting a new course, offering one of the few print editions in America that is growing again. We look forward to making this journey together with you.”


The new typeface is pleasingly simple and fresh.

Knowles says, “the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far.”

I asked him to tell me more about the change of typeface:

“We were sweating the decision a little bit, because we haven’t changed the body type since 1993, but we finally found a typeface that held up to the narrow column widths we often have to employ now (after several web-width reductions left us with a smaller image area). I think it adds a subtle touch of elegance to the paper and enhances the reading experience. The old typeface, Nimrod, had a large x-height, which is usually an attribute, but it crowds the space between lines. With Mercury Text’s smaller x-height, we get a little more white space built in without losing legibility. And the letter forms in both are very similar, so it was easy for readers to adjust.”

It is no secret that the Tribune Company has been to hell and back since Sam Zell bought the paper in 2007, but I am glad to see they have come back.

Before the Zell era the Chicago Tribune offered some of the best foreign reporting to be found anywhere. It was my habit to spread the Tribune and New York Times on a table each morning. It was not unusual to find the Tribune carrying more information about a particular topic—human trafficking for instance—than the Times. It seemed to me that the Tribune embarked on major investigative pieces more often than other major newspapers.

Then came the diminutive real estate billionaire who began to gut the paper as if it were a teardown, wielding the talk radio ethic like a fire hose to blast the graduates of journalism school out of their office chairs.

On September 22, 2008 I received a promotional e-mail from Gerry Kern, the editor of the paper, crowing about many wonderful changes:

From Gerry Kern, Chicago Tribune editor

Dear Bruce Miller,

I want to invite you, as a valued Chicago Tribune subscriber, to be among the first to see the new Chicago Tribune, which will debut next Monday, Sept. 29.

Over the past several months, we have worked around the clock to reinvent your newspaper in ways we hope will enlighten, provoke, entertain and surprise you every day. We’re introducing new sections and content to make the Tribune even more relevant and useful to you in your daily life, while we maintain our commitment to compelling storytelling, blockbuster investigative reporting and illuminating analysis and commentary. To take the virtual tour, please click here

But we’re not done yet. We want to hear from you. Spend some time with the new Chicago Tribune online through the virtual tour and when you get the paper on Sept. 29. Then take our online survey. It’s available at http://www.chicagotribune.com/newtribune

If you have any questions or comments, please email us at consumerservices@tribune.com

It’s a whole new day. Thank you for beginning yours with the Chicago Tribune.


Gerry Kern

It turned out this “whole new day” included firing the foreign reporting staff and other writers and copy editors, axing the Chicago section, reducing the number of pages, and the gratuitous use of exclamation points. The paper had already become a comic book featuring life-sized visuals and personality-driven stories, so I decided I had suffered enough.

I told my friend Jacob Schroeder, a book publicist with whom we shared an office, that I had canceled my subscription, because the newspaper had gotten so bad. He sat at the round table where he always took his lunch, reading the Tribune. He shook his head sadly, one hand on his fork. “Well” he offered weakly, “it gets a little better as the week goes on. Monday and Tuesday are the worst. By Thursday it starts to improve.”

Not long after I canceled my subscription I received a phone call from Paul Lynch whose title was “Director, Quality/commercial print.” He said he was concerned about the fact that I had terminated my subscription and wanted to talk about it. I was surprised that anyone cared. We had more than one conversation during which I aired my grievances. Paul was very patient and polite and on October 8, 2008 sent me the following e-mail:


Thanks again for taking the time to share the correspondence you received from our editorial staff. There was good intent, but I can see why you thought it was a little impersonal.

I look forward to your additional thoughts and constructive feedback. Please remember the editor’s intent for the redesign is an evolution of continuous improvement. Thus, your feedback is critical and we appreciate it.

I also enjoyed our phone discussion and I hope you give us another chance. Please email or call me if you change your mind. It will make my day. In addition, regardless of your decision to remain a customer, I would be honored to provide you and your family with a personal tour of our facility. It’s quite interesting and I enjoy showing it off.”

The newspaper reader deprived of his daily fix will become irritable, like a person whose mystery novel has been snatched away before he or she has finished it, or a coffee drinker handed a cup of tea. No matter what I did I would not be able to whip out the Chicago section, flip it over to read Tom Skilling’s weather report and move on to read stories from far-flung places by Hugh Delios, Joel Greenberg, or Tom Hundley.

I was angry with my friend I told my wrath, my wrath did….not really end, but, I kept thinking perhaps I needed to change my attitude to suit the day, so, I ended up taking the free subscription that Lynch had offered during our phone conversation and then renewed with a payment. But, my attempt to adapt to the sorry state of the Tribune did not last. I canceled and ordered the Sun-Times.

I wasn’t the only one complaining.

“After our last redesign in 2008,” says Joe Knowles, “we heard from many readers who clearly valued the print experience. It’s a habit they are loath to give up. Many of them use the web, but they still like the idea of sitting down with the paper and a cup of coffee in the morning. There were dozens and dozens of comments…Most of the disgruntled people said they were leaving us for the WSJ or NYT, not the Herald or the Sun-Times. That could only lead us to believe that there was a core of serious news consumers out there, and that we needed to find a way to serve them better.”

“Last summer,” Knowles continued, “we began exploring the idea of a ‘premium’ paper aimed at our most engaged readers… that was the ‘Five Star’ project. It was driven by two factors. One, we realized that over time we had shrunk the paper to the point that we were turning off our best customers. And two, we needed to turn our business model around. With ad revenue in steady decline, we needed a model that would be more consumer-supported, like a premium cable TV channel. Over the winter and into the spring, the idea evolved further. Eventually, we decided not to develop a separate ‘Five Star’ brand and instead position the Tribune as the premium tier.”

So, the Tribune brass reversed course, but it took three years for them to realize they had lost their best customers.

The thing I find odd about last summer’s powwow as described by Knowles, is that Tribune executives would think in terms of “a premium cable TV channel” while discussing the restoration of a newspaper.

This may be symptomatic of the problem former reporter David Simon (who now writes for a premium cable TV channel) identified during his June talk in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses. Simon attributed many of the recent financial problems of newspapers to the fact that management has had contempt for its own product. And the corollary of contempt for the work of reporters and editors is contempt for the newspaper-reading public.

However you explain the long strange trip of the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper is now heading in the right direction. While the Chicago Tribune’s foreign reporters will not be brought back, Los Angeles Times reporters have stepped in to give the Tribune some first-rate reporting from abroad.

I asked Joe Knowles if the paper intended to add staff, or if they planned to cut the number of employees, and, specifically, copy editors, a group whose work has been undervalued by newspapers and book publishers alike:

“We added some staff in Business to beef up the reporting there. As for copy editors, we have not cut back from 2008 levels, when we made some overall staff reductions. We’re trying to protect that function because I believe it separates us from the pack. We’ve tried to be more creative with our new hires, finding people who can double as editors and designers. That flexibility has helped us cover our needs with a smaller overall staff.”* SEE POSTSCRIPT.

I told Knowles that I regard pages two and three as a lost opportunity. John Kass has been published on page two for many years with the vain hope he might turn out to be another Mike Royko. His column appears four days a week.

Kass has recently written with passion about ex-mayor Daley’s bodyguards, eating watermelon, and a mobbed-up former Chief of Detectives named William Hanhardt who was released from prison after serving ten years for running a ring of jewel thieves. Kass poses this question: “With Joe [Joey ‘the clown’ Lombardo] and Fast Eddie [alderman Edward Vyrdolyak] out of the picture, who’ll throw the welcome home party for the boss of detectives?”

As the self-styled tough guy of Chicago columnists, Kass panders to the idea of Chicago as a city full of corrupt cops and politicians. His irony is heavy as the syrup in a can of peaches. It is as if he is always winking at the reader in anticipation of what he thinks his readers think about the city. He is a one-note Johnny and the tedium of his voice has become oppressive.

On page three is a feature called “The Talk.” At its worst The Talk is part gossip column, part news, and part nonsense. It has the earmarks of an editorial football passed from hand-to-hand, and I wonder if anyone at the Tribune knows what it is or what it is supposed to be. At best it has some entertaining stories that could easily be placed into an appropriate section. Here are three Headlines from this week:

July 20th: “RUFFLED FEATHERS Plumage Demand: Fly fisherman vs. fashionistas “(This includes a large color photograph of a woman sporting a feather in her hair.)

July 21st: “Scotland Yard Puzzle: Why’s it called that?”

July: 22: “Unstrung heroes eye air guitar title
Chicago plays host to national contest this weekend”

The latter story and many others—like the July 13th piece (“Body of Work Speaks to An Icon”) about the Marilyn Monroe sculpture at Pioneer Court—would fit nicely into a reconstituted Chicago section.

Read within the context of an appropriate section, most of The Talk stories would work well, but they don’t belong on page three. If Tribune executives realized they were losing subscribers to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, why would they take the funfair and clown approach to the very front of the newspaper? Neither the Times nor the Journal would use their first three pages this way.

“The Talk has its fans and detractors,” says Knowles, “same for John Kass I would imagine. I think The Talk serves as a change of pace from the news report, which can sometimes be a little heavy.”

Yes, the Tribune is headed in the right direction, but management needs to rethink what they print in the front section. In my view the old stand-alone Chicago section ought to be reestablished, and prime time (to go back to a television metaphor) should be occupied by serious news. Those readers who find this news too heavy can read the RedEye edition. I can say this without being accused of snobbery because I used to write for RedEye.

There are many other newspapers that have gone to the funfair format, but I don’t think the Chicago Tribune needs to follow that lead. After all, many newspaper websites these days are full of moving pictures, color, and instant titillation, so print does not need to mimic that approach.

I look forward to reading the Chicago Tribune and, especially, the hard-hitting investigative pieces to come.

POSTSCRIPT: CRAIN’S CHICAGO BUSINESS reports that 20 people were fired from the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, including veteran health reporter Bruce Japsen. “Shell-shocked is how you might describe the feeling today,” a source tells the Sun-Times. “It’s something that caught the staff completely off guard.” It is sad news indeed and took Brucejquiller by surprise as well.

Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing at the Tribune Company? Will the company’s promise  of “a bigger better Tribune” be fulfilled? Japsen is a skilled and experienced reporter, firing him gives the impression that the much-vaunted expansion is a public relations stunt.

POSTSCRIPT THE SECOND: The Tribune Company’s Los Angeles Times has fired the entire free-lance writing staff of its Book Review. What other changes might be taking place at Tribune-owned properties?

DICTIONARIES GONE WILD: Our Works and Days Online

June 15, 2011 § 9 Comments

“Until six months ago I was clinging to the idea that printed books would likely last for ever. Since the arrival of the iPad I am now wholly convinced otherwise. The printed book is about to vanish at extraordinary speed. I have two complete OEDs, but never consult them – I use the online OED five or six times daily. The same with many of my reference books – and soon with most. Books are about to vanish; reading is about to expand as a pastime; these are inescapable realities.”
–Nigel Portwood, Chief Executive of Oxford University Press, quoted in Daily Telegraph 8/29/10.

“Demand for online resources is growing but large numbers of people continue to purchase dictionaries in printed form and we have no plans to stop publishing print dictionaries.”
— Nigel Portwood, The Guardian 8/29/10

Print is still pretty important round here but, wherever possible, if there is an opportunity, we are moving out of it.
— Nigel Portwood, Daily Mail 8/30/10

“Part of the pleasure and usefulness of a print dictionary is that you see things that you don’t see when you’re only punching up one word. I look up what, well, ‘existential’—no, anything, I look up ‘eight-ball’ and I find out the definition and my eye will look around a little bit, I mean, if you’re a normal person you’re not quite that efficient, I mean if you’re writing a paper…or reading a book and you wanted to know what ‘eight-ball’ was that might satisfy you, but if you’re just, someone mentioned it and I think I’ll look it up, you may then look around and find out something you didn’t know you wanted to know, because it’s two entries down or three entries up or you read an etymology you didn’t think you’d read that’s very interesting to you and you say ‘gee that might be connected to this,’ and you can do a little exploring on your own. And I think you’re much more likely to do that when you have the book right before you.”
–Andrew N. Sparks Telephone Interview, 3.13.11

In March I went to Cleveland to call on bookstores, joined in that effort by Ohio University Press’s man of many hats, collage artist and mild-mannered former reporter, Jeff Kallet. We visited the The Botanical Garden, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Fireside Bookshop, The Learned Owl, Mac’s Back’s Paperbacks, The Natural History Museum, Visible Voice and The Western Reserve Historical Society.

Cleveland is a city that doesn’t brag about itself, but would like people to know that it’s more than the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that forty years have passed since the Cuyahoga river caught fire.

My memories of Cleveland stretch back to 1975, when I was an English major at a remote outpost known as Hiram College. So, when I think of Cleveland, in addition to the stores mentioned above, (and people at those stores like Liz Murphy, Suzanne de Gaetano, and Emily Austin Rose), I think of The Lorain-Carnegie Bridge, a decaying Hotel Bruce on Euclid Avenue, the neglected Culture Gardens, the fabulous library system, Mark Stueve’s Old Erie Street Bookstore, the Baldwin Water Works, the Salvador Dali Museum, Wit and Wisdom, Undercover Books, The Alcazar Hotel and clouds shifting at high speed over the Shoreway.

I remember the buyer at the Cleveland State University Barnes & Noble telling me he kept a handgun in his office. Ah, and let’s not forget the Oberlin Co-op Bookstore that stood at 37 W. College Street for decades, the current location of Barnes and Noble. Those remarkable sisters Krista and Karen Long kept the Co-op going as long as possible. (Krista now runs Mindfair Books.)

During my most recent visit to Hart Crane’s home town, I had dinner with my old friend Annie Holden, bookseller extraordinaire and woman of a thousand voices, who lost her job as a Borders manager in 2009 after sixteen years. Before managing Borders’s stores she worked for the Cleveland Museum of Art and Publix Book Mart. Annie knows nearly every book-buying reader in Cleveland, East side or West.

I sat in the kitchen of her book-filled bungalow eating gluten-free victuals, listening to her fascinating stories about running poetry workshops at a homeless shelter downtown.

In between bites of rice and lentils she casually mentioned that last February almost the entire staff of Webster’s New World College Dictionary had been fired.  Outrage and nostalgia welled up inside me. I put down my fork. Webster’s New World! The pure black clarity, precise definitions!

My dictionary!“ I pounded the table.

She pounded back. “My friends got the ax!”

“I’m sorry.”

If a conversation between us about Webster’s New World Dictionary had taken place at Borders, Annie might have asked me if I’d like to buy the fourth edition, which is the latest. Had she asked that question, she would have been confronting a major obstacle to selling dictionaries: people keep them for thirty or forty or fifty years and think buying a new one unnecessary.

Once upon a time, every freshman college class presented a new group of potential dictionary owners. But now, the requisite laptop, ubiquitous smart phones or tablets can provide all the information a student needs.

And that is why John Wiley and Sons, the powerhouse textbook publisher with a growing list of trade books (cookbooks being their most recent area of expansion), fired all but two of the remaining staff members of Webster’s New World. Several people had been fired a few years earlier, but this time Wiley, who acquired the Cleveland-based operation with the purchase of Hungry Minds, Inc. in 2001, dismissed Michael Agnes, the editor-in-chief, senior editors Andrew N. Sparks and Jonathan L. Goldman; biography/geography editor Laura Borovac Walker, as well as citation readers Batya Jundef and Joan Komic and production coordinator Cynthia Sadonick.

Annie has known the lexicographer Andrew Sparks since she was a child. Sparks has been a key figure at the dictionary for innumerable years, and is regarded by the staff as a gifted teacher as well as a talented lexicographer. His exacting standards have helped make Webster’s New World College Dictionary  first-rate, recommended by The Associated Press and The New York Times. I persuaded Annie to give me his phone number.

Andrew Sparks Among His Books

Andrew N. Sparks was born in 1926 in Jamestown, N.Y. After serving as a naval officer during WW II, he was granted a teaching fellowship in English at Ohio Wesleyan University where he met his future wife, Marilyn, then an undergraduate. His studies were interrupted when the U.S. Navy recalled him to active duty in 1951. After leaving the Navy for the second time, he decided not to pursue his graduate degree. He worked for a while as a broadcast journalist at a small Ohio radio station, then, in 1956, he was hired as a lexicographer by David B. Guralnik, the autocratic founding editor (along with Joseph H. Friend) of World Publishing’s dictionary program. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language appeared in 1951, followed by the first College edition in 1953. The World Publishing Company had begun preparations for the New World Dictionary in 1941.

I tell Andrew Sparks that to prepare for our conversation I bought a copy of the fourth college edition, because I’d been using the second edition, copyright 1972.  He asks me to look at the copyright date of my new dictionary, and I see that it’s 2008.  He points out that the most recent update was in 2010.

“The culture” Sparks says, “has changed. They want a dictionary, good or bad, that they can push buttons for on an electronic device. They don’t want a cumbersome hardcover, a use-your-own, spit-on-your-thumb-to-turn-the-pages kind of thing… they [Wiley] discovered they have lots and lots and lots of the 2010 update of College Four that are just sitting around, and people aren’t buying them.”

The fact that Barnes and Noble had the 2008 in stock is an obvious confirmation of this fact.

Sparks told me that work has been completed, or nearly completed, for a fifth edition of Webster’s New World, but that this will never appear as a printed book. He is convinced that publishers will no longer print new editions of hardcover dictionaries, but merely reprint concise and “spin-off dictionaries.”

Inside sources have informed Brucejquiller that Wiley announced internally that the Fifth College Edition would be published in several formats, including a printed hardcover edition, with a publication date of 2013, but former New World staffers say the 2013 publication date is not a recent announcement, and evinced skepticism that a new print edition would actually be produced.

Two years in the current publishing environment gives Wiley plenty of wiggle room, since dramatic changes have taken place in the information marketplace within the last six months alone.

The New World dictionaries are currently being updated, and the data for the Fifth College edition tweaked by Don Stewart (with the help of Jennifer Wellman Wason), who, in the Fourth edition, is listed as “Senior Editor and database administrator.” Stewart has been working at New World for the last thirty years. Andrew Sparks trained him and has the utmost confidence in his abilities.

In mid-May I visited one of Chicago’s independent bookstores in search of a copy of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but on the shelf there was not a single hardcover dictionary. There were two or three concise dictionaries, and when I told the young bookseller at my side I was looking for the Merriam-Webster Collegiate, she asked me why I wanted it. I didn’t take the time to explain that, as a New World partisan, I felt I ought to sit down with the two dictionaries together and attempt objectively to compare them. I own more than one Merriam Thesaurus and a 1965 Seventh Collegiate edition, as well as Webster’s Third New International Unabridged, copyright 1981.

I was sorry to see that a request for a cloth dictionary prompted puzzlement.  So, I downloaded the free 14-day-trial copy from the Merriam-Webster website with the intention of ordering a print copy from my neighborhood bookstore, Women and Children First.

It turns out the download of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate is extremely useful. The reader (I try to stay away from “user” or “consumer”) can search the dictionary and thesaurus simultaneously. Reading the thesaurus entry for the simultaneous search requires a second click.

The New Oxford American application (2.1.3) that came with my MacBook is very pleasing in appearance—the typeface is easy on the eyes—and the simultaneous search feature requires no extra key or click. It does not have the audio pronunciation guide included in the Merriam, which often offers two possible pronunciations, just as a printed dictionary does. I have mixed feelings about the inclusion of  Wikipedia in the Oxford simultaneous search option, but I like The Right Word feature which makes helpful distinctions. I read on the internet that version three of the NOAD has eliminated this feature. I’m sure someone out there can tell me if this is true.

And speaking of the newfound obscurity of the printed dictionary, Rachael Levay discovered that her sister, a high-school sophomore, had no understanding of how to use it. Rachael is the sales and publicity manager at the University of Washington Press. During a period last year when her sister lived with Rachael and her husband, Rachael read her sister’s writing assignments. Rachael asked her to explain the ideas she was trying to express, because her essays “made no sense.”

Rachael discovered her sister would “go through her paper and right-click on most nouns or verbs and find alternates in the Microsoft Word Thesaurus and use bigger, more impressive sounding words that bore almost no relationship to the original word and sometimes so drastically changed the sentence meaning that it was not just incomprehensible, but actually wrong or saying the opposite of what she meant (she didn’t understand the idea of a synonym/antonym).”

“When I talked with her about looking up words in a printed dictionary,” Rachel says, “she turned immediately to dictionary.com, rather than use the OED or Webster dictionaries we had. When I encouraged her to use a book to find the words, she was confused about the whole entry — the numbered meanings, the idea of verbs vs. nouns vs. prepositions, etc, that they might also list antonyms as examples. In the end, she never really did move away from the built-in word processing dictionary — which, of course, has such a limited scope that it sometimes told her words were wrong when they weren’t, right when they weren’t, or attacked grammar in terrible ways.”

By including this story I don’t mean to imply that only younger people have abandoned printed dictionaries, nor am I saying that anyone who chooses not to use a traditional dictionary is foolish or uneducated. But, the loss of print may have pedagogical consequences that require remedial action.

All Dictionary publishers have felt the effect of free on-line, or computer-based access to dictionary entries, but some, namely Merriam-Webster and Oxford, have managed to change more swiftly with the times than others.

In the world of dictionary publishing it is common knowledge that Wiley is not the only publisher to suffer in this brave new world. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, publisher of the American Heritage Dictionary, recently reduced their staff, and Random House once had a highly competitive dictionary program.

Nonetheless, HMH will be printing a new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary later this year. Now available is an interactive version of the American Heritage Dictionary and Thesaurus that includes the same kind of audio pronunciation guides for each entry that one finds online, in the Merriam application and elsewhere. The inclusion of audio must be the new standard.

For the record, Wiley also offers a download of the New World.

Joseph Pickett, vice-president and executive editor of the reference department at HMH, declined to directly answer my question about staff cuts in the e-mail he sent me, but his message was interesting:

“Over the past few editions of the American Heritage Dictionary, we have relied mainly on in-house lexicographers, supplemented with a small number of freelancers and a large number of consultants (including our Usage Panel).  The forthcoming Fifth Edition has been no different, in that regard.  In the future, however, we expect to rely somewhat less on print dictionaries and somewhat more on electronic database licensing and sales, which will shift our staffing needs somewhat.  We will likely use more freelancers than in the past, to deal with specific print dictionaries and subject areas, with few in-house lexicographers.”

Pickett’s phrase “with few in-house lexicographers” is an apt description of the present, certainly at New World and American Heritage, and maybe a glimpse of the future at other places.

As Sparks sees it: “…there’s not going to be a staff, there’s not going to be people devoting their lives to the art of lexicography. There will be, I assume, free-lancers in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles who can, when you have an update, if there’s going to be an update, for the electronic version, they can do something passable, but it won’t be lexicography of the old traditional form it will be some new form.”

It is common practice for dictionary publishers to add free-lance staff during a major revision, when a new edition is being put together, or even an update, but my guess is that the number of full-time lexicographers employed by dictionary publishers has decreased over time, although publishers don’t like to admit this.

Pickett says he will make “definitions and pronunciations” from the fifth edition available for free on a website, while “the full dictionary (with all its notes, etymologies, front matter, and appendices) will be available as an app (which is free if you buy the print book).” I find it encouraging that this new app will include front matter.

He confirms that the company will “publish regular updates and improvements to the electronic and print products, though the print product updates will depend on inventory.”

Judy Pearsall, the editorial director of dictionaries at Oxford University Press, says “we haven’t reduced staff overall, but we do move them around between offices depending on the focus.” There are four people based in New York who run the Oxford American Dictionary. “And” she says, “We have a regular pool of freelancers who we bring in as and when necessary. As we work online, we’re always researching the language and revising the content, so perhaps the distinction of ‘major revision’ is becoming less important.”

While the picture one gets from this description looks a lot like the future envisioned by Sparks, she adds that a number of staffers are working with “computational linguistics,” rather than in some of the jobs required by an old-world model of dictionary publishing. The Oxford English Corpus is described in detail on the Oxford University Press’s dictionary website.

When I asked Erin McKean,The New Oxford American Dictionary’s former editor-in-chief,  how many staff members she had at Oxford, she said “I don’t think the department ever topped a dozen at its height, on the American side.” Whether this figure included free-lancers I don’t know.

Former New World senior editor Jonathan Goldman began his career in 1966, after graduating from the University of Michigan. He explains that “floating lexicographers” rarely get proper instructions when hired by a dictionary publisher, and sometimes they might not be qualified to do the job. He recalls an unfortunate incident many years ago when his company hired a free-lance team to revise a thesaurus, because the permanent staff was too busy. “They did a bad job” he says, “and we ended up having to clean up after them anyway.” So much for cutting costs.

Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski is emphatic that his company has not reduced staff. “Many of my colleagues have been here 30, 40 years or more. Fifty years in some cases,” he told me. Hired as the company’s first French language editor in 1994, Sokolowski is now Editor at Large, representing Merriam-Webster to the press, at public forums, trade shows, and international conferences. He also serves as the “pronouncer” at spelling bees all over the world.

Peter Sokolowski

Sokolowski was about to get his masters degree in French renaissance literature at the University of Massachusetts with the intention of going on to a PH.D program elsewhere, when he was recruited by Merriam-Webster to write a new French dictionary. He was told the project would take two years, but, by the time it was completed six years later, he had embraced a new career he had never thought of pursuing. Although he is an editor, he is the best salesman a publisher could possibly hope for. And, as a book salesman myself, I say that with great respect.

There is no denying that Merriam is the only American dictionary publisher that has managed to do well on-line and off, publishing their highly successful “learner’s” and “visual” dictionaries and devising apps for all devices (Android is on the way), a state-of-the-art website with well-placed (if annoying) ads for candy bars and chewing gum, and easy access to downloads and ebook versions of their products.  (I also encountered a trick ad. When I clicked on “more at eke,” thinking there would be more information about the word I was interested in, a movie ad popped up.)

Sokolowski tells me that about half their revenue comes from print and half from online and digital products. A subscription offer for the unabridged dictionary is featured on their website, just as it is for the Oxford dictionary online on the website of Oxford University Press.

Both Oxford and Merriam make use of corpus-based lexicography, although Peter Sokolowski is quick to add that alongside the computer-generated statistics and examples of usage, Merriam-Webster still finds citations the old fashioned way, with editors marking words encountered in books, newspapers and magazines, so they can be added to the Merriam database.

“There are really two reasons to continue reading and marking” Sokolowski explains, “for better context of carefully chosen examples — sentences or paragraphs that give an example of the word in use that also makes the meaning clear so that a definer need not search through a large number of hits. And, of course, discovering the very existence of a new word, which a corpus can’t do. There’s no doubt that the vast corpora are of enormous help to lexicographers, and we use them. But our citations are chosen to make defining a process of understanding, not searching.”

“…We are open to criticism from the true believers of modern corpus-based lexicography who say, ‘hey, I can have a hundred million words in this database, and that’s better’, well we say, ‘yes, but we use both.’ We use the hand-selected ones to help us to orient ourselves and to find what’s changing in the language and then we look at the broader ones to see the true horizons of the language.”

In other words, the Merriam (or New World or Oxford or American Heritage) database is a kind of corpus that is the result of hand-selected citations.

“…So, if I were to look up an unusual word within our Merriam-Webster corpus it might come up a lot proportionally because we’ve noticed it and we’ve added it to the corpus,” Sokolowski explains, “But then to get a true read of what its frequency and currency actually is in the language, I’d have to go to a natural language corpus and see what its proportion is.”

Judy Pearsall says, “We also have a citation-based database; it’s called the Oxford Reading Programme. It developed out of the original reading programme set up for the OED in the 1860’s and of course is now digital and fully searchable.”

Jonathan Goldman says that Google was the only computer-based corpus, other than the New World database, that they used, and his observation about the use of Google as a corpus matches Sokolowski’s comment about searching through hits, that is, the definition writer has to sort through a lot of garbage before finding the good stuff.

The New World staff excelled at definition writing, and, until the February massacre, employed two full-time citation readers.

“I guarantee as magical as it sounds,” Sparks says, “you get a new word, a word you never heard of, even a fairly technical word, if you get twenty-five citations, good citations the definition will be absolutely clear to a lexicographer, because the context is clear, it has to mean this. This word means this, this word following it means this, this phrase means this, I know what the drift of the paragraph is, what they’re getting at, so this word has to mean this. Well, when you have that repeated in a nice complexly various way, you have the meaning of the word after twenty-five citations.”

New World’s tardiness in entering the digital world has hurt their business (although they have licensed a site called YourDictionary.com to use their content), and this may stem in part from the fact that the dictionary changed hands numerous times in the last fifty years. Since World Publishing Company failed in 1963, the dictionary has been owned by Times Mirror, William Collins Sons, Ltd., Simon and Schuster, Hungry Minds, and John Wiley and Sons.

This tardiness is surprising in view of the fact that David B. Guralnik was “determined” (according to Goldman) to develop a computer database system for New World, and was apparently aware of the importance of keeping up with technological change.

In a foreword to the Third College Edition published in 1988 by Simon an Schuster, Editor-in-Chief  Victoria Neufeldt, Guralnik’s successor (she later left the company to join the staff of Merriam-Webster), writes about the new system:

“It is a milestone in the history of the dictionary, not only because this edition is a major revision of its predecessor, but because it represents a leap form the old monotype method of composition in hot metal directly to a state-of-the-art computerized database and an automated typesetting program. In contrast to the solid metal type that was created anew for the changes made to produce even the latest biennial update of the Second College Edition, in 1986, the database that underlies this new dictionary is a fluid medium that will serve as the basis for all future revisions, major or minor, as well as a host of related lexicographical projects, both in print and on line, that are still little more than a dream…The wonderful database envisioned by then editor-in-chief  David Guralnik more than a decade ago has become a reality; and it has succeeded largely because of the expertise, determination and creative talents of our programmer, Mr. Thury O’Connor. ”

But, getting back to the issue of corpus-based lexicography, it is the quality of the definitions that make a dictionary an enlightening pleasure to read, or a slog. In my opinion, the New World College Dictionary stands up to, perhaps surpasses, the college dictionary competition, massive computer-generated corpora notwithstanding.

Jonathan Goldman confirmed my feeling when he said in a brief e-mail exchange, “I’m not sure what corpus-based lexicography is if you don’t use the usage data in the corpus examples to write definitions. Otherwise, it is just a bunch of examples and you are supposed to figure out what the ‘rule’ is by deduction? That is not lexicography.”

It is time for me to explain my affinity for the New World College Dictionary. The definitions are clear and concise and immediately tell you what you want to know. There is a directness about the work as a whole that has always appealed to me and, apparently, many other people. Below are definitions from the major dictionaries for the word “dispositive,” a word I encountered in one of the interviews conducted for this blog post:

involving or affecting disposition or settlement: a dispositive clue in a case of embezzlement-                                     Dictionary.com attributed to Random House

directed toward or effecting disposition (as of a case) <dispositive evidence>
Merrriam-Webster Collegiate

that disposes of, or settles, a dispute, question, etc.; conclusive; decisive
Webster’s New World

Relating to or having an effect on disposition or settlement, especially of a legal case or will.                                         The freedictionary.com attributed to American Heritage

Relating to or bringing about the settlement of an issue or the disposition of property: such litigation will rarely be dispositive of any question.

Law dealing with the disposition of property by deed or will: the testator had to make his signature after making the dispositive provisions.

dealing with the settling of international conflicts by an agreed disposition of disputed territories: a peace settlement in the nature of a dispositive treaty.
 New Oxford American Dictionary application 2.1.3

Although the NOAD definition is longer (and it is a larger dictionary, not a college dictionary), it reads more like a legal dictionary entry than one from a general interest dictionary. In any case, I  find the New World definition answers most directly the question I had about what the word meant as used by the subject of my interview. It provides a window on any reasonable use of that word, and does it succinctly.

Incidentally, neither Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary (1965), The American Heritage Dictionary(1969), nor Webster’s New World Dictionary Second College Edition (1972) contain entries for the adjective “dispositive.” When I type this word using MS software, I am told it is “not in dictionary,” and an evil red line appears under it.

I am not arguing that a comparison of dictionaries based on a single entry offers enough evidence to definitively conclude one is better than another. Dictionaries are great works of art to which one returns again and again. Every dictionary has it strengths and weaknesses. Judgments are bound to be extremely subjective. To make a rough analogy, a reader who enters a bookstore and immediately finds the book she wants will think, “this is the best bookstore anywhere!” The following week, if the store doesn’t have the sought-after book, it is now a crappy bookstore.

It all depends on what word you are looking at. You might find the best definition or the most helpful etymology or sentence example in any available dictionary, in print or online.

New World was founded as a guide to American English in contradistinction to the available dictionaries of the time.

”Our emphasis is on the English language as spoken in America,” David Guralnik once said, according to the New York Times Obituary of May 22, 2000, ”and for that reason we chose to call it the dictionary of the American language. It does for the American language what the ‘Oxford English Dictionary’ does for the language as a whole.”

Speaking before the Rowfant Club of Cleveland, on November 30, 1951, Guralnik explained his rationale for the new dictionary:

“We had determined that our word-stock would comprise more than the usual dictionary entries. We would devote particular care to the important idiomatic phrases that are such a vital part of English and that had largely been neglected by preceding dictionaries. Thus, under the entry for mind, where one popular dictionary had entered no phrases and where another had only put in mind, we entered bear in mind, be in one’s right mind, be of one mind, be of two minds, be out of one’s mind, call to mind, change one’s mind, give a person a piece of one’s mind, have a (good or great) mind to, have half a mind to, have in mind, keep in mind, keep one’s mind on, know one’s mind, make up one’s mind, meeting of minds, never mind, on one’s mind, set one’s mind on, speak one’s mind, take one’s mind off, to one’s mind. We also planned to enter with a fullness hitherto unknown colloquialisms and slang, the informal and vulgate words that are so rich and characteristic a feature of American English.”

In the words of an Associated Press story, “lexicographer takes strictly American view” that ran in the New York Times  (11.08.1981), “The unadorned blue book, the dictionary used as first reference by The Associated Press, United Press International, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, is the only one of the top four dictionaries in the country to call the language American.”

“I remember when I first came on board,” reminisces Andrew Sparks, “almost the first thing I saw, I was given I think ‘table games’ or something like that because I played ping pong and I played pool and this that and the other thing. One of the first things I looked at was ‘eight ball.’ It took me about ten years to get eight ball so it was correctly defined. Literally. Because we had an editor-in-chief who thought he knew something about it and thought it was ok, it was a hopeless definition…

“Existentialism. Which was a big term back in the, you know, 50’s and 60’s you’ll remember that. And our definition of existentialism was utterly hopeless. Well, I’d had a minor in philosophy I knew a lot about existentialism. I came into the office I said, ‘this is grotesque.’ Well he had, David [Guralnik] had been in the army and he had been overseas, around the time when the French were first starting, and so he had his own ideas about where it first came from. Had no notion of the background in Kierkegaard or anything like that so we had really a flawed definition, very badly flawed. But because David had written it and he was a very type A personality, once he’d made up his mind he found it hard to change it. I’m not knocking him, he was a great lexicographer but he was very hardheaded. And that was one of the places where there was a long tussle before I got ‘existentialism’ for example and ‘eight-ball’ changed even though they were wrong.”

Sparks spells out various words and asks me to pronounce them: n-i-c-h-e;  c-o-v-e-r-t;  f-l-a-c-c-i-d;  e-l-e-c-t-o-r-a-l.   When he spelled out the first word, I worried at the last moment, that I’d been saying it the wrong way all these years (I normally say “nich”). I suddenly heard NPR journalist Neal Conan’s high-pitched voice in my ear saying “neesh.”  So, I said “neesh.” Like the man Donald Hall makes fun of in his sophomoric poem, To a Waterfowl, I was watching my grammar.

Sparks asks these questions to show me how pronunciations change. In the first two college editions, 1953 and 1970, “nich” was the only pronunciation.  In the third and fourth editions, 1988 and 1999, “neesh” was included as “Brit also.” In the not-yet-published fifth edition, “neesh” is one of two accepted American pronunciations. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate also has the Neal Conan pronunciation as the second of two accepted pronunciations. The New Oxford American lists only “nich.”

He goes through the other words explaining how the pronunciations of these have also changed: The “o” in covert is now pronounced, but it used to be a “u,” as in “kuv’ert.  Flaccid was, not so long ago, pronounced only “flaxid.”  Electoral was always pronounced “eeLECtoral,” now it is often “eelecTORal.”

Andrew Sparks will tell you that changes like these explain why dictionaries require new editions.  Judy Pearsall is probably correct that ongoing revision of online content will make the term “major revision” less important. Of course, for those who have never done anything but look up words online, and who hurriedly seek the current definition and pronunciation of a word, the collection of several dictionaries, or editions of the same dictionary, would be a baffling irrelevance.

By the way, it would be interesting to know how many dictionary readers have been siphoned off of other, better sources by the Encarta World English Dictionary included with MS Word.

Peter Sokolowski says Merriam-Webster is the second most popular dictionary website after dictionary.com. Merriam gets 80 to 100 million lookups, or page views every month. You can tell from those numbers that most people are finding their definitions on the internet.

Right now, looking up a word on Google is like throwing a bunch of dictionaries in the air and reading the one that happens to open at your feet. The definition that comes up varies word by word, and one no longer needs to click, the definition is visible immediately.

It might or might not be the Google dictionary definition that comes up first as it did when I sought the definition of the noun “remit,” a word Judy Pearsall used, meaning “The task or area of activity officially assigned to an individual or organization.” This is, as New World describes it, a [Brit] meaning of the word, which explains why it is rarely the primary definition offered by American dictionaries. The NOAD has it as its primary definition, and it may be that Google, as one web page declares, began using Oxford as a source in 2010.

A horizontal list of alternative sites appeared underneath the Google dictionary definition of  “remit”:

Dictionary.comAnswers.comMerriam-WebsterThe Free Dictionary.

When you look up a word on dictionary.com, the primary definition most often comes from the Random House Dictionary. Here is a “Company Overview” from the “about” page on the dictionary.com website:

Dictionary.com LLC’s online and mobile properties are destinations for learning. Our goal: to empower word discovery and learning. We provide resources that create success for users in their schoolwork, careers, relationships, and life.

Every month more than 50 million users across the globe visit our online English dictionary and thesaurus, making us the world’s largest and most authoritative free online dictionary and mobile reference resource. Our selection of online and mobile products are an interactive and reliable source for word meaning and usage. Take our products everywhere and access them any time; we serve academic, business, social and recreational needs, irrespective of age or education level.

We provide reliable, free online access to millions of English definitions, synonyms, spelling, audio pronunciations, example sentences, and translations from our Web properties at Dictionary.com, Thesaurus.com, and Reference.com and through our mobile iPhone, BlackBerry, Android and iPad applications and API data services. Dictionary.com’s trusted content comes from 15 authoritative licensed and proprietary reference sources, that have helped define the English dictionary as we know it today. We intend to redefine reference and learning in the context of emerging technology while preserving the painstaking traditions of expertise and integrity that everyone expects from a dictionary.

Millions of spelling, I like that.

In the days of heavy competition for print readers, when millions of hardcover dictionaries were sold, the principal editor of a dictionary would write a forward, lofty in tone, that outlined the reasons why his dictionary would now set the standard for all others.  The dictionary publishers tried to outdo one another, emphasizing the impressive credentials of the learned figures consulted for help in creating such a comprehensive reference work. The print dictionaries of the past also included long essays about various subjects such as language, the making of dictionaries, pronunciation, grammar, and etymology.

The free online dictionaries try to mimic this approach in miniature, sounding as up-to-the-minute and technologically savvy as possible. They are aggregators who rely on the hard work of others over the last couple of centuries, spouting cliché-ridden sound bites to convince the student they have come to the right place. This is not to put the makers of printed dictionaries on a pedestal. Any new dictionary undoubtedly stole material from other dictionaries.

And I’ve just now discovered an aggregator of aggregators, a website called “onelook.com—Onelook Dictionary Search.”

Here is a forward from the competitive era of printed dictionaries:

The standard College Dictionary Funk and Wagnalls

©1966   The Readers Digest Association

Sidney I. Landau, Managing editor

Advisory Board:

Albert H. Marckwardt, A.M. Ph.D

Professor of English and Linguistics

Princeton University

Preface by Albert H. Marckwardt:

The making of a dictionary is both a science and an art. The painstaking accumulation of reliable data, consisting of thousands upon thousands of individual facts of the language; the proper classification of this data; and finally the formulation of sound conclusions from this mass of material—all illustrate the inductive process that is basic to every science.  At the same time, the presentation of information about the language, the phrasing of definitions, and the ordering of word treatments demand of he lexicographer the ability to manipulate the language with economy and precision. The science without the art is likely to be ineffective; the art without the science is certain to be inaccurate. The editors of FUNK AND WAGNALLS STANDARD COLLEGE DICTIONARY have conscientiously attempted to exercise both the scientific function and the artistic virtuosity of the lexicographer.

The dictionary also possesses a duality for the person who uses it, the same duality that is reflected in the receptive and productive use of language. For comprehension, both of the spoken and of the written language, the dictionary offers its treatment of word meanings.  Yet it is of primary importance to find the meaning which applies to the use of the word about which one is in doubt. The dictionary is not a tool to be used hastily or casually. Status or usage labels may throw light upon the way in which a total context should be interpreted, or upon the style of a writer. The etymology, though by no means an arbiter of current use, can be revealing about past use and suggestive as to the connotations of present use.

The dictionary has even more to offer to the person who consults it as a guide to his own use of the language, whether spoken or written.  It is a guide to spelling and to the various combinations, both compound and derivative, into which a word may enter. Grammatical information is to be found in the part-of-speech labels, the treatment of  tense and number forms, and many incidental observations. Use of the synonymy and antonymy will lend variety and precision to speech and writing. Pronunciation serves both reader and speaker, but again the use of the dictionary for pronunciation carries with it the responsibility of interpreting information in the way in which the editors intended, this applies particularly to the pronunciation symbols and the treatment of alternate forms.

In short, the dictionary has a wealth of  information about language to offer, but, like any other forms of wealth, it calls for wise and judicious use. The general attitude of the user is more important than any of the specific and concrete functions of the dictionary, since it can color his attitude towards the language. Let him view his dictionary not as a series of ex cathedra pronouncements. It is neither commandment nor holy writ, but a reference work, a body of data about the language, deriving its authority from the care and completeness with which the facts were collected and interpreted. It is in this spirit that my associates on the Supervisory Board , and the Funk and Wagnall’s editorial staff, have worked, and it is in this light that we trust the product of our efforts will be used and judged.

My main point is that print dictionaries of the past have attempted to entice the reader by inviting her to dwell on a higher plane of knowledge, while the new galaxy of word-defining web sites simply carry the rhetoric of self-help or techno-gadget advertising.

And now, as Studs Turkel used to say on his radio show when introducing a new topic, we come to the work of Erin McKean, to whom I owe thanks for putting me in touch with Peter Sokolowski, Judy Pearsall, and American Heritage.

McKean is famous among lexicographers and dictionary publishers for her talk at a TED conference. (She may have given more than one talk there.)

She also spoke at Google in 2006 as part of their Author’s Series. “I am really, really, really happy to be here,” she says, “because I feel about Google the way most people feel about rock stars. I am this close to writing Google fanfic.” (I used Urban Dictionary to find out what “fanfic” meant.)

She studied at the University of Chicago, worked at Scott Foresman and became the editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary. She always had a consuming curiosity about words, and knew from the time she was eight years old that she wanted to be a lexicographer. She achieved that goal, and is now also a novelist: THE SECRET LIVES OF DRESSES, was published by the Hachette Book Group in February  (See her her blog about fashion).  She is currently at work on a second novel.

After leaving Oxford she founded the well-designed online dictionary, “Wordnik.” The “o” in Wordnik is a heart symbol. The motto or tagline of Wordnik is, “All the words, and everything about them for everybody.”

The following snippet from Wordnik’s “about page” will give you the flavor of this web site. I’ve changed only the font color and size:

What is Wordnik?

Wordnik is a place for all the words, and everything known about them.

Our goal is to show you as much information as possible, as fast as we can find it, for every word in English, and to give you a place where you can make your own opinions about words known.

Traditional dictionaries make you wait until they’ve found what they consider to be “enough” information about a word before they will show it to you. Wordnik knows you don’t want to wait—if you’re interested in a word, we’re interested too!

By “information,” we don’t just mean traditional definitions (although we have plenty of those)! This information could be:

•               An example sentence—we have tons of examples and gobs of other data for most words. But even if we’ve found only one sentence, we’ll show it to you. And we’ll show you where it came from.

•               Related words: not just synonyms and antonyms, but words that are used in the same contexts. Cheeseburger, milkshake, and doughnut aren’t synonyms,  but they show up in the same kinds of sentences.

•               Images tagged by our friends at Flickr: want to know what a pout looks like? We’ll show you.

•               Statistics: how rare is tintinnabulation? Well, we think you’ll see it only about once a year. Smile? You might see that word many times, every day.

•               An audio pronunciation—and you can record your own.

•               Something you tell us. Use the “Comments” pages to tell us something—anything—about a word.

The key to McKean’s thinking is when she says, or her about page declares, “Traditional dictionaries make you wait until they’ve found what they consider to be ‘enough’ information about a word before they will show it to you. Wordnik knows you don’t want to wait—if you’re interested in a word, we’re interested too!” This is an interactive site, not your grandmother’s boring old reference work.  The FAQ pages offers more:

How does Wordnik work?

Wordnik is based on the principle that people learn words best by seeing them in context. We’ve collected more than 4 billion words of text (web pages, books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) and have mined them exhaustively to show you example sentences for any word you’re interested in.

At Wordnik, we also believe that some information about a word is always better than no information, so we’ll show you whatever we’ve found, for any word you look up.

How is Wordnik different from other online dictionaries?

At Wordnik, you get:

•               real example sentences to show words in context

•               meaningful information about your word’s frequency and use patterns

•               related words—not just synonyms and antonyms, but words that behave in similar ways

•               the chance to contribute to our knowledge of English through recording pronunciations, pointing us towards new words, adding tags and related words, and leaving your notes

The exhaustive mining spoken of here is performed by a search engine, perhaps something like Zeitgeist, although I am no expert on the auto-generation of material from corpora. But it is clear that the Wordnik ethos is the opposite of dictionaries as we know them. And from the above copy, comes the most interesting declaration: “Wordnik is based on the principle that people learn words best by seeing them in context.”  This allows a dictionary site to run on autopilot so to speak, without the scholarship, the work of trained hands and eyes that has made dictionary aggregation sites like Wordnik possible. There will be no staff writing definitions at Wordnik.

“I think there will always be a place for lexicographical scholarship,” McKean told me. “It may be just at large historical dictionary projects like the OED or the New Canadian Historical dictionary or the Dictionary of American Regional English, places where we need to have someone really do research so that we understand where the word came from and who it’s being used by and trying to trace the path of its use, because that etymological research can’t really be done statistically. But to know in general how a word is used, not necessarily what it means, but I think if you know how a word is used you know what it means.”

Yes, I agreed, one can deduce from its context what a word means.

“Yeah,” she continued, “in fact that’s what most people do every day, I mean if you think of all the words in your vocabulary, the number that you learn by looking them flat out in the dictionary is miniscule. So, you had to learn those words somehow, so you mostly learned them through context . It’s so surprising the number of kind of really core concepts and core knowledge that we have about the world as well as language that we learn just by living. Instead of a pedagogical environment.”

I told Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski during our conversation I was rather astonished to discover that the former editor-in-chief of the New Oxford American Dictionary rejects the very idea of the dictionary as we have commonly understood it.

“I think she is dedicated to a new model” Solowski responded, “ and I think you’re right to draw a contrast. You know I think she is saying something that’s new and different, and I think you’re right, we are not saying the same thing at all. I don’t believe that people want to make their own dictionaries, I think word lovers love being involved in the process and that’s different, I think they still really respect a well-crafted definition…”

“I think she’s deliberately drawing a firm line between the older model that she herself was sort of raised with and that I work with and her new model…you know most people still use the dictionary the way I do, they need to know the spelling and the meaning and the history of the word, and so the dictionary is quite a reliable source of that stuff.  I think her premise is that culture is moving so quickly that she can have an engine that’s sort of an aggregator of a lexicographical nature that moves as quickly as communication does, and she may be right her model is so much broader than ours is, but nevertheless lexicographers are always looking in the rearview mirror of the car, you know we’re looking at what people have said to describe it.”

Wordnik’s embrace of crowd sourcing is not unique. Merriam-Webster’s web site has a button for “New Words and Slang” which brings you to their Open Dictionary. Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary both rely on the participation of readers. When I asked McKean to explain her business model, she had very little to say, except that “we are the biggest by size online dictionary right now, which, you know, that has to count for something.”

Let me hasten to add that I applaud the idea of idiomatic expressions or slang in dictionaries, but I expect such language to be vetted by lexicographers as it is (or has been) at New World and Merriam-Webster and Oxford (and others) before it is included. It is fine to say, as Erin McKean does, that even if a word is uttered only by a single person that word is important and ought to be included in a dictionary, or, in Erin McKean’s dictionary. However, most of us expect our reference works to give us a bit more guidance than that. The lone word uttered in isolation may not have a clear meaning even to the person who utters it.

Andrew Sparks is skeptical of the rush to embrace new words. He envisions the future as a Wordnick, Wiktionary kind of  thing, (although we didn’t discuss any specific web sites) in which people have no use for lexicography:

“…there’s not going to be a great deal of call for, maybe new words, now new words, they love new words, new slang words which may last for a year if they last that long. But they want to have them now, and that’s a perfectly valid demand. But that can be handled by a couple of smart kids in an office in Chicago who keep track of all the new slang and turn out little slang glossaries from time to time that can be peddled to newspapers or what have you and that’ll be put on the internet, that’ll satisfy people.”

Along with new words there is also a mania, across the internet dictionary landscape, for measuring what our fellow readers are looking up. Wiktionary has its “frequency lists,” Peter Sokolowski tweets the most-often consulted definitions based on what’s in the news, and Wordnik shares “statistics.”

Although I’m mildly interested in the fact, as Judy Pearsall informed me, “ ‘time’ is the most common noun in the English language,” I am less interested in the detailed findings of computational studies. Henry Kucera noted in his essay, “Computers in Language Analysis and in Lexicography” for the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary (copyright 1969), the word “the” occurred most often– 69,971 times– in a computer analysis of The Standard Corpus of Present-Day Edited American English undertaken at Brown University. I do not find this particularly enlightening.

Call me inconsistent, but I enjoyed reading the essay, both as an example of what the editors of the brand new dictionary-to-end-all-dictionaries thought of as enticing to readers, and because it explained a new method of study to a mass audience for the first time. The inclusion of this and other essays is one of the things missing from the soulless world of one-at-a-time online lookups.

A potentially positive development from the reader’s point of view is the fact that digital publication does away with the space limitations of print. “We have to look in a new way at what dictionary entries look like in isolation” says Sokolowski,  “because if they’re not limited by the printed page in terms of space then we can provide a lot more information and even write our definitions in a different way.”

“If you look up carpel as in carpel tunnel,” he continues, “I think that’s a good example, there are tens of thousands of examples of this but if you look up carpel, yes, carpel ‘of or relating to the carpus.’ That’s probably not what someone is looking for—so carpus, now you have to go to the next page, so, ‘carpus which is the bones of the wrist.’ So, we could easily make a definition that says, ‘carpal, of or relating to the carpus or the bones of the wrist,’ kind of thing, you know what I’m saying?  So, the reason that it’s not there in the print dictionary is because we specifically have a rule that proscribes us from repeating any information so the definition of carpus is at carpus and we’re not going to repeat that definition at carpal.”

New World College treats carpal/carpus in the same manner as the Merriam-Webster Collegiate. The NOAD MacBook application does not require the reader to look in two places to find a definition of carpal, but then, as I have already pointed out, The New Oxford American is not a dictionary for the college market and has a larger trim size and more pages than the Merriam-Webster Collegiate or the New World College Dictionary. I am assuming that the definition in the NOAD MacBook application download comes from the print edition, because when I checked the definition of “remit” against the print version, it was the same.

More expansive definitions resulting from the removal of space constraints should be better, but I also think part of the skill required of definition writers is the ability to work within the confines of limited space, just as a journalist must learn to eliminate every word that is not essential to the story at hand. I worry that ample space may provide an excuse for poorly written definitions.

Andrew Sparks already sees evidence of lower standards:

“…and now I think because the culture is changing, they [dictionary publishers] are finding it very hard to replace people, and their definitions get not only more abbreviated, but not very good, less and less skilled, less and less showing the mark of someone who’s had long experience as a definition writer.”

He does not believe that today’s dictionary publishers will keep new staff members long enough for them to “mature and ripen” until they master the art of definition writing and the style of the house for which they are working.

The online dictionaries mine the major brand-name print dictionaries, but also many specialized print dictionaries and encyclopedias. Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary may carry more definitions for a word than the traditional dictionaries, so the variety of sources available online is at first glance very impressive.

Of course, if one considers the online ubiquity of copyright free dictionaries like Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, (G. & C. Merriam, 1913), The Century Dictionary, and the oft-licensed American Heritage Dictionary, the sources may not be as various as one is inclined to believe. I may have missed it, but I haven’t run across The Winston dictionary that Jonathan Goldman grew up with (he describes it as “adequate”), the Funk and Wagnalls  Standard College Dictionary (Reader’s Digest), nor James C. Fernald’s English Synonyms and Antonyms, also published by Funk and Wagnalls. I’m sure there are others that someone more knowledgeable than myself might mention.

So, beyond the essays, forewords, explanatory notes, staff identification including the names of consultants, (and accent marks), what have we lost with the demise of print?

Apart from the serendipity (to use a word first included in a dictionary by David B. Guralnik) of finding out, as Sparks says, “something you didn’t know you wanted to know,” we have given up the whole in favor of some of its parts. A dictionary is a work of art, a work of history, a workaday reference that inspires, amuses, delights, and on occasion frustrates the reader. Every dictionary carries its own style of writing and presentation. Every dictionary whether we see them or not, has its strengths and weaknesses, but the true pleasure of a dictionary is in turning its pages. With one hand you can study an entry while keeping a second page open with the other. You can grab pages in clumps to find what you want, or turn them one at a time as if they were the pages of a suspense novel, or a precious correspondence.

While writing this essay, I sometimes used the dictionary applications on my computer or the dictionary websites, even while the books sat on the desk before me. It is easier, or it seems easier, to look up words on a computer, when one is already writing on that same computer. “In a print dictionary the word that you’re interested in is surrounded by lots of words that you’re not interested in,” says Erin McKean, “And they can get in the way.” While I could not disagree with her more strongly, there may be many people who share her feeling.

Hardcover dictionaries are not so portable and they cost money, as opposed to all the free (and potentially portable) lookups available online. But people also like online dictionaries because it is thrilling to see something familiar in a new place. The online definition is a magnified version of print, with no rules to read, no pronunciation to decipher, and a seamless bleed into other reference works, photos, or videos. Online dictionaries offer the movie version of a definition, although the director in this case does not radically change the plot, that is, the essential information taken from print about a particular word stays the same.

As of this moment a download for purchase resembles a print product more closely than a website does. The former contains no ads and includes a word list that allows the reader to see some of the words that precede and follow the one being looked up. Erin McKean says Wordnik had a “word wheel,” but eliminated it because “we realized no one was clicking on it.” This is a perfect illustration of what internet publishing allows for: the use of metrics to quickly edit or remove content.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the printed dictionary, “a form of time-stop photography for language,” as Guralnik would have it (AP story in NYT, 11.08.81).  And speaking of Guralnik, the changing language and new words, anyone with a purely prescriptionist view of dictionaries ought to read his essay from the NYT magazine, “Coinage and Change,” 8.26.79.

A daily issue of a printed newspaper reflects not only the news of the day, but an editorial and aesthetic point of view. Internet publication changes that. For example, the Chicago Tribune printed a story by Brian Bennett that led the “Nation & World” section of June 9th with the headline, “Drug War Tactics Take New Hit.”

I looked for the story on the Tribune website because I wanted to tweet it, but it wasn’t listed among the top stories, or any of the stories from the June 9th newspaper. I found it on Google as a Los Angeles Times story with the headline, “U.S. can’t justify its drug war spending, reports say.” If you search the Tribune website with the original Los Angeles Times headline,you will find it, but not as a story that appeared in the Trib. The editorial judgment that created the newspaper of June 9th was invisible outside of the printed record, a record that might or might not be preserved.

(Not to mention that according to a new FCC report  roughly 13,400 newspaper newsroom positions across the country have been eliminated. The report says, “… in part because of the digital revolution, serious problems have arisen, as well. Most significant among them: in many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting.”)

If major revisions become unimportant, and we have access only to a continuous present of updated entries, the history of our language, and the visible hands of dictionary authorship, will disappear.

Dictionaries, like Newspapers, have been atomized, but the actual consequences for dictionary readers (as opposed to the impact on our society of changes in news reporting) are probably negligible. But what this atomization reflects, the trend of which it is a part is quite disturbing.

At the third plenary session of the recent annual meeting of the Association of American University presses in Baltimore, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, declared that “to disaggregate” books is a good thing. She also referred to the “mythologized process” that everyone is reading an entire book.  According to her blog, Professor Fitzpatrick will become the Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association. No doubt in her new role she can help set standards for “chunking,” the practice of splitting books apart in order to sell individual chapters. (Many of her points were skillfully countered by Ohio State’s Frank J. Donoghue, author of “The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities.”)

Joseph Janes, Associate Professor at the Information School of the University of Washington spoke at The Acquisitions Institute at Timberline Lodge last May. According to the Twitter reporting of his speech by Doug Armato, Director of the University of Minnesota Press, Janes said that the shaping of the scholarly record via collections, copyediting, and capitalization were all part of “the good old days.”

Janes believes that the book is dying and that we are headed to a future of “everything free, everywhere perfectly searchable.” In this new world peer review will be out the window, and the new generation of scholars will neither write books, nor journal articles, but will produce multimedia forms. “Janes speaks of the ‘opening hand’ of new scholarly communication” tweets Armato, “Means knowledge will be fragmentary, no common reference.”

It remains to be seen to what extent the digital evangelists will own the future. But clearly they have technology (and technology companies) on their side, and the proclivity of a culture that is making a virtue of divided attention and learning centered entirely on electronic devices.

I cannot mention the digital evangelists without pointing out that the more human beings rely on electronic devices, cloud computing, and ever-growing numbers of increasingly powerful servers and transmission towers, the more power plants will be required to meet demand. There is nothing “green” about your computer, your tablet, or your cell phone. It just so happens that today’s print edition of the Chicago Tribune carries the headline, “Power Plants Kill Millions of Lake Fish.”

Furthermore, there is growing concern among some scientists and other thoughtful people that low-level electromagnetic fields may be injurious to the health of all living things.

Last month The Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly issued a resolution, “The potential Dangers of Electromagnetic Fields and their Effect on the Environment.”

This report contains a long list of recommendations, the most eye-catching of which is #8.3.2: “Ban all mobile phones, DECT phones or Wifi or WLAN systems from classrooms and schools, as advocated by some regional authorities, medical associations and civil society organizations.”

Who knows, maybe some future generation, turning its back on the excesses of technology, in the wake of the environmental catastrophe caused by high energy use and electromagnetism-induced cancers, may settle on the humble print dictionary as a comforting emblem of a simpler time.

Photo Tweeted by Peter Sokolowski from DSNA meeting in Montreal

In the meantime, we should take Peter Sokolowski’s advice to save our old editions.

Nostalgia for print will grow, even as we look up words online with a book nearby. Soon, biographies of Noah Webster, Samuel Johnson, the madmen and the professors, may be brought to you via Hollywood or Sundance (Mel Gibson is making a film based on Simon Winchester’s book). Ah, the drama of citation, definition, etymology! Meanwhile, the pleasure of words will not be lost on discerning readers, students of language, writers, or intelligent beings from those newly discovered random planets in the Milky Way.

I will end this long post with a brief telephone exchange I had with Andrew Sparks about the state of copy editing. Anyone who reads this blog post will agree. Indeed, the words of Brucejquller fit his description:

SPARKS: There are no such things as copy editors any more, everyone is his own copy editor. You’ve got that machine in front of you, you punch out the things, you may, on a good day go back and proofread your own stuff, but as far as copy, everybody needs a copy editor. Just for syntax, you know what you mean to say, and when you read it to yourself, you put all the things in there that you know are meant to be there.  I read it and I think “God that’s confusing I can’t figure out what that refers to,” because I don’t know what you’re saying and that’s why you have copy editors to smooth out the kinks that you don’t see because its your own baby and you know what it’s potential is at least. But there are no copy editors, you haven’t got time for copy editing.”

BRUCEJQUILLER: Right, it’s just a waste of money to have copy editors.

SPARKS: And it is, because people don’t care any more. I’m not being cynical. I do think that the change in culture is going to make a change in all of our feelings about words and writing.

BRUCEJQUILLER: I guess everything will just be like one long text message.

SPARKS: Exactly. We hope it’s a good text message, there must be some good text messages, but I don’t know, I don’t indulge.


April 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

*A Brucejquiller Exclusive

The bookstore of the Art Institute of Chicago has agreed to let Taschen create a store-within-a-store, allowing the German-based publisher and retailer of illustrated books to extend its already global reach into the heart of the American museum store market. This is not a consignment arrangement.  According to reliable sources the agreement, the details of which are still being worked out, calls for the Art Institute’s main shop to cede 25-30% of its book display space for the exclusive sale of products produced by Taschen. The company’s successful retail record, and their reputation for keeping books in print favorably impressed  decision- makers at the museum. Taschen operates stand-alone bookstores in Los Angeles, Miami, New York, as well as 7 European cities, according to its website.

In a previous post on this site, MUSEUMS TRASH THEIR BOOKS, I wrote about the outright hostility towards books on the part of top brass at many major museums. The partnership between Taschen and the Art Institute—perhaps the first collaboration of its kind in the United States—brings a new twist to the story of the tortured relationship between museums and their bookstores. Will this model offer museum administrators a new modus operandi ?  Will this unusual move spark serious discussion in the museum world about the role of  books ? Brucejquiller will carry further information about this Spring Surprise, and about the subject of museum bookstores.

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