U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Hot off the Presses

The canon debates of the 1980s rested upon some crucial, largely unarticulated assumptions about the value of certain kinds of texts – assumptions so interwoven into the fabric of intellectual and cultural life at the time as to be practically invisible to those who designed, criticized, and/or defended Stanford’s Western Culture reading list. In this post, rather than exploring some of the substantive arguments of that debate, I want to look at one of those unstated assumptions about substance itself: the assumption that the proper material medium for any work worth studying was the printed word — more specifically, the codex, the book.

As John Guillory has argued, Stanford’s Western Culture syllabus was an instantiation of the university’s gatekeeping activity in determining what knowledge – what level of conversance with which texts — would comprise an education. In Guillory’s reading, the university “regulates, because it makes possible, access to this inheritable treasure. Individual works are taken up into this system (preserved, disseminated, taught) and confront their receptors first as canonical, as cultural capital.”[1]  In considering the mechanics of this process of preservation, distribution, and instruction, it is important to recognize how those gatekeeping activities of the university both depended on and drove the parallel gatekeeping activity of the publishing industry in determining what cultural expressions, old or recent, Western or “Other,” would be rendered into accessible and durable material form – what texts would be published in / as books.

In the case of the Stanford reading list, each work – including those works that were merely “recommended” — would have been readily available in relatively cheap paperback editions.[2] Moreover, whatever emendations or substitutions might have been recommended for that list, whatever alternate or even “subaltern” reading list might have been proposed, the contents of that revised list – the contents of “a Stanford education” – would necessarily take the form of printed works. “It is not a mere contingency,” Guillory wrote, “that oral works must become ‘written’ in order to be brought into the arena of curricular conflict [even] as ‘noncanonical’ works, excluded or devalued by the Western text tradition. In fact, oral works cannot otherwise enter the institutional field.” [3] Before subaltern voices could be “heard” in the classroom, they needed to be printed on a press.

This requirement of a work’s printed textuality as a precondition for its assignment in a classroom meant that “alternate” or “non-canonical” readings would need to gain the imprimatur not only of the professoriate, but also – literally – of the publishing industry. Some professors worked around this latter challenge by assigning photocopied course readers. Yet even those (initially) less expensive reading alternatives depended upon a text’s prior publication. A 1991 U.S. Supreme court decision, finding that photocopying major portions – or even the entire contents – of books for inclusion in a course reader without paying royalties to the publisher was not “fair use” of copyrighted material, may have curtailed professors’ reliance on the course reader as a less costly alternative to published textbooks.[4]

But even in the heyday of not-so-pricey Kinko’s course readers, while students might have appreciated the cost-savings, these roll-your-own codices were generally regarded not simply as affordable but also, less flatteringly, as cheap. Course readers were clearly second-class alternatives to “real” textbooks. For example, a 1986 review of the first “comprehensive course textbook for the sociology of law” hailed the publication of a true textbook rather than a course reader as a sign that the sociology of law was “now certified as fit for consumption by law students” and that the field had “officially come of age.”[5]

Similarly, the move toward an explicitly multicultural or “representational” curriculum, at Stanford and elsewhere, both depended on and drove a shift in textbook publishing that served to signal the growth in prestige of once “marginal” textual traditions. Guillory identified two such “welcome and necessary” publishing projects connected with this shift, the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985) or the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (forthcoming at the time of Guillory’s writing, and published in 1997). He argued that the changing pedagogical landscape of American universities was “a condition for the production of both anthologies.”[6] Other projects, such as the American Women Writers Series (launched in 1986), grew out of a similar demand for course textbooks. The “condition” behind the production of that publishing series included (re)legitimation of “lost” or overlooked works by making them widely available as textbooks for classroom use.

In sum, within the same timeframe as the 1980s debates over the canon, the American university and the book publishing industry were working together in a kind of reciprocating motion as an engine for generating value, minting cultural capital via a printing-press-to-classroom circuit. So while these debates over the “Stanford canon” may have destabilized ideas of “Great Books,” they did not destabilize the primacy of the printed text and the cultural cachet of the codex – or at least the participants at the time did not seem to think so.

Even though the debate at Stanford entailed a spirited and often unruly argument over which books students should read, the expectation that students should read books was never in question. Indeed, it really couldn’t be in question – not for another decade or so, anyhow. In the 1980s, the prestige economy of higher education relied heavily upon the mechanism and symbolism of the printed page.  But from the vantage point of our digital present, that once largely unchallenged status of books as such — “great” or otherwise — as the chief medium for reproducing (or at least symbolizing) cultural capital within the university now stands out as a distinctively historical feature.

But if the codex is no longer the basic unit of currency for cultural capital in higher education (or maybe just “in the humanities”), what is taking its place?


[1] John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 56.

[2] On the profusion of paperback editions of “classic” titles after World War II, see André Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 26-31; Jason Epstein, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2001), pp. 47-61.

[3] Guillory, 43.

[4] The case was Basic Books, Inc., et. al., v. Kinko’s Graphics Corp. (1991). See John D. Mittelstaedt and Robert A. Mittelstaedt, “The Protection of Intellectual Property: Issues of Origination and Ownership,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Vol. 16, No. 1, International Issues in Law and Public Policy (Spring, 1997), 14-25.

[5]Roger Brownsword, review, “The Sociology of Law: An Introduction by Roger Cotterrell,” The Modern Law Review 49, No. 2 (March 1986), 271.

[6] Guillory, 29.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Speaking of students spending money on readings and the notion of authenticity in education (not just canonicity, though I think they’re related), the argument about canons and great books in education was, at times, about students and parents getting the best perceived value out of increasingly expensive degrees. I recall Guillory arguing this, or at least something like it.

    Think about the appearance of Kinko’s readers to certain kinds of students and parents. Readers are similar to books, but miss important aesthetic markers of value—i.e. durable bindings and covers, attractive aesthetics, etc. But readers also work to “cheapen” a text by offering only partialities, discontinuous and broken texts. Readers are literal instantiations of the postmodern literary ethic—they are hip-hop samplers and pastiches of traditions (Western and otherwise).

    One of the most attractive features of the great books idea as it was presented by Adler and Hutchins (what I call the Great Conversation iteration in my book) was the idea that students (adults, college, h.s.) were attracted by the challenge of obtaining an understanding of a *whole* great book. This is why the Britannica set contains no partial works, and why Adler rec’d whole works in *How to Read a Book*.. I call this attractive because this is the version of the great books that *sold* via the mid-century popularity of great books reading groups, sales of Adler’s book, sales of the Britannica set, and proliferation of great books programs in higher education after WWII.

    In sum, I wonder if conservative rxns to changed curricula in the 1980s were about moves away from whole works and books. I don’t mean to say that revised canons would have “sold” well in higher edu if they had been presented in whole book forms, but I wonder if the reaction would’ve been less strident.

    Speaking personally, as a student of higher edu in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found Kinko’s readers revolting. They weren’t the kinds of things one kept on her/his shelf, with pride, after completing your degree. How do you sell your higher edu credentials to friends and family after graduation if you only have Kinko’s readers on your shelf?! – TL

    • True about course packs. I have the same issue with xeroxed articles. I DO treasure my collection of pdfs of old full-texts downloaded from Google Books when you could still do that.

  2. Tim, thanks for this great comment. You are riffing on some themes that I am looking at more closely.

    Very short answer: the in-house conversation in the 1980s/1990s — as in, the conversation w/in academe — about the death of the West, etc., was not particularly attentive to the materiality of texts/textbooks. However, the sideline conversation — as in, the convo of non-academics in general interest pubs, letters to the editor, etc., discussing the Western Civ changes (and in many ways this “side” conversation became the main event) — sometimes touched upon anxiety about the fate of books as such.

    And of course this different reaction is what one would expect. Professors have been assigning selections from longer works for decades and decades. That was certainly the case at Stanford. In fact, the “old” Western Civ class (mid 1930s to 1968) used a single survey textbook — a secondary source — for all three quarters, and left it up to the grad student lecturers to assign (or not) selections from primary sources. Most of the works on the Western Culture reading list (1980-1988), except for the shorter ones, were assigned only as selections.

    So the idea that students were once reading entire “great works” before the multicultural turn is an idea that would have a lot more traction outside the academy than in it. (That’s not to say that the entire page count assigned to undergrads over the years hasn’t perhaps decreased — but there’s a difference between the number of pages assigned and the number of pages undergrads actually read.)

    In any case, course readers have also been around for decades, though in the old days (per a U of Chicago PhD from the 1960s) they were mimeographed. The advent of photocopying made course readers easier and cheaper to produce. So it’s quite possible that photocopying technology allowed for an increase in the number and kind of texts that profs could assign — at least from the early 1970s to the early 1990s. But in the wake of Basic Books v. Kinko’s, course readers lost a lot of their convenience and their cost savings.

    That said, I think there is a general sense in academe — perhaps especially in the discipline of history — that the codex still carries more prestige than other textual forms. (Perhaps there is also this general sense in the culture at large?) Journals that appear in print probably still carry more prestige than journals that appear only online. And I think this has to do with the costs of production or the ease of reproduction. We are all “publishers” now — all you need is an internet connection and a Blogger account (or a Twitter feed, or a WordPress site). So perhaps one way of signaling value is not just peer review (lots of online only journals have that) but also a more costly, more substantial (literally) production process. Still sorting out whether that signaling is more about cost per se than about (kinds of) materiality.

    So maybe I’ve just written a counterargument to myself here in the comments! Not sure. And maybe the whole course reader v. book thing is a red herring for this chapter. My sense that this is important — and the way I am fitting this side issue into the structure of my argument as a whole — might be met with some dubiety. But I’m still sorting out how all this works together (or doesn’t), so I appreciate the chance to hash it out here.

    But, on course readers — I don’t think it was the “selection” part that bothered people (after all, that’s what Norton Anthologies are), but rather the sense of ephemerality/cheapness.

  3. in the wake of Basic Books v. Kinko’s, course readers lost a lot of their convenience and their cost savings.

    My impression is that the decision probably decreased cost savings, but not necessarily the convenience aspect of readers. Profs whose depts or institutions had some money for the purpose could arrange for royalty payments through the Copyright Clearance Center for the articles or book excerpts (that were not in the public domain) included in a reader. The readers were still just as convenient for a prof who thought he or she needed one to collect a whole bunch of excerpts of his/her own choosing, but the students had to pay a heftier price for them than before. As someone whose undergrad and grad-student years were separated by a longish stretch of time, I can recall encountering a Kinko’s-style reader in one or two courses in grad school (after the Basic Bks v. Kinko’s decision). I don’t recall any in undergrad courses, well before the Basic Bks case, though I’m pretty sure course readers were not completely unheard of at that point.

    In the course of writing the above, it occurred to me that, if I’m not mistaken, M. Sandel’s course ‘Justice’ at Harvard, which thousands of students have taken by now (and which anyone can see online these days), used a reader put together for the course — Sandel eventually published it, or the substance of it, as a book, but the reader was used for a number of years. (I didn’t have the chance to take the course because my undergrad years pre-dated its advent — but not by much; I don’t want to make myself out to be even older than I actually am. ;))

  4. Louis, thanks for pushing me on the details a little bit above.

    It may not surprise you to know that, AFAIK, no one has written a cultural/intellectual/social history of the Kinko’s course reader. So I am cobbling this together as I go. I haven’t been able to find much written about course readers per se, except for news reports discussing the copyright infringement actions. But not a lot about the course reader as a classroom fixture. I am mostly picking this up from discussions of other issues that mention the readers in passing.

    One aspect of the readers’ “usefulness” was that, for a time, entire books were being photocopied, or several different shorter works in their entirety were being combined. I think after the universities and Kinko’s lost these cases, profs couldn’t just put together whatever reader they wanted, b/c of fees and restrictions on % of work that could be copied fee-free. So maybe the readers were less useful to students after Basic Books v. Kinko’s.

    And the mode of production for course readers has changed significantly from the days when a prof (or their grad student, or whatever) had to cart a load of books down to the university copy center, or cart the master copies down to Kinko’s, and fill out an order for hard copies. Now — at least for those excerpts/articles for which licensing fees don’t need to be paid — all that is put on electronic reserve, accessible via a password to students enrolled in the class. The “codex” — even the Kinko’s version thereof — is divvied up digitally and may not be printed at all. For the most part, this is probably more convenient, though the tradeoff for that gain in flexibility is a loss of uniformity of student experience with (and even possession of) the text. Odds are greater that not everyone will be on the same page — literally.

    Anyway, thanks for the insights. As I mentioned above, I understand that the mimeographed (and then, later, photocopied) course reader was a fixture on college campuses for decades before the canon debates of the 1980s. (The impetus for the lawsuits against universities and Kinko’s was the copyright act of 1976.) So maybe I’m making too much of the role, at this particular historic moment, of publishing as legitimation. I’ll have to see how all of this shapes up. But if you come across any texts from this time (early 80s to mid 90s) that discuss the place of the photocopied course reader in college life, ping me please!

    • L.D.,
      One thing I was trying to suggest above (not too clearly) was that esp. if you are interested in the period between Basic Bks and the widespread use of electronic reserves (and you may not be interested in this period), you might look at the role of the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC). Though entire books perhaps could no longer legally be copied for a reader, some copyrighted works still could be included if the fees were paid to the CCC.

      There is a difference between “you can’t copy this” and “you can’t copy this unless you pay a fee,” and one of the points of the CCC, at least as I understand it, was to make fee-paying fairly easy for anyone who wanted to put together a course reader legally after Basic Bks. I may be wrong, but at any rate that’s my impression. I take the pt that the utility/convenience of readers might still have decreased post-Basic Bks.

      I know you’re interested in publishing-as-legitimation and ‘the codex’ and not the history of copyright law, but it may well be worth reading (however painful or repellent it might be to read a Sup Ct copyright case) the decision in Basic Bks or at least the long official Sup Ct headnote (summary) of the case to make sure exactly what it said and did not say (rather than relying on a secondary account). OTOH, I understand there’s a limit to how many unpleasant things one can do.

      • Thank you, Louis. I am just starting down this rabbit hole, and not sure yet where it will take me, but I will see where I can get with some of the sources/questions you’re raising here.

        More below…

  5. Outside of the academy, I remember growing up with several versions of the canon on shelves in the living room, including Harvard’s “five foot shelf” and the boxed paperbacks of the “Great Books” from the discussion program my Dad led. But I also remember NOT realizing what a narrow door works had to pass through to get published. After all, there were libraries and bookstores filled with titles, so I figured what was there SHOULD be there. Now I’m a little more aware of the contingency involved in getting work into print, and a little more interested in the material )published and not) that lives on the fringes of canons.

  6. Dan, thanks for the comments. It has been interesting to read, here and on Facebook, people’s personal recollections/reflections about the significance of bound books v. copies. Quick and dirty summary: class matters! My very interest in the codex per se as significant to this historical moment (significant in a way that might be different from moments earlier or more recent) may say a lot more about my own “history” with the book than it says about the history I’m trying to write. But I definitely see in my sources a somewhat different perspective on books as such, and the difference connects (as far as I’ve been able to discern so far) with people’s position in re the academic mainstream. What (and how) books signified in this debate within the university and beyond the university is something I’m trying to understand — I guess my object of interest (one of them) is “ideas of the book” at play in these debates. But, as I said above, this might be more of a rabbit hole than a rabbit trail. I’ll have to see how/whether I can pull this together with the rest of my chapter.

    In any case, thanks much to all for the reflections. Very helpful and encouraging.

  7. I’ll comment on one aspect of your discussion about books and core curriculum’s which I recall. I was an instructor in Columbia’s core program in the 90’s and I remember they required everyone to buy copies of whole books. Plato (republic), Aristotle (ethics), Hobbes (leviathan), Descartes (meditations), Darwin (origin), Marx (manifesto), etc. One reason for this was to give the faculty flexibility in what they taught. The Leviathan, e.g., is this huge book that nobody could be expected to cover completely. So the requirement for faculty was often stipulated by number of days. For instance, faculty were instructed to devote at least one day to the Leviathan. But what material was assigned in the class was left to the discretion of the instructor. This was helpful as political science faculty who taught the core could focus on the political chapters, while others who were (say) interested in Hobbes’s views on psychology could focus on that more. In some works specific chapters of the books were required for everyone, but not always, and this made it easier for faculty to tailor the course to what they understood the most. So note that there is also pedagocial value in using books because it introduces flexibility into the system, and there is probably something to note here about the fact that people teaching the course will want this flexibility included.

  8. Thanks for this comment, coucddon! Your observation re: professorial desire for flexibility accords very well with what I’m seeing in my primary sources from the 1980s, both in terms of discussion about the list and uses of it. The syllabi I’ve seen from the various Western Culture tracks mostly display just this feature, assigning only selected pages from the common works required to all. (There are also a few syllabi listing things like “xerox” or “handout” for some of the “elective” or “recommended” readings.) In any case, I’m enjoying considering the ways that material conditions/forms both express and impinge upon ideas. A treacherous path for a historian of ideas, perhaps, but a very interesting one so far for me — and I’m glad to know from these comments that others might be likewise intrigued. Onward!

  9. After thinking more about this, as well as reading the recent comments and thinking about LD’s focus on the book (i.e. the codex), I wonder if we can abstract book history into the history of ideas by connecting educational value to “books” as an almost literal kind of humanist-educational currency. This goes to the final para of my comment of my own devaluation of course readers, primarily because of the aesthetics of it.

    Having whole books on one’s shelf—that you have read and understood, and books that others have also read—goes not only to Guillory’s sense of cultural capital but also to our own valuation of our own humanist education. I’ve never seen scientists or engineers prominently display the textbooks of their STEM courses after graduation. But I have seen them* display religious books, history books, and works of literature and philosophy. And those are almost always authored by well-known people.

    Despite it being a malleable human creation, the book/codex has, over time, obtained a tangible denotation of educational currency that coincides with, and at times supersedes, the cultural currency Guillory outlined as relative to the worldly professional value of a degree. So the books of the Canon Wars—not just texts and authors—were linked to a deep war over meaning of learning about the human condition.

    And the associated battles are, as many historical studies have shown, always over competing values and valuations. It’s not just the form of the book versus course readers, but of the integrity of the book as a form of currency. Nobody goes to a sustained cultural battle over articles, journals, or ephemeral readers. But the book has a cultural and symbolic power that exceeds its material components.

    All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m with you, LD, I think. The codex is a sign and signal of the deepest of values—of memories of past human conditions and how they may inform a better present, whether via family relations, dating, marriage, community, nations, states, and the world. Readers? Not so much, even when they could occasionally be valued higher by smart individuals. – TL
    * I was a chem student, and stayed in touch with some of my classmates after graduation.

  10. Tim, excellent comment and excellent question.

    Short answer: yes. This is the basic metaphor I’m using in this section of my dissertation. Books — the codex — as “hard” currency.

    Might sound rather far removed from debates over whether Terence or Toni Morrison should be on the reading list — but (without describing in detail all the stepping stones I plan to traipse across) I believe I can get from point A to point B on this.

    I’m very, very glad for the responses to this post. I had been doubting my own instincts along this line of inquiry. But I think I’m on the right track here — or at least on a track that will be of value (!) to others interested in similar times/topics.

    • I guess what’s coming to me is how much *more* valuable these books are than Guillory’s conception of education as cultural capital. Great books and canons are, indeed cultural capital in higher education, but they are deeper than that. I guess this is connecting with my critique of Guillory’s book in that it excluded the use of canons and lists outside of higher education. – TL

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