December 2009

Pauls Toutonghi

nonfiction

Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements by Dwight Garner

“The world’s first paid print advertisement, for any product,” writes Dwight Garner, “was for a book.” This ad, he points out, appeared in the seventeenth century, in a journal devoted to the daily affairs of British parliament. And, sure enough, the text of that ad crackles with the fulsome starchiness of archaic English:

"A Book applauded by the Clergy of England, called The Divine Right of Church Government, Collected by sundry eminent Ministers in the Citie of London; Corrected and augmented in many places, with briefe Reply to certain Queries against the Ministery of England."

It also goes to show that while Elizabethan England may have given us lyric poetry and Shakespeare, it did not -- apparently -- give us the ellipsis.

This fact (and more) can be found in Garner’s eminently readable, endlessly fascinating cultural document Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements. While the collection, itself, focuses on American publishing in the twentieth century, Garner’s introduction also gives a thumbnail sketch of the history of the book in general. His introduction alone is worth the price of the hardback. That introduction does what the best literary criticism has done for the past five centuries: It entertains, it amuses, it brings up big ideas.

Books aren’t products, Garner insists; they can’t be sold like “dishwashing liquid or automobiles.” They have a life that is independent of their commodity status. They have a beautiful core, an irreducible something that makes the process of advertising them exceptionally tricky. Every book is unique. This means that ad campaigns essentially have to start from square one, every time. 

Reading Garner’s introduction, I thought of Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin wrote that:

"What withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition."

It’s a problem that art and literature must contend with in our modern world. I’m probably not alone in feeling that there doesn’t seem to be a lot of deep context out there, anymore -- in art, or in our own lives.

So, in a very real sense, these advertisements help restore the full aura of the books in question. Seeing the material culture that surrounded, for example, the publication of The Grapes of Wrath, helped give me a deeper sense of its tradition. What’s ironic is that advertising is a medium that tends to stress the new and the different. But with time, these ads have developed a depth and resonance that their creators could not have anticipated. Go figure. 

Right now, the advertising industry, like so many of our industries, is in a perilous place. Like Garner says, revenues from print advertising are at worst drying up -- and at best moving into the uncharted online wilderness. “In 2009,” he writes, “book advertising seems to be a dying business… it seems unlikely we’ll see another great resurgence of print ads.” What’s equally interesting is that just as the industry is faltering, its history is being mythologized by television and documentary film. AMC’s wildly-popular show Mad Men has seemingly led to a rash of advertising-related documentaries: Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica and Objectified, Doug Pray’s remarkably beautiful Art & Copy, Wendy Keys’s Milton Glazer: To Inform and Delight, among others.

When my first novel, Red Weather, was translated into German, the publisher, Rowohlt Berlin, made a one-minute video-ad for my novel. The ad was embedded in the amazon.de page and seemed to generate some amount of attention. (It really is quite funny, even if you don’t speak German.) And this appears to be the direction that book advertising is going. Many of my writer friends are producing their own YouTube trailers for their novels or story collections; the number of boutique agencies that specialize in only book trailers has been steadily growing over the past five years.

Garner’s book, then, is an homage to a bygone era. The highlights are numerous -- and they are alternately perplexing, hilarious, and moving. The full-page ad for Truman Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, features a smoldering photograph of the author reclining on a divan. The text trumpets Capote’s novel as being: “Vaguely reminiscent of William Faulkner and Carson McCullers yet utterly unlike either of them.” The italics, by the way, are not mine. This is exactly the kind of thing that made George Orwell foam at the mouth in his rabid 1946 monograph, “Politics and the English Language.”

There are also a number of fascinating footnotes in this book. Who knew, for example, that the film director Roger Vadim dated Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Jane Fonda -- and then wrote a memoir about it! I certainly didn’t. But now I just bought that book at Powell’s. Or that Random House took out a two-page ad for Ulysses in The Saturday Review of Literature, and included chapter-by-chapter summaries? (Of the Circe episode, chapter 15, they write: “Probably the most famous chapter of Ulysses -- the episode in a brothel, all of it in dramatic dialogue. Many new characters are involved: Soldiers, prostitutes, an idiot!”) 

The entire book is this interesting. In the acknowledgements, Garner thanks his agent, Sarah Chalfant at the Wylie Agency -- and his editors at Ecco, Daniel Halpern and Matt Weiland. He says that the process of finding the right home for the project was a team effort, one that involved all of these folks. If so, we owe them a debt of gratitude. Together, they have produced a marvelous piece of the American historical record.    

Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements by Dwight Garner
Ecco
ISBN: 0061572195
288 Pages