10 Bucks For Knowledge ... But No Credit

Wick Sloane celebrates a pocket-sized information renaissance, without battery chargers, downloads or tangled cords.

January 8, 2007

One higher education per lifetime is inadequate. Too much still to learn. A shred of hope -- an “octavo” renaissance. I didn’t know the word either. We all know these: -- pamphlets, tracts, cool little books. Books, seldom more than 100 pages, from paper folded up to one-eighth of a full printing page. An iPod without the battery and the tangled cords.

A dozen of these octavos, heck two dozen, fit into the pockets of one winter coat and won’t set off airport alarms. Everything for my next move as a citizen or for showing off to smart women. Democracy. The Koran. The Global Arms Trade. Particle Physics. Rousseau. Thomas Paine. Orwell. Design. The latest from Subcomandante Marcos and his Zapatista compañeros.

 “In times of political and social crisis, on a given issue, people are hungry for a short, in-depth analysis that’s demystifying,” says Greg Ruggiero, who in 2006 moved his Open Media imprint to City Lights Publishing in San Francisco. Their latest:

Dear President Bush by Cindy Sheehan. Ink and paper, he says, are here to stay. “That’s where the reading public has a hunger for access to information that’s factual, concrete and accessible at a low price point. That’s so that the public is prepared to participate in public decisions.”

I discovered the cool little books five years ago at Kramerbooks, on Dupont Circle in Washington. Booksellers there call the genre “Chomskies.” Which took me to Ruggiero, who began the story at the Persian Gulf War of 1991. David Barsamian from Alternative Radio called Ruggiero about a speech Noam Chomsky, the activist and MIT professor, had given criticizing U.S. policy on the Gulf War.

“I was so moved and upset by Chomsky’s meticulous analysis that I felt inspired as an activist to get it out. We made a folded pamphlet that was easy to photocopy and for person-to-person distribution and we gave it out on streetcorners,” Ruggiero says. “That was in January 1991. By April 1991, a stapled pamphlet without an ISBN was on bestseller lists.” The news that booksellers had christened all cool little books “Chomskies” delighted Ruggiero. I e-mailed Chomsky for a comment. Traveling. Autoreply: Traveling, try later, if question is “still relevant.”

On that discovery visit on Dupont Circle, the genre was only a few Chomskies and a handful of No-Nonsense Guides from the New Internationalist magazine in Oxford, England. I stocked up. Cool little books have multiplied to more publishers and hundreds of titles. Uniting all is $10 or so price, an unabashed high opinion of all readers, and exalted expectations for the human race.

For the Penguin Great Ideas series, nearly 30 titles so far, hardly routine ad copy:

Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves - and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives - and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are.

Open Media and No-Nonsense have a social justice, political bent. Penguin Books Great Ideas series is exceptional texts, prizewinning design, unmediated by introductions. Oxford University Press Very Short Introductions, 161 titles, embarks at Anarchism, passes The Dead Sea Scrolls and Quantum Theory, and ties up, for now, at World Trade Organization.

Oxford has sold at least two million VSI’s so far with religion titles in the lead, says James Thompson, a VSI editor. The aim at VSI, he says, is publishing authors who “combine authoritative analysis, new ideas and enthusiasm” rather than a dry, topical review. Among the dozens of Rough Guides are Portable Playstation, The Beatles, Cult Fiction, MySpace, Shakespeare, and the Tottenham Hotspur 11.  (Not the Henry IV Hotspur.)  I had the same questions for Rough Guides, but no one replied to phone calls and e-mails. 

“The Orwell, Woolf and Seneca have been standouts,” says Simon Winder, publisher for Penguin Great Ideas. Winder is author of the new book, The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond. “I’m really happy to see several favorites of mine, such as Ruskin and Browne, do amazingly well. I love the idea that, more or less accidentally, thousands and thousands of people have been potentially radicalized by an exposure to Rousseau, Paine and so on.”


(Browne? Me neither. Sir Thomas Browne. Penguin chose his 1658 essay – and who could resist? -- Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk. Cover quote: “Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us.”)

As a test, I read Democracy from the authoritative VSI and the same title from the edgy No-Nonsense. Troth Wells, one of the editors, says that No Nonsense is a chance to go deeper into issues the magazine covers. “Our organization tries to popularize global justice issues,” she says.

No-Nonsense Democracy is a use-it-or-lose-it call to arms on how democracy is and is not working in the world. The VSI looks through the historical and intellectual roots of democracy. Each excellent, with plenty to teach me. I was happy to read both.


I’m a sucker for the sensuality of books -- to look at, to hold, to touch. Apple is great but I can’t say the same for any of my iBooks, past and present. The VSI covers are from colorful abstract paintings by Philip Atkin. At Bridge Street Books, also in Washington, Philip Levy has a VSI lineup across from the cash register. “They are a series without looking like a series,” he says. A stack of the Great Ideas’ Eichmann and the Holocaust by Hannah Arendt was beside the cash register.

Run your hand over the Arendt, or any from Great Ideas. The cover is thick, creamy paper with sunken type, as a letterpress would make.

"It’s called ‘debossing’ and is not really very expensive -- it’s just that publishers have not asked for it,” says Winder from Great Ideas. “The process is the same as ‘embossing’ that has been used for idiotic thrillers for many years, only using the other side of the paper, and in a tasteful context.”

In octavo, Penguin added last month Penguin Classics, so far 20 great stories.  Odysseus Returns Home, The Voyages of Sinbad, Beowulf. Exodus. With these in our laps, we all may start missing our bus stops or refuse to leave the plane.

For bookish questions, Richard Wendorf, at my favorite library, the Boston Athenaeum, is always generous. The origin of cool little books? Aldus Manutius, Wendorf said, the 15th-century Venetian publisher, wanted to get the great Greek authors out in handy editions. Wendorf reminded me of the octavo role in founding the U.S. Why didn’t I head over to see Common Sense by Thomas Paine in the original? I did.

Fifty-four pages, octavo, by Paine. Words written, then printed. Revolution to follow. My sadness was only that buyers back then would bind pamphlets into books for safekeeping. The volumes do have the quirks of the owners’ collection. Common Sense in one is beside an ode to Scottish Whiskie. Another volume includes the rebuttals to Paine. Daily Kos and political blogs today need a tutorial in invective from these writers.

The Tory Rev. Charles Inglis was only warming up in his 1776 reply to Paine, which begins: “I find no common sense in this pamphlet, but uncommon phrenzy. It is an outrageous insult on the common sense of Americans; an insidious attempt to poison their minds and seduce them from their loyalty and truest interest.”

These links of mind and ink and paper keep Greg Ruggiero of City Lights, with Paine, at the printers.

“People are not satisfied with traditional media. Even with the Web, there is an authority to the printed word over the Internet. People just don’t want to sit in front of their computers all day,” Ruggiero says. “When people decide there’s a need for change, this form of communication will still play a part. Even in the age of the Internet, there is still a place for the kind of communication Thomas Paine used.”


Wick Sloane’s Inside Higher Ed column, The Devil’s Workshop, appears as needed. He is an end user of higher education. 


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