Late-Breaking Developments...

The C.L.R. James Library stands fast -- and Amazon launches the digital pamphlet. Scott McLemee reports.

October 13, 2010

A couple of weeks back, this column called attention to an unfortunate decision by the council of the London borough of Hackney to rename the C.L.R. James Library, which had been so christened in 1985 at an event attended by the author himself, who died four years later. Some people were convinced that the renaming was a deliberate insult by the Tories to a preeminent black British intellectual. My own policy is never to attribute to malice anything plausibly explained by obtuseness. The bureaucrats may have just assumed that James once enjoyed some local acclaim, but had been pretty well forgotten.

But his reputation has only grown in the decades since his death. Some 2,700 people signed a petition against the name change, and they did so from all over the world -- confirmation, if any more were needed, that James is a figure with a very long shadow.

Now comes word that the library will retain its name after it reopens in its new location. The building will host an exhibit on James, as well as an annual celebration of his work. The Hackney authorities have also apologized to Selma James -- the author’s widow, and an eminent figure in feminist theory in her own right.

“You gotta claim victory in your column,” a friend wrote the other day. “Not for yourself of course, but for the cause. Victories are good for morale.” Quite right. Credit goes entirely to those readers who signed and circulated the petition. And a note of personal thanks to whoever did the French translation of the column -- which not only expanded its circulation but made the columnist himself 10 years younger, to judge by the accompanying photo.

Besides writing a novel and several volumes of history and political theory, James was an energetic pamphleteer. But people paying tribute to him never use that word. "Pamphlet" seems to have a slightly negative connotation now. This is strange; it ought to be considered a neutral description, since it tells you nothing about the content, tone, or seriousness of the work so described. It seems rare for an American academic or serious writer to publish a pamphlet now. But if you turn from the bibliography of a prominent contemporary philosopher or public intellectual in Europe to his or her publications, it is remarkable how often something listed as a book turns out to be a long essay printed as a short paperback.

During the the 1990s, I heard various editors wax enthusiastic over the possibility of “reviving the pamphlet” as a format for serious publishing. But they never got very far with it. Publishing something in a timely manner and getting it into bookstores posed enormous problems. More recently, there was the trend of academic publishers mimicking Princeton University Press’s reissue of Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit. These, at least, have ended up in bookstores. But usually they have been overpriced miniature hardbacks with wide margins and lots of blank pages inside -- rather expensive items, given the amount of text made available. It is always tempting to photocopy such a book and take it back for a refund.

After getting a Kindle a couple of months ago, I started to wonder if e-readers might be the ticket to making the pamphlet viable as a format for serious publishing.

As if in reply, Amazon has just announced a new line of “Kindle Singles,” which the press release says will offer works “that are twice the length of a New Yorker feature or as much as a few chapters of a typical book.” They will be sold through a special section of the Kindle Store and at a lower price than normal books. (As of this writing, the Singles section is not listed yet.) The announcement is framed as “a call to serious writers, thinkers, scientists, business leaders, historians, politicians and publishers to join Amazon in making such works available to readers around the world.”

While giving the company credit for reviving the pamphlet under a new name, it’s hard not to have reservations about so much cultural and commercial power being concentrated in one company’s hands. (I say this while fully expecting to buy Kindle Singles from time to time, once they become available.) Amazon already possesses extraordinary leverage over publishers, and its growth is routinely cited as a factor in the decline of independent bookstores. It's worth noticing that Amazon names publishers as just one constituency it is inviting to participate -- and at the end of the list. It is inviting potential contributors to get in touch with their ideas for Kindle Singles. This marks a step toward Amazon becoming not just a distributor of digital content, but a publisher, too.

On the other hand, why shouldn’t existing publishers be taking advantage of the e-book format to try this kind of thing? If this new initiative makes digital pamphleteering into a respectable form of authorship, then others ought to be able to take advantage of it. Dissatisfaction with what established publishers are doing has always been an incentive for starting new presses. And just remember: Very few of C.L.R. James’s pamphlets were ever available in bookstores, at least during his lifetime, but over the decades they have found their public. There is evidence that you can prevail, and they might name a library after you in gratitude.


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