Adam Bellow, son of the novelist Saul Bellow, has been in publishing for the past twenty years and has earned a name for himself as an editor of famously controversial and conservative books like Illiberal Education, The Real Anita Hill, and The Bell Curve. His newest venture has as its goal no less than, as his Web site puts it, “to reinvent the book for the 21st century.” Bellow wants to do this by bringing back the art of pamphleteering. In a series of 4-by-6 inch, $4 booklets with an average of 60 to 80 pages each, he hopes to create a new, affordable forum for presenting ideas. The significance for the blogosphere is that Bellow believes the Internet has become the central arena for intellectual debate in America, and it is from this source — reprinting digests of blog posts or letting individual bloggers pull together collections of their writing — that he hopes to harvest most of his material.
Gal Beckerman: How did you come up with the idea? Because it seems both old-fashioned and, at the same time, like you are trying to establish a new paradigm.
Adam Bellow: I’m both a professional book editor and an amateur publishing historian. So this represents the fruition of an idea that came to me ten years ago when I was editorial director of the Free Press at Simon & Schuster. In the mid-nineties the publishing business experienced a profound shift, or retrenchment. It was called a “mid-list contraction,” which was a euphemistic way of saying that big publishers were no longer going to publish books that were projected to sell any less than 10,000 copies. They mostly intended to prune their list of small first novels, little quirky books and literary fiction. But that also affected all the midsize publishers that were involved in intellectual publishing — publishing about politics and ideas. In a very short time, this small group of publishers were either sold off, reinvented or shut down.
I began to cast about for a way to keep this kind of publishing going. It occurred to me that, in the nineties, a lot of the very successful books that were published were short, polemical books that really deserved to be called pamphlets, books like The Disuniting of America by Arthur Schlesinger. On top of this, I also had this awareness that all the great social and political and scientific and religious revolutions in Western history were accompanied by, and indeed instigated by, pamphlet wars, from the Reformation to the Enlightenment.
It seemed to me, about the American situation, that the end of the cold war had thrown everything into flux, and that there would be a period of intense argument. Ideas would become important again because things were uncertain. And that’s when I began thinking about how to reintroduce the pamphlet.
My model, the one that I’m hoping to recreate, is an American pamphlet series published in the 1920s, called the “Little Blue Books.” They were published by a Jewish, socialist newspaper editor, very eccentric, brilliant guy named Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. He was a very progressive figure and had a little publishing empire going in the Midwest. At some point he decided to put out pamphlets, which he charged a nickel for. It was strictly a mail order business. He sold these things for twenty years. And he managed to sell a hundred million pamphlets in five years. He was very close with the leading polemicists of the day, so some of them had original material. But the pamphlets were also an eclectic mix of history, poetry, proverbs, joke books, sex advice, household tips, occasional pieces of journalism. When I asked my dad, when he was still alive, whether he had ever heard of the “Little Blue Books,” he said, “Oh sure, when I used to commute to college from the south side of Chicago, to Northwestern, I’d go down to the IC and there would be a little vending machine. You’d put in a nickel and you’d get out a copy of the poems of Shelley or the stories of Maupassant. You’d read it on the train and then you’d discard it.”
The situation now is different. It’s not so much that there is a lack of reading material or higher education like there was then, but rather that people don’t have time to take in all the information that is thrown at them. And this in a period when the tone and the level of public intellectual argument in this country has been adversely affected by both the media revolution and by current events. It’s been polarized and coarsened by the political climate. It’s also been made shallower and more superficial by the media environment.