The link below is to an article that considers the history of dust jackets.
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The link below is to an article that looks at the history of comics.
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I come from a family of miners. The last person to work down the pit was my paternal grandfather, who dug coal from the subterranean tunnels hidden deep below the Welsh Marches, which lie along the English border. In comparison to the innumerable collieries that made south Wales at one point the biggest coal-exporting region in the world, ours was the forgotten coalfield.
My grandfather was a proud miner, but he was adamant that none of his children would follow in his footsteps. Thatcher’s obliteration of mining communities was conducted in an appalling manner, but reinstating the industry was not the answer. However, when I moved to south Wales to study, I was conscious of a different attitude towards our national heritage.
Shortly after beginning my master’s degree at Cardiff, I attended an event with a panel of ex-colliers. During the Q&A session, one audience member expressed a desire that mining should return to the area, which was met with approval from others. I was aware that this reflected the reality that large parts of south Wales have never fully recovered from the abrupt removal of industry, but also conscious that, on that occasion, there was hardly anyone arguing the contrary.
The price of coal
Admittedly, the coal industry brought employment, community and a strong sense of identity to parts of Wales. However, this came at the cost of widespread ecological destruction, and, despite the current coronavirus pandemic, the most significant threat to our survival remains climate change. As people, we have a natural tendency to look at the past fondly, but in order to avoid regressing, it is important to remember the negative aspects of history.
Literature about Welsh coal mining has attracted a healthy degree of critical attention over the years. Yet, little consideration has been paid towards the way writers depict the environmental impact of the industry.
Over the past three years, I have examined a series of texts published in the 1930s, a decade that saw an increased demand – beyond Wales – for literature about the harsh realities of life in mining communities. This Welsh industrial writing, as it became known, is usually viewed as a social document of that era. In my view, we should reclassify these writings as early articulations of the man-made changes that have created today’s climate emergency.
Writing environmental catastrophe
Wales was devastated during the 1930s by the Great Depression. The coal industry was in decline and by 1932, nearly half of all men were unemployed. This economic desolation is mirrored by literary depictions of environmental degradation in Welsh industrial writing, which was going through a boom at the time.
Collieries used local rivers to wash coal, whilst also treating water sources as a deposit for waste. As a result, river ecology suffered for generations. Jack Jones’s Black Parade (1935) communicates the deadly reality of this river pollution in Victorian Merthyr Tydfil, south Wales. Throughout Jones’s novel, the presence of the contaminated local river haunts the characters. Human and industrial waste combine to create intolerable living conditions where rats rule supreme.
Throughout the period of industrialisation, large areas of Welsh forest were cleared to produce the wooden props that were used to create underground tunnels for coal mining. In Idris Davies’s extended poem, Gwalia Deserta (1938), the poet draws parallels between the loss of Welsh trees to industry and the deprivation of the local population during the Depression. Davies’s poem serves as a stark warning of what a place becomes when it loses its trees.
Widespread air pollution was a major consequence of Welsh coal mining. BL Coombes’s autobiographical text, These Poor Hands (1939), describes how collieries created innumerable quantities of dust that blackened the natural landscape and nearby communities, whilst below ground, miners were subjected to abject working conditions that caused fatal respiratory diseases.
During the mining of Welsh coal, large amounts of waste material were also removed from the earth and placed on the surface. This resulted in enormous heaps of black dirt, known as spoil tips, which littered the Welsh landscape.
Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley (1939) is criticised for its inaccurate portrayal of mining communities, but as the most widely read account of life in the Welsh coalfield, it deserves attention. The novel focuses throughout on the menacing spoil tip that looms above the protagonist’s house. Published almost 30 years before the Aberfan disaster, in which a spoil tip collapsed onto the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults, Llewellyn’s text is unsettlingly prophetic.
Given the urgency of reversing the global climate catastrophe, it is important that we end our reliance on fossil fuels. In Wales, we can be proud of our industrial heritage whilst acknowledging its ecologically destructive realities. Literature, in its ability to engage people, can help us remember the negative aspects of our past, so we avoid taking regressive steps in the future.
A seasonal change is in the air. With a minimal amount of nostalgia about the dwindling days of this unique summer, let’s turn to how we can make the most of the rest of 2020 — clearly a year for the history books.
As a historian, what concerns me is: What will our history of this unprecedented year look like in a quarter century? As the world is reshaped by COVID-19, as well as ongoing protests on a nearly unprecedented scale against racism and police brutality in the United States, Canada and around the world, it’s clear that this will be a year for future historians to make sense of.
A child today will be a historian of 2020 in the future. What sources will they turn to? How will they verify scattered memories? How will people tell the story of the tumultuous times that we’re living in today? 2020 may be a year for the history “books” but of course, the record we leave behind will be digital in manner.
But right now, Canada, unlike many other countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Denmark and others, doesn’t mandate its national library to capture a comprehensive digital record of Canadian life. This needs to change so we can ensure historians of the future have all the sources possible to write a rich, equitable and robust historical record.
Social movements, virus
From the role of video and social media in sparking and documenting protests to companies and educational institutions that moved online en masse in a matter of days this past March, 2020 will be a year that will be understood through digital media.
With coronavirus isolation, digital media has been enormously important for our interactions with colleagues, friends and loved ones.
Some trends: Zoom’s daily meeting participants went from 10 million in December to 300 million in April and we “doomscroll” through social media feeds before bed. As The New York Times explained: “The virus changed the way we internet.”
Because in part the British Library is empowered to collect millions of their web pages every year through the use of “legal deposit” power, a historian in the U.K. will have a rich record to explore.
For example, what did Britons think of senior adviser Dominic Cummings’ 418-kilometre trip from London to Durham while his wife was unwell? A researcher will be able to visit the British Library (in most cases, an in-person visit is required due to legal reasons) to consult not only social media feeds of everyday researchers, but news websites, U.K. blogs and beyond.
They will be able to draw on nearly everything published on the U.K. web in 2020. Right now a researcher can already view thousands of pages — and, most importantly, these are stewarded by the British Library for future preservation.
This information will be accessible to our future researcher thanks to the power of legal deposit. Legal deposit is defined by the International Federation of Library Associations as a “statutory obligation [that] requires publishers, distributors and, in some countries, printers, to freely provide copies of their publications to the national collection,” and is a power that builds the collections of national libraries including Library and Archives Canada (LAC).
What this has meant in practice is that when a book or publication is published, there has been a legal requirement to deposit the book with a national library.
What happens when a publication moves online? What about blogs? Should they have a similar responsibility to deposit their material? And, critically, does a national library have a duty to preserve this information at scale?
The British Library has, since April 2013, been “entitled to copy U.K.-published material from the internet for archiving under legal deposit.” In practice, this means that it annually archives websites of the U.K.; it also supplements this archive through curated collections such as the earlier mentioned one around global pandemics. Those tweets, blogs, health websites and so on all form part of the historical record — and once archived, there is no legal ability to retroactively delete them.
Crucially, sweeping collections of material under legal deposit means that material is being amassed that does not seem important today — but could be invaluable to a historian in years to come.
Canada should aggressively follow
The remarkably forward thinking Library and Archives of Canada Act of 2004 gives Library and Archives Canada similar powers. One section of the act, for example, gives the institution the power to take a “representative sample of the documentary material of interest to Canada that is accessible to the public without restriction through the internet or any similar medium.”
These laws, however, aren’t used to their fullest. Canada’s national library doesn’t carry out a comprehensive snapshot of the entire Canadian web domain, meaning that countless voices will be lost for future historians.
This is not to paint too dire a picture. Library and Archives Canada does a great job of capturing material of interest. During COVID-19, it has selectively captured some 38 million digital assets related to COVID-19 by July 2020, which add to their robust web archives including the Government of Canada web archive, which collects and maintains a comprehensive record of federal government’s websites.
Increasingly, it’s making collections, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s collection, available online. In doing so, Library and Archives Canada is explicitly noting its collecting powers under the 2004 act, suggesting an increasing willingness to share these materials.
We should laud this great work, and use it as a launchpad for the comprehensive collection of all Canadian material.
Patchwork collecting: not enough
While Library and Archives Canada has been collecting material for COVID-19, including social media hashtags as well as media and non-media related websites, even 900 websites being regularly collected is patchwork compared to the sheer amount of information published by Canadians online every day.
To do justice to what’s happening around us, and to make sure that historians of the future can understand this moment, the institution and policy-makers need to move quickly.
We need to aim to collect the entire Canadian web domain on an ongoing basis, both during and after COVID, to enable future researchers to understand our country. This will require additional funds to Library and Archives Canada. But, at what better time?
The link below is to an article that looks at the history of the ISBN – the number used internationally to identify individual book editions.
From Homer’s Iliad and Boccaccio’s Decameron to Stephen King’s The Stand and Ling Ma’s Severance, stories about pandemics have – over the history of Western literature such as it is – offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises.
Literature has a vital role to play in framing our responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is worth turning to some of these texts to better understand our reactions and how we might mitigate racism, xenophobia and ableism (discrimination against anyone with disabilities) in the narratives that surround the spread of this coronavirus.
Ranging from the classics to contemporary novels, this reading list of pandemic literature offers something in the way of an uncertain comfort, and a guide for what happens next.
Homer’s Iliad, as the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard has reminded us, opens with a plague visited upon the Greek camp at Troy to punish the Greeks for Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis. US academic Daniel R Blickman has argued that the drama of Agamemnon and Achilles’ quarrel “should not blind us to the role of the plague in setting the tone for what follows, nor, more importantly, in providing an ethical pattern which lies near the heart of the story”. In other words, The Iliad presents a narrative framing device of disaster that results from ill-judged behaviour on the part of all of the characters involved.
COVID-19 is certain to shake up economic systems and entrenched institutional processes, as we’re seeing with the shift towards remote learning in universities around the world, to give just one example. These texts give us an opportunity to think through how similar crises have been managed previously, as well as ideas about how we might structure our societies more equitably in their aftermath.
The Decameron (1353) by Giovanni Boccaccio, set during the Black Death, reveals the vital role of storytelling in a time of disaster. Ten people self-isolate in a villa outside Florence for two weeks during the Black Death. In the course of their isolation, the characters take turns to tell stories of morality, love, sexual politics, trade and power.
In this collection of novellas, storytelling functions as a method of discussing social structures and interaction during the earliest days of the Renaissance. The stories offer the listeners (and Boccaccio’s readers) ways through which to restructure their “normal” everyday lives, which have been suspended due to the epidemic.
Authority’s failure to respond
The normality of everyday life is also the focus of Mary Shelley’s apocalypse novel The Last Man (1826). Set in a futuristic Britain between the years 2070 and 2100, the novel – which was made into a movie in 2008 – details the life of Lionel Verney, who becomes the “last man” following a devastating global plague.
Shelley’s novel dwells on the value of friendship, and concludes with Verney accompanied on his wanderings by a sheep dog (a reminder that pets may be a source of comfort and stability in times of crisis). The novel is particularly scathing on the topic of institutional responses to the plague. It satirises revolutionary utopianism and the in-fighting that breaks out among surviving groups, before these also succumb.
Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Masque of the Red Death (1842) also depicts the failures of authority figures to adequately and humanely respond to such a disaster. The Red Death causes fatal bleeding from the pores. In response, Prince Prospero gathers a thousand courtiers into a secluded but luxurious abbey, welds the gates closed and hosts a masked ball:
The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure.
Poe details the sumptuous festivities, concluding with the incorporeal arrival of the Red Death as a human-like guest at the ball. The plague personified takes the prince’s life and then those of his courtiers:
And one by one dropped the revellers in the blood-bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.
Modern and contemporary literature
In the 20th century, Albert Camus’ The Plague (1942) and Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) brought readers’ attentions to the social implications of plague-like pandemics – particularly isolation and failures of the state to either contain the disease or moderate the ensuing panic. The self-isolation in Camus’ novel creates an anxious awareness of the value of human contact and relationships in the citizens of the plague-stricken Algerian city of Oran:
This drastic, clean-cut deprivation and our complete ignorance of what the future held in store had taken us unawares; we were unable to react against the mute appeal of presences, still so near and already so far, which haunted us daylong.
In King’s The Stand, a bioengineered superflu named “Project Blue” leaks out of an American military base. Pandemonium ensues. King recently stated on Twitter that COVID-19 is certainly not as serious as his fictional pandemic, urging the public to take reasonable precautions.
Similarly, in his 2016 novel Fever, South African author Deon Meyer details the apocalyptic fallout of a weaponised, bioengineered virus that results in enclaves of survivors besieging one another for resources.
In Severance (2018), Ling Ma provides a contemporary take on the zombie novel as the fictional “Shen Fever” renders people repetitive automatons until their deaths. In a thinly veiled metaphor for the capitalist cog-in-the-machine, the protagonist Candace drifts daily in to her place of work in a future New York that is slowly falling apart. She eventually joins a survival group, assimilating culturally and morally to their violent attitudes towards the zombies, “embodying the atomisation of late-capitalist humans in a society stripped to its bones”, as reviewer Jiayang Fang suggests.
For some the end has already come
Consider also that “indigenous futurisms” – a term coined by First Nations cultural and race studies theorist Grace L Dillon to refer to speculative fictions by indigenous peoples and writers of colour such as NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius, and Carmen Maria Machado’s short story Inventory – have long since treated colonialism and the diseases spread by the colonisers as the source of what is currently experienced as an ongoing apocalypse. For many people in formerly colonised places, the apocalypse has already come – pandemics (both literal and metaphorical) have already obliterated their populations.
The catharsis that some of the above-mentioned texts may offer is troubled by the realities of pandemic and apocalypse conditions depicted in much fiction by indigenous peoples. If we used our own likely forthcoming periods of self-isolation to theorise alternative social structures, to tell one another stories about how we live, what stories might we tell?
New novels about climate change – climate fiction, or cli-fi – are being published all the time. The nature of the climate crisis is a difficult thing to get across, and so imagining the future – a drowned New York City, say; or a world in which water is a precious commodity – can help us understand what’s at stake.
This is unsurprising in these times of crisis: fiction allows us to imagine possible futures, good and bad. When faced with such an urgent problem, it might seem like a waste of time to read earlier texts. But don’t be so sure. The climate emergency may be unprecedented, but there are a few key ways in which past literature offers a valuable perspective on the present crisis.
1. Climate histories
Historical texts reflect the changing climatic conditions that produced them. When Byron and the Shelleys stayed on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816, the literature that they wrote responded to the wild weather of the “year without a summer”.
This was caused largely by the massive eruption of the Indonesian volcano Mount Tambora the previous year, which lowered global temperatures and led to harvest failures and famine. Literary works such as as Byron’s “Darkness”, Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein reveal anxieties about human vulnerability to environmental change even as they address our power to manipulate our environments.
Many older texts also bear indirect traces of historical climate change. In Paradise Lost (1667), Milton complains that a “cold climate” may “damp my intended wing” and prevent him from completing his masterpiece. This may well reflect the fact that he lived through the coldest period of the “Little Ice Age”.
Even literature’s oldest epic poem, The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC), contains traces of climate change. It tells of a huge flood which, like the later story of Noah in the Old Testament, is probably a cultural memory of sea level rise following the melting of glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age.
These historical climatic shifts were not man made, but they still provide important analogues for our own age. Indeed, many cultures have seen human activity and climate as intertwined, often through a religious framework. One of the ironies of modernity is that the development of the global climate as an object of study, apparently separate from human life, coincides with the development of the carbon capitalism that has linked them more closely than ever.
2. How we view nature
Reading historical literature also allows us to trace the development of modern constructions of the natural world. For example, the Romantic ideal of “sublime” nature, which celebrated vast, dramatic landscapes like mountains and chasms, has influenced the kinds of places that we value and protect today in the form of national parks.
When we understand that such landscapes are not purely natural, but are produced by cultural discourses and practices over time – we protect these landscapes above others for a reason – we can start to debate whether they can be better managed for the benefit of humans and non-humans alike.
Or consider how in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the work of nature writers such as Thomas Bewick, Charlotte Smith and Gilbert White played a powerful role in promoting natural theology: the theory that evidence for God’s existence can be found in the complex structures of the natural world. Past literature has also been crucial in disseminating new scientific ideas such as evolutionary theory, which understood natural phenomena as entirely secular. Literature does not just reflect changing views of the natural world; it shapes them.
Studying historical texts helps us to understand how modern cultural attitudes towards the environment developed, which in turn allows us to perceive that these attitudes are not as “natural” or inevitable as they may seem. This insight allows for the possibility that today, in a time in which our attitude towards the environment could certainly improve, they can change for the better.
3. Ways of thinking
Some of the attitudes towards the natural world that we discover in historical literature are contentious, even horrifying: for example, the normalisation of animal cruelty portrayed in books such as Black Beauty.
But we can find more promising models too. Voltaire’s poem on the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, for example, has been used to think about the ethics of blame and optimism in responses to modern disasters, like the 1995 Kobe earthquake and the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake.
Reading past literature can also help us to appreciate the natural world for its own sake. Samuel Johnson commented of the natural descriptions in James Thomson’s poems The Seasons (1730) that the reader “wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses”. Amid the frenzied distractions of modern life, the work of authors like Thomson, Dorothy Wordsworth and John Clare can help us to slow down, notice and love nature.
Historical literature can remind us of our own vulnerability to elemental forces. The famous depiction of a storm in King Lear, for example, mocks Lear’s attempt:
In his little world of man to out-scorn
The two-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.
Shakespeare might appear to aestheticise dangerous weather, but the play reminds us that the storm is far bigger and messier than any human attempt to represent and interpret it.
At the same time, literature can remind us of the need to take responsibility for our own impacts upon the environment. We may not want to follow pre-modern and early modern literature in viewing climate change as divine punishment for bad behaviour. But when Milton suggests that it was the fall of man that brought in “pinching cold and scorching heat” to replace the eternal spring of Eden, his narrative has clear figurative resonance with our present crisis.
Historical literature can show us how writers responded to climate change, trace how they influenced modern ideas about nature, and reveal valuable ways of relating to and thinking about nature. The climate crisis cannot be addressed only through technological solutions. It also requires profound cultural shifts. To make those shifts requires an understanding of past ideas and representations: both those that led to our current predicament and those that might help us address it.
Christmas is coming, and gifting is at the forefront of many minds. The latest tech changes from year to year, as do the latest fashions. But the gift that never seems to go out of style? A book.
The publishing world is at its busiest in the months leading up to Christmas. In Iceland, there is even a name for this: jólabókaflóð (pronounced yo-la-bok-a-flot) or “Christmas book flood”. The term has also come to refer to the Icelandic custom of exchanging books on Christmas Eve. As a result, a substantial portion of annual hardcover sales are during this period and nearly 850 new titles were released in 2019’s Icelandic book flood alone.
The UK’s annual Christmas book flood begins on Super Thursday: when publishers release a barrage of new titles just in time for the Christmas shopping rush. Some of the heavy hitters among the 426 hardcovers released on October 3 included Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, Jojo Moye’s The Giver of Stars, and MP Jess Phillips’ Truth to Power.
A long history of books as Christmas gifts
People were giving books as gifts even before words were ever put to paper. In one of his books of epigrams, the ancient Roman poet Martial recommended the works of famous Roman writers like “Ovid’s Metamorphoses on parchment” (animal skin) and “Livy (the Roman historian) in a single volume” (appearing in a scroll, on papyrus, or on parchment) as presents for the December festival of Saturnalia. Martial’s recommendations also included book-related items like “a book-case” and “a wooden book-covering”.
As Christmas grew more commercialised, the holiday became increasingly important for the book trade. In his Battle for Christmas, American history professor, Stephen Nissenbaum, argued that books were “on the cutting edge of a commercial Christmas, making up more than half of the earliest items advertised as Christmas gifts”, citing examples from the 18th century. By the Victorian era, periodicals were regularly featuring Christmas book reviews to promote book sales during the holidays.
One such article from a 1914 issue of the New York Times begins with the declaration that “the war is not the greatest thing in the world. It cannot destroy Christmas … The publishers are ready to help”. This article touts various “gift books” suitable for Christmas exchanges: “Sumptuous books, books in the making of which illustrator and printer and binder have exercise their art at its best.”
These 20th-century gift books follow from a tradition of sumptuous books given as holiday gifts. Medieval manuscripts, for example, were gifted for a range of religious, romantic, diplomatic, and festive reasons. A 2015 exhibition about medieval gift gifting at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, now archived online, further supports the understanding of manuscripts as gifts with personal and social value.
Books in today’s world
Writing about medieval manuscripts, Geert Claassens noted that a book – whether a medieval manuscript or a modern mass market paperback – always functions as both an object and a text. This observation is especially relevant in a world with e-books, which largely remove the “object” aspect of the book. However, a recent series of focus groups conducted by Laura Dietz at Anglia Ruskin University as part of a wider study about social perceptions of e-books has indicated that readers still prefer gifting and receiving print books over e-books. Maybe this is because it’s remarkably difficult to wrap an e-book and place it underneath the Christmas tree.
In a recent article for the international READ-IT project (Reading Europe Advanced Data Investigation Tool), media professor, Brigitte Ouvry-Vial, describes reading as “a social imaginary” that contributes to both personal and collective development. That is, reading has perceived benefits for both individuals and communities. However, she wrote:
The very motivation for non-prescribed reading has clearly shifted across time from an essentially knowledge-driven cognitive activity, to a broad information-driven cultural experience as well as a leisure activity.
This shift has also led to an association being made between being well-read or reading a lot with well-being, as books are more regularly valued according to the level of psychological uplift and self-healing they provide.
Books represent more than just knowledge; they’ve also taken on the role of highly personalised home decor. This is because books can say things about their owners. Likewise, the book you choose to give someone for Christmas can speak volumes about your relationship with that person. It’s not enough to just give someone a book and call it a day – it has to be the perfect choice.
Keeping the tradition alive
Books have a long history of being given as Christmas gifts, and there seems little chance of the trend going away. So why not take Martial’s recommendations and bestow upon your loved one “Ovid’s Metamorphoses on parchment”? Alternatively, and more realistically, consider a nice hardcover edition found through consulting members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association or the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association.
For more modern options, YouTube is teeming with video reviews of the latest releases, as well as of “bookish” gifts to give in lieu of or alongside a book. There are also a variety of monthly book subscription boxes. By giving a book or book-related item in 2019, you’ll be contributing to a long and lovely tradition.
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of fan fiction.
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