“When is a book not just a book? Well, as almost any cultural historian can tell you, a book is almost never just a book…”
So begins today’s story from Dr. Scott McLaren.
For further reading:
Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada by Scott McLaren (University of Toronto Press, 2019)
90 Second Narratives
Season 6: “Books”
Episode 5: “Religion and the Business of Books”
Sky Michael Johnston:
Hello and welcome to 90 Second Narratives, I’m Sky Michael Johnston. Today, I am pleased to introduce our storyteller, Dr. Scott McLaren, a faculty member in the graduate programs in Humanities and History and an associate librarian in the Scott Library at York University. Listen now to the story, “Religion and the Business of Books.”
When is a book not just a book? Well, as almost any cultural historian can tell you, a book is almost never just a book. In fact, defining what a book is, is no easy task. Which is funny, because most of us are surrounded by books all the time. So, what is a book? Obviously, a book is the text. A book is also, at least most of the time, a material object.
But a book can also be seen as a form of cultural transaction. And as one of the first mass produced commodities, it can also open a window on early industrial business practices that have come to dominate the modern world.
For me, religious contexts are one of the best places to study book culture. After all, the relationship between religion and the recorded word is profound and ancient. My own work concentrates on a form of evangelicalism known as Methodism: a branch of Christianity that places an especially strong emphasis on the written word. Methodists were the first denomination in America to establish their own publishing house. And America was a tough market in which to succeed. But the Methodists did succeed: and how. By the middle of the nineteenth century their publishing house had grown to become the largest publisher in the world. How did they manage that? A powerful and early form of branding. Their book advertisements drew no attention to the prices, to the quality of manufacture, or even the spiritual value of their contents. Instead, they reminded customers that profits from the sale of their books went back into the charitable work of the wider church. Buying a book from anyone else wasn’t just disloyal. It was a kind of theft from God’s work. I explore this dynamic in my book pulpit press and politics in the United States and also Canada where these rhetorical strategies played out in strange ways that help shed light on why the religious cultures of these two countries are so different today.
Sky Michael Johnston:
To learn more from the fascinating historical research behind Dr. McLaren’s story, have a look at his 2019 book, Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada. It was published by the University of Toronto Press.
Thank you for listening to 90 Second Narratives. Please join me again next Monday for another “little story with BIG historical significance.”