Why Did *Books and Culture* Die?

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During Q & A following the first plenary session of the State of the Evangelical Mind conference last week, I asked the audience: “What does it say about the state of the ‘evangelical mind’ if evangelicals cannot come up with enough money to support Books & Culture?”

Books & Culture was a Christian review of books edited by John Wilson and published by Christianity Today.  As I noted in an earlier post, Mark Noll’s plenary address at the conference identified Books  & Culture as one of the several signs of a thriving evangelical mind.  Back in January, I wondered how evangelical intellectual life would continue to move forward after Books & Culture.  My blog post called attention to Missouri State sociologist John Schmalzbauer’s piece at Comment magazine titled “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine.”  Noll referenced both Schmalzbauer’s piece and my blog post in his address in Indianapolis.

John Wilson was honored during the conference for his work on Books & Culture. Indiana Wesleyan University, one of the conference sponsors, gave Wilson library bound copies of every issue of the periodical.  It was a very meaningful gift, but someone is going to have to lug those books home! 🙂

Rachel Maxson, a librarian and instructor in the honors college at John Brown University, put the demise of Books & Culture in context.  She began her talk by describing the conference as a “funeral”–a time to “grieve together” over the end of this important periodical.  Maxson pointed to 2007 as the beginning of the end for print periodicals such as Books & Culture.  In that year, Apple released the first iPhone, Amazon introduced the Kindle, the bottom of the housing market dropped out, and Harold Myra retired as the CEO of Christianity Today after thirty-two years at the organization.  Traditional print publication took a serious hit from the iPhone and the Kindle.  The tough economy made it difficult for periodicals such as Books & Culture to raise funds. And following Myra’s retirement, Christianity Today changed in a way that was not entirely clear from Maxson’s presentation.

After diagnosing what happened to Books & Culture, Maxson offered some general observations:

  1. It is too soon to say that “print is dead.”  Maxson pointed to a survey that found that 92% of college students would rather have a print textbook.
  2. Evangelicals interested in promoting Christian thinking need to be more creative in their funding models.
  3. Evangelical public scholars and public intellectuals must be rewarded for their work when they “go up” for tenure and promotion.
  4. Evangelicals need to do a better job of creating “clearing houses” so that Christians know how to find good stuff on the Internet.

These are all excellent points that resonate with the work we do here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  While we are a very small operation, we are slowly advancing our grassroots crowd-sourcing efforts to keep this little corner of Christian intellectual culture up and running.  (Now might be a good time to think about investing in what we do here).  In terms of tenure and promotion, I think Christian colleges have always been places where writing for the public has been rewarded.  I also hope that The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has been a clearing house to help you navigate the Web in a more thoughtful and responsible manner.

Stay tuned for most posts on the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference.

The Author’s Corner with Eric Gardner

Eric Gardner is Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University.  This interview is based on his most recent book, Black Print Unbound:  The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (Oxford UP, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Black Print Unbound?

EG: Most immediately, writing a chapter on the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper for my last book—Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (UP of Mississippi, 2009)—confirmed my sense that there were several books that needed to be written about the Christian Recorder.  For a host of reasons, I’m convinced that it was the single most important Black periodical in the nineteenth century, and its amazing stories—stories that can aid students of literature, culture, history, faith, and activism—have barely begun to be told.  I wanted to focus on the years during and just after the Civil War because most histories of Civil War print culture (especially literature) are lily white, and much work on nineteenth-century African American literature deemphasizes or even skips over the War and Reconstruction, to say nothing of Black periodicals and/or Black church print.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Print Unbound?

EG: While filled with specific arguments on diverse texts, individuals, and events, Black Print Unbound’s larger argument is that the Christian Recorder in specific and both faith-centered structures and Black periodicals more generally represented critical modes for African Americans to insert themselves in an often-hostile American print culture.  Black Print Unbound is thus both a call to and an example of the ways in which we might rethink American literary history to make room for voices, genres, and print venues that have been ignored, forgotten, dismissed, and willfully erased.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Print Unbound?

EG: As a study of a periodical of national reach among free African Americans, Black Print Unbound is at once a massive recovery effort of a publication by African Americans for African Americans, a consideration of the nexus of African Americanist inquiry and print culture studies, and an intervention in the study of literatures of the Civil War, faith communities, and periodicals.  At its most basic and as one of the fullest studies of an early Black periodical done to date, it shares information on a massive number of authors, texts, editors, and print processes that have much to say to our current moment and are ripe for further study.  The book also offers the most in-depth study of early Black periodicals subscribers (and likely readers) in existence—and does so in a way that attends to both broad demographic trends and the stories of several individuals.  The book pairs this kind of rich cultural and material history with close analysis of diverse and often unknown texts that were crucial to the development of African American literature and culture and that challenge our senses of genre, authorship, and community.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EG: This is a tough question, as my degrees, disciplinary home, and teaching are all in literary studies.  But, if pressed, I’d say gradually and partially in answer to the first part of the question and out of both love and necessity to the second.  I came to literary studies in large part because of a fascination with the past and with the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about our pasts.  The more I moved toward an emphasis on early Black print culture, the more I understood that careful historical work was and would be simply essential in helping correct the myriad misconceptions surrounding African Americans and print in the nineteenth century.  I spent a long time early in my career simply learning more, engaging with historians and cross-disciplinary scholars, immersing myself in archival work, learning to appreciate the craft of history more fully, and thinking about its intersections with literary scholarship.  When I call myself by the old-school term “literary historian,” I thus try to invoke the dance of disciplines and the necessity of dialogic approaches to our work.

 JF: What is your next project?

 EG: Another tough question, because there is so much work to do.  I’m currently engaged with three large projects: a study of the early Black press in San Francisco, further consideration of the Recorder during the editorial term of Benjamin Tucker Tanner (a kind of sequel to Black Print Unbound, if you will), and more in-depth study of women writers connected to church print (especially Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, but also Edmonia Goodelle Highgate and a range of other folks).  You’ll also soon see publication of a special issue of the journal American Periodicalsfocused on Black periodical studies that I co-edited with Joycelyn Moody.

JF: Thanks, Eric!