The words you hear are composed in an exceedingly literary environment. An entire floor of our split-level house is devoted to office and library, as I am a writer and my wife is a publisher. She is always overhauling someone’s manuscript, and I am always composing one. Sometimes she gets a crack at one I have composed, but that is another story for another day.
Today’s story has to do with bookish environments and what scholars have come to call “print culture.” Here we are with our books in progress and a jillion books shelved or spread all around us, our desks catty-corner distant from one another, the dogs going back and forth but mostly patronizing the fireplace in the middle.
The dogs doze a lot. I believe this is on account of lack of oxygen in the room. The air is filled with words.
They are lucky dogs, however, and we have a privileged life with our books. In 1920 Mabel Kingsley Richardson of South Dakota wrote about growing up on a homestead in the southeastern part of the territory during the 1880s. “If I had my choice over, I’d choose to be born on the same hill, in the same house, by the same river,” she reflected, “but I would like more books.”
I lift this Richardson quote from an article by Lisa Lindell, of South Dakota State University. Lindell is the catalog librarian at SDSU. She defies stereotypes about catalogers by her record as one of the most productive scholars and writers in the university. She is the author of an article entitled “Bringing Books to a ‘Book-Hungry Land’: Print Culture on the Dakota Prairie,” published fifteen years ago in the journal, Book History.
The question addressed is how people on the prairies fed their hunger for books and nurtured a print culture, against all odds. The factors against them, Lindell observes, had to do with “geographical location, environment, economic conditions, educational levels, and amount of leisure time.” Nevertheless, prairie readers persisted.
Newspapers were jump-started by the requirements of the Homestead Act that notices of proof of claims had to be published, multiple times, in the newspaper. Many of the “final-proof newspapers” moved on once the heyday of homesteading had passed, but they fed the hunger for print when it was most acute, in pioneer times.
Because few pioneer families packed many books with them to the plains. They had a Bible, a few school books, and not much otherwise. Exceptions were the bookish immigrants who cherished works in their legacy languages as vessels of their ethnic cultures and certain members of the Yankee elite who could afford to freight libraries west with them.
Book deprivation and book hunger as described by Lindell in Dakota Territory matches my sense of conditions growing up in western Kansas. Her descriptions certainly are applicable throughout the Great Plains.
Two early remedies emerged for the deficit in print culture, one capitalist and the other communitarian. The first was subscription sales of books by traveling vendors. The Norwegian novelist Ole Rolvaag tried his hand at this, briefly. And I am grateful for the subscription set of encyclopedias that graced our farmhouse. The other remedy was traveling libraries, which plugged the gap before public libraries emerged in the twentieth century.
The conditions facing print culture today are different from those of the pioneer period, but they are no less severe. I believe we can profit from research and reflection on how our book-hungry forebears fed their hunger. Perhaps today the problem is a lack of the hunger itself. Perhaps that aspirational craving is what we need to re-learn from the pioneers.