Amherst United States

A SHARP Conference in Amherst, MA.

Literary Tourist in Massachusetts

So I’d heard of SHARP, The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. I knew there was study of the history of the book involved, and I thought (erroneously as it turns out) that there also was some kind of official connection with the Fisher Library in Toronto.  But it wasn’t until I took the time to visit the website that I realized how similar SHARP’s objectives were to my own. Reading this: “Research addresses the composition, mediation, reception, survival, and transformation of written communication in material forms…” I was struck by how aptly it describes the parameters of my Biblio File podcast project, where the goal is to document the book at the turn of the 21st century, to develop a panoramic portrait by interviewing ‘best practitioners’ in and around the book trade – those involved with the book’s “composition, mediation, reception and survival.”  But I’m also interested in the past, which means interviewing not only people currently on the job, but also academics, biographers, and authors familiar with people from the past. This in part explains why I collect publishers’ histories and memoirs, and more broadly, books by and about people connected with books. In fact, some of my favourite interviews have focused on practitioners from the past. For example, James Laughlin 

Jack McClelland

and Blanche Knopf

Given that many members of SHARP epitomize the kind of ‘expert’ I’m looking to interview, I figured I should try to get to know some of them.

As it happened, SHARP’s 2019 annual conference was to be held in Amherst, MA. I could easily drive down there. So I contacted the organizers, Jim Wald and Jim Kelley, and convinced them to provide me with a press pass.

The drive was uneventful, save for a humongous downpour shortly before I arrived at my Airbnb in South Hadley about 20 minutes from the conference venue. It was unusually hot. After the deluge the streets were literally steaming.

Turns out I’d been in the hood earlier in the year to interview respected antiquarian book/author archives dealer Ken Lopez, in Hadley. Listen here to an enlightening conversation on how Ken went about developing two seminal book collections:

On the same trip I buttonholed Barry Moser in nearby Hatfield to talk about his storied career in the book arts ( and yes, he’s as fun to talk to as he is to look at!). Listen here:

Copped this photo of Dante hanging on one of Barry’s walls. If you haven’t seen his illustrations to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Inferno, do yourself a favour. They’re frighteningly good.

You should also know about Barry’s own press, Pennyroyal and all of the beautiful books produced under its imprint, many of which we talked about.

Next morning the drive up to UMass was punctuated by this wildlife encounter

The second encounter of the day was with one of the used booksellers working the conference. His prices were really good. $10 for a copy of Sandra Campbell’s excellent Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press for example. I interviewed Sandra at her home in Kingston, Ontario last year about Pierce, one of Canada’s greatest publisher/editors. Listen here:


There was also a copy of Ruth Panofsky’s history of MacMillan Canada for sale. I’d interviewed Ruth years ago about this when the book was still in gestation. She was kind enough to reference our conversation in her acknowledgments. I already had a copy but it was buried in storage, so I decided to spring for this one, and get her to sign it (she happened to be at the conference).

The first morning session I attended included talks on three separate topics: Coloring the Alice ( in Wonderland) Books, Japanese books illustrating the American Civil War – produced contemporaneously, and the cost to John Murray of publishing photography books on Africa in the 19th century. Yup, about as esoteric a grouping as you could hope to find, and to this book-lover, all equally fascinating. Talk of Japan brought up memories of my trip to Tokyo last year and a conversation about ukiyo-e woodblock printing with skilled practitioner and ex-pat Canadian, Dave Bull. Listen here:

After coffee break I sat in on a session entitled The American History Textbook Project: Teaching an Evolving National & Cultural Identity with Book History. Sounds like a bona fide snoozer doesn’t it. Well it definitely wasn’t. There are considerable rewards now being reaped thanks to the accumulation and comparison of history text books, year to year, region to region. No wonder different states have such different beliefs and ‘personalities.’ For more on this intriguing project, click here.

The presenters were students of Jonathan Rose. He was in the session. Afterwards I cornered him and arranged an interview. Jonathan is known for much more than just this project. He in fact was instrumental in setting up SHARP back in the early nineties. Listen here as he tells the story:

Years ago I’d visited Jonathan at his home in Pennsylvania somewhere to talk about the history of Dent, the British publishing house, and its Everyman’s Library. I’d sought him after discovering this

and seeing that he was its editor. This book, along with companion volumes on American publishing houses became collecting bibles for me. At the end of each publishing house entry there’s a short bibliography listing sources. Pasteing them together provided me with my early publishers’ histories/memoirs hit list. Today many of the listed titles sit on my shelves. Naturally, as you can see, I got Jonathan to sign my copy.

After a plate of sprouts and over-sized, possibly genetically modified lima beans, I headed over to the Annual General Meeting. The amphitheatre was full. Various Society officers were paraded up on the stage, names were put to faces and awards handed out, including the 2019 DeLong Book History Prize.

“I saw literary scholars, historians, librarians and publishing professionals mixing amicably and conversing creatively,” said Jonathan after the first SHARP meeting in 1993. “That’s when I knew that [the society] was going to work”. While I didn’t run into any publishing executives, I did see a lot of young, enthusiastic academics and librarians crowding the hallways. The sheer number of interesting sessions on offer spoke to the breadth of their interests and curiosities.

For instance, I had a hell of a time choosing between Sites of Dissemination: Scribner’s Bookstore, Cultures of Publishing: Nineteenth-Century Publishers’ Series, and Agents and Agency: Sybil Hutchinson Literary Agent to James Reaney. The last was delivered by Ruth Panofsky, so I went with it. Wanted to connect with her, and get my book signed. Ruth is doing important work bringing attention to under-appreciated women in Canada’s 20th century book publishing world. 

After her talk, in the Q & A session, an academic, Julie Rak, whose work I’ve encountered before – a toxic cesspit of a book review in which she trashed Nick Mount’s excellent book on the CanLit boom, Arrival, for not devoting enough pages to women, or black or indigenous writers when the fact is “history” shows that, for good or bad, their voices just weren’t present – Nick was simply telling it the way it was – anyway, she asks this question about the Canadian publisher Jack McClelland, calling him a ‘real asshole’, and requests that Ruth give her “the dirt” on him. 

I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and shut up, but I was some tempted to blast her – only thing is, if I had’ve done so, I’m sure it would have stirred up more dust than was worth wiping out of my eyes.  Sure, at times, Jack was probably an asshole. But he went out of his way to champion female writers, and worked tirelessly to promote Canadian authors. He’s a hero and should be celebrated as one. Was he a Harvey Weinstein? I very much doubt it. Pretty well all the women who worked with him, loved, or at least admired him.  

It’s one thing to pay attention to those whose stories haven’t been told, quite another to smear the reputations of those who should be revered. The whole affair put me off my soup, so I went for the salad instead at that evening’s dinner. Having shredded my tongue, I wasn’t terribly inclined to socialize, so I headed for the door early.

Next morning I attended an interesting session on Books, Indigeneity & Settler Colonialism. It brought home the importance of access to books and archives, and how they can be used as proof to settle disputes from the past.  Regrettably I missed Jonathan’s afternoon talk on Playboy magazine’s female readership (it was huge),  but just the topic reinforced my opinion of how agile his mind is, especially when assessing and exploring the capacity of the printed record to teach us about history. There’s little doubt in my mind why SHARP is thriving: with people like Jonathan actively organizing, and preparing talks, it’s sure to continue to attract curious young scholars. Sure, I think the organization could use more collectors and book trade people – it’s a bit academic-heavy, but I guess this is to be expected, along with the accompanying activism and social justice agendas. You’ll find this everywhere though, and, within reason, all for the good. 

All told it was a really intellectually stimulating couple of days spent in the company of people in front of whom you didn’t have to be embarrassed when admitting your book geekiness. Next conference is in Amsterdam in June, 2020. For more info, click here

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit Amherst Books (my friend, the poet Matthew Zapruder recommended it). But I did get to see this fine example of hard core Massachusetts graffiti, right next door

On my way out I visited Gray Matter Books in Hadley,

where I was pleasantly surprised to find these to add to my collection.

Great way to end off the trip.

Three literary hot spots in Amherst if you happen to be there: The Emily Dickinson Museum which, speaking from experience, offers excellent tours, the Yiddish Book Center, and The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Click here for tourist information.

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