Was looking for a book in B&N at the Reston "Town Center" last week and noticed the Civil War shelves had reduced from three to one.
This is good news and bad news, I suppose. The bad news is less choice but the good news is that quality has been way up ever since the Michael Shaara-Ken Burns fans began drifting away. Whatever their merits, Burns and Shaara were a disaster for Civil War publishing, flooding the market with the lowest quality readership imaginable.
Now, it's as if two thirds of the rot has been cleared away to leave some air and light for the better publishing. "Better publishing" means books for deep readers instead of what dominated - entertainment for transients.
Quality in Civil War publishing now is so encouraging compared to when this blog started that I am afraid of drifting into embarassing superlatives.
We still have a residue of book buyers who gravitate to the themes and messages of sixty years ago and they remain a problem for us in that publishers will still seek out this market and consume scarcer shelf space with books that regurgitate the nonsense of long-dead authors locked into a dying dogma.
Even here, however, there are rays of sunshine breaking through the gloom.
For instance, I recently received a deeply offensive newsletter from Gateway Press. It contained an article that lacked notes, bibliography, or in-line references. It made no textual reference to sources (primary or secondary) and it read as if it had been cribbed from a 1959 issue of American Heritage.
I thought no one in 2012 can be this ignorant, or blind, or innocent of the scholarship of the last decades. So I read the offensive piece again slowly and noticed two points buried in the piece that would gag a Centennialist.
It occurred to me then that this article was not written for me or for any modern Civil War reader. This was an author trying to "move the ball forward" five yards against a powerful, entrenched defense that does not read or understand modern Civil War histories.
I had another taste of this in reading Chester Hearn's Lincoln, the Cabinet, and the Generals. Considering the scope of the work, the gaps, the enormous analytical shortcomings, the extensive and irrelevant recounting of the war in narrative form as if for a first-time ACW book-buyer and the meager sum of insights, I was not surprised to find a bibliography replete with secondary sources from the 1950s and 1960s.
My better self eventually suggested that this book was not written for me, my friends, the readers of this blog, nor for anyone we know or will ever know. It was written for an audience of limited understanding trapped in time, locked into a narrative superstructure. The book served the very admirable purpose of (again) moving that ball a possible five yards towards the goalposts against the home team in Centennial stadium.
In that B&N store, BTW, I picked up an ACW railroad/strategy history (quite the thing just now) and noticed the author making inventive points based on new research. He hurt himself badly, however, by borrowing framework elements from the King James Authorized narrative as approved by the Centennial's leading ecclesiastics. For example, the succession of prophets was as depicted by Fathers Williams & Williams, Fuller, Catton, et al. McClellan, a false prophet, arose in the land; Sherman succeeded him as one greater; and Grant followed as the culmination of all prophesy. In railroad terms, this became McClellan as he-with-the-rough-idea-of-utility; Sherman as a more advanced McClellan; Grant as the super-McClellan. In the great Rowena Reed's calculation, the order is inverted but Reed did not make it into this fellow's bibliography.
And again, through my irritation, it occurred to me that this book is not for me. This book is intended for them.
And who are they? They are the remnant searching for the lost shelves of Barnes & Noble.
We'll look at some books in detail soon, with fewer mixed metaphors in play.