Shelf Life: Attack of the Pamphleteers

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By now, even the most inflexible of us skeptics have conceded that blogs are here to stay. I remain wary of some of the self-serving, unedited ramblings out there, but I've found that more than a few sites are worthy of a bookmark. The problem is that the blogosphere is already overcrowded; it's difficult to single out the most important threads, and many people don't know where to begin looking.

A couple of book-publishing veterans, who have started a company called the New Pamphleteer, are starting to harvest the best of these online dispatches for publication in a series of 4-by-6-inch pamphlets, an old-school approach that just might convince literary purists that cyberprose is a worthy pursuit.

Pamphlets have a storied history in social movements, political campaigns, and radical uprisings, so the format naturally conjures up a bit of nostalgia. The medium is so enmeshed in the history of underground action, in fact, that I just assumed New Pamphleteer's offerings would have a leftist bent. The five pamphlets published so far, however, are either decidedly centrist or nearly apolitical.

Adam Bellow, cofounder of the New Pamphleteer, explains that the project is modeled after the Little Blue Books published by Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, who also edited a socialist newspaper, Appeal to Reason. From 1919 to his death in 1951, Haldeman-Julius sold more than 300 million copies of the Little Blue Books (his son continued to sell them until the late 1970s). The small volumes varied wildly in subject area, exploring French history, Kantian philosophy, Eastern religion, U.S. politics, human sexuality, and a wide range of other topics.

Editions of Shakespeare's plays were particularly popular, as was a sex instruction pamphlet titled What Every Married Woman Should Know. The Little Blue Books were a short 32 to 128 pages, cost just a nickel, and were accessible to people across a broad spectrum of education and class. In like fashion, New Pamphleteer's first editions will weigh in at a tidy 40 to 80 pages, cost four dollars, and tackle a range of themes, from the stylish, witty musings of Manolo, who refers to himself as the Shoeblogger, to a series of niche-filling how-to guides and dictionaries, including Embrace the Suck: A Pocket Guide to Milspeak (a dictionary of military slang) and The Best Recipes from the Jewish Blogosphere.

I do worry that readers will forget that they're still reading blogs, which along with being casual in tone and heavily anecdotal, are often not deeply researched or factually accurate. Bellow assured me that while New Pamphleteer doesn't have sufficient resources for fact-checking, authors do sign a statement pledging that all content is accurate. (Reliance on the writer's judgment is typical in the book publishing business as well.)

The debut pamphlet, Everything Could Explode at Any Moment, was released in October 2006 as the first in a three-part series examining Israel's battle last summer with Hezbollah. It's made up of postings by longtime blogger and freelance journalist Michael J. Totten, who has spent a significant amount of time in the region and has lived there since fall 2005. His commentary has an air of informality and matter-of-fact analysis that news consumers weaned on CNN, the New York Times, or even Democracy Now! will not be used to.

'Explosions crank your survival instinct up to 11,' he writes. 'But after a while straight math kicks in. You run numbers in your head, even subconsciously. Most specific locations aren't hit, ever.

'We all know fear is contagious. What might be less understood is that calm is also contagious. It's hard to even want to freak out when no one else is freaking out.'

Totten also edits Blog Digest #1: The Hezbollah War, a collection of postings from 29 Israeli and Lebanese bloggers that showcase points of view to which most Americans don't have access. In 'They're Not What You've Been Told, They're Our Neighbors' Kids,' blogger Gavriel humanizes young Israeli soldiers. Blogging from Lebanon, Charles Malik argues that Lebanese civilian deaths have allowed Hezbollah to achieve a level of legitimacy it previously lacked. 'You see, it's really simple,' he opines. 'Israel kills Lebanese. Hezbollah doesn't.'

Supporters of Hezbollah aren't represented in the digest, but the organization has its say in the last pamphlet of the series, Hassan Nasrallah: In His Own Words, which features a collection of writings and speeches by Nasrallah, who is the secretary general of Hezbollah. Together, the three pamphlets help humanize and distill a complex set of issues and, as is often the case in the blogosphere, do so in large part by ensuring that no one is allowed the last word.

Visit www.pamphleteerpress.com for more information.