Shelf Life: Attack of the Pamphleteers

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

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.)

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