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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters


Confession, I Am a Cultural Historian

My interest in history is primarily in ideas, beliefs, emotions, as well as the ways these personal, interior, drives and forces are expressed in speech, literature, art, music. I am not a historian of the arts, but I do enjoy using the arts as a window into the mood, the temper, the issues and conflicts, of a time. I am, frankly, just less interested in laws, elections, economic trends. There, I’ve said it. I find the facts of an era as a useful background to understand the tone, the drives, the, well, "culture" of the time. So in order to understand the 1930s, which I happen to be writing about, I set out to find James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy. Good luck — not in the chain bookstore I happened to pass, nor in Shakespeare & Co, — an independent that hangs on in New York (the famous one is in Paris)

I was disappointed not to find my book, but since it is a nice bookstore, I browsed. And there I found, Bound By Law, a graphic novel about copyright — with a special focus on documentary film — created by the Duke Center for the Study of the Public Domain, While the book is not directly about books, or the issues of perms as I experience them, I was thrilled to find it. It was the most grounded, thoughtful, and potentially useful guide to the issue I have seen. It neither suggests we abolish copyright, nor ignore the problem of rights holders squeezing us to death. Read it.

So that is the value of going to an independent bookstore — surely they stocked it b/c the store is near NYU and its film school, the store is also on the edge of the East Village, and while that area has gone through several cycles of gentrification, its appeal is still the edgy, left-leaning, creative class aura of the past. So the bookstore has more left-leaning, edgy, creative-class oriented books on its shelves and on display than you’d see in a chain. For that matter, the nearby St. Marks Bookstore is even more like a college bookstore in Amherst or Berkeley — it was the world center of Cultural Studies when that approach was in its heyday. I used to browse those books, many published by Routledge, and I was sort of interested in their subjects, but daunted both by the deliberately abstruse vocabulary and the rather very academic left viewpoint. Their Cutural Studies was only tangentially related to my sense of Cultural History.

So hurray for stores that have their own personality, for Bound by Law — and for cultural history.


  1. Linda Zajac says:

    Interesting. I think many laws are drafted or changed because of emotion that drives ideas and beliefs that a new or revised law will improve the situation. Wouldn’t that rattle your cage and stir up emotion if a law was enacted that went against your beliefs? Politicians create these laws so they all seem tied together to me.