The Public Humanist

The Public Humanist contributor: Jim Wald

Jim Wald teaches European cultural history at Hampshire College in Amherst. Among his interests are the history of the book and literary life, new media, German studies, Enlightenment and Revolution, and the era of the World Wars. He is Treasurer and member of the Executive Council of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), and Treasurer and member of the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Center for the Book. He lives his life surrounded by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books but spends most of his time working with computers and sees no contradiction therein.

Historic Preservation and the Modern: Not Just Age–But Also Significance–Before Beauty

In his January 10 post, Patrick Vitalone asked: why do we save historic resources? and which? Citing two cases involving modernist architecture, with whose outcome he disagreed, he furthermore asked whether preservation is “to be an unwavering commitment to any and all history, even if the ugliness of the past prevents the beautiful construction of something new?”


Teaching Difficult Subjects

I am writing and posting this from Helsinki, where I am attending a conference and giving a paper. I mention this only because it reminds me that perspective is crucial: what is self-evident in one context may not be so in another. The first thing to consider when contemplating the question of “difficult topics” in teaching is: difficult for whom? why?


What’s in a Name: Anonymity (now and then)

A celebrity displays bizarre behavior, but blame falls on an out-of-control wife—until the husband admits he was the wrongdoer, apologizes, and takes “full responsibility” for “foolish errors”—though conveniently blaming them on a psychological condition for which he is now receiving treatment. It’s the sort of thing one would expect of, maybe, a professional golfer—not a historian.


The Invention of Printing

All of us “know” that the invention of printing was an epochal development in human civilization. Gutenberg and/or his invention of circa 1439-40 ranked at the top or very near the top of the lists of “greatest” of the millennium that journalists eagerly compiled. But how much do we really know?Whenever I reach this topic on my syllabus, I ask my students: Just what was this achievement?


The Checkered Past of Newspapers

When people ask me what the death of the newspaper means to historians, I respond, what do you mean by death? or newspaper? I’d say, first, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated because (unlike Mark Twain) it can exist simultaneously in multiple forms and locations. The decline of the traditional newspaper is largely a phenomenon of western consumer society.


Chronicling the History of the Book as Object

Commentators, friend and foe, have made much of Barack Obama’s calculated appropriation of the legacy of Lincoln. What most struck me, as a book historian, was his decision to take the inaugural oath on the bible that Lincoln used in 1861.In the Senate Chamber, Jill Biden struggled with a massive family bible (in Maureen Dowd’s catty phrase, “the size of a Buick”). The small “Lincoln” Bible, by contrast, was not Lincoln’s (still in his luggage) or even American (it was published in Oxford), but rather, one provided by the Clerk of the Supreme Court, though a particularly elegant copy: “bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal rim,” “heavily gilded” edges, and a “shield of gold wash over white metal with the words ‘Holy Bible’.” Do not the Constitutionally mandated words suffice? Why swear on a physical object, usually, a sacred book with some symbolic or personal association? At