By Michele Callaghan, manuscript editor
Almost two hundred years ago, weavers displaced by the industrial revolution smashed the machines that they thought cost them their jobs. Heroes to some and “dinosaurs” to others, they saw their livelihood and way of life stripped away and felt powerless to stop it. This type of permanent disruption engendered many feelings. Among them were hope—felt both by the unskilled workers, who saw a way to break into a field that they weren’t previously qualified for, and by the owners of the new factories, whose fortunes took a turn for the better—and despair. This defeated feeling sprang from the weavers themselves, who had likely trained for years and felt great pride and self-respect for their talents but were deemed unnecessary in a field that their efforts had built.
This cycle of wholesale change being supplanted by more wholesale change is as old as humankind. I doubt most of you have ever used a flint knife or bone awl or even a corset stay or kerosene lamp. My husband and I both have had jobs that no longer exist. He was directory operator (“What city, please?”) and I was a special order clerk in a bookstore. He doesn’t want to go back to that job, and I am happy that readers no longer have to wait six to eight weeks for a book they are longing to read.
But, like those weavers facing a new era in which they might have been sidelined forever, we in the book industry are staring at an uncertain future. This uncertainty affects me and thousands like me. Perhaps I feel it more acutely because books are in my blood and because my husband is also in the field as a book buyer. My grandmother, Carolyn Johnson Tussing, owned Carolyn’s Books for decades in San Leandro, California. I worked for bookstores, ranging from a small two-person shop to what was at the time the largest bookstore in the world. Then I switched to publishing and now edit books for scholars and general readers.
Unlike the weavers, I don’t want to destroy the technology that is affecting my job. I like using a computer and a smartphone. I like the convenience of ordering long lost out-of-print books from one source as much as I enjoy browsing second-hand stores. But I want a fair fight, both from those who own the means of distributing books and from those who read them. Maybe, if the weavers had been valued in the new order, they would have handled the transition more peacefully.
It is my fervent hope that those who make and sell books won’t join telephone operators, milkmen, cobblers, and the host of other professions that, once common, are found only in an old movie or a yellowed page. I truly believe we all still need a warm woven blanket on our beds as a thing of beauty and of comfort and something to read as we while away the hours resting on it.