Mysteries of the Third-Floor Editorial Library, or Rethinking the Shelf-Life of Nonfiction

[I asked Greg Hunter to give us his insights this week.]

Since starting as an assistant editor at Lerner several months ago, I’ve often run up against a unique occupational challenge: to be mindful of not only what’s relevant to young readers, but what appears to have staying power. Will preteen America’s love affair with the Jonas Brothers last until a book about the guitar goes to press? Or would a mention of Nick Jonas in the text be dated on arrival? (By comparison, one year ago I was editing my college’s twice-monthly reviews and humor magazine. The staff writers and I were content to publish one-week-old-jokes each issue and things were much easier.)

When faced with questions like the ones above, I tend to find reassurance in a nearby editorial library/archive/storage closet. There’s a wonderfully eclectic accumulation of books here, not only from Lerner but from a whole range of publishers. A 360-degree view of the room reveals reference materials of all sorts: children’s dictionaries, volumes of the World Book Encyclopedia, a biography of Dolly Parton. Something surprises me every time I grab a book off the shelves.

Only after watching the entirety of the epic Battlestar Galactica reboot this past summer did I skim through the editorial library’s copy of a 1979 text on the original show and learn that Richard Hatch—who portrayed duplicitous politician Tom Zarek in the 2004 series—also played the heroic Captain Apollo in BSG’s earlier 1978 version. (I can’t really convey how mind-blowing this was. Tom Zarek!) A teen-friendly biography of Minneapolis’s own Prince also sits on the shelves, dated 1984—arguably the height of the Purple One’s popularity—and a time before he had contributed songs to the Batman album, changed his name to a symbol, or composed an unfortunate tribute to the Minnesota Vikings. Biographer Steven Ivory curiously chooses to include the line “Prince is still one of rock’s most original performers [emphasis mine]” midway through this book, which led me to questions I had never thought to ask. In the mid-eighties, an era I naturally assumed had belonged to Prince, who were the skeptics? Hüsker Dü? Van Halen?

The editorial library also contains plenty of books with more obvious curricular ties, and glancing at educational texts that are some three, four decades hold has lent me some perspective on the challenge I mentioned earlier. Some works of nonfiction will likely be read as long as people are reading. I don’t want to see the day when readers stop picking up Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Still, timelessness shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Another library find, David C. Knight’s Harnessing the Sun: The Story of Solar Energy (1976), is not the first resource I’d consult for information on solar power. But a look through the book does, um, shed some light on the place this topic had in the public consciousness—what mattered to an author, and what he or she thought would resonate with the reader. It’s a way of thinking, slightly removed from our own but conveniently preserved. Looked at this way, the library’s odds and ends provide some consolation when I’m forced to consider that a perfectly-calibrated Taylor Swift reference may resonate better with young readers in 2010 than in four or five years after that. (Though much of this, Taylor, depends on you.)

2 thoughts on “Mysteries of the Third-Floor Editorial Library, or Rethinking the Shelf-Life of Nonfiction

  1. mr chompchomp

    You have a great job. I'm envious.

    Kid culture is notoriously unpredictable. At a recent dance at my kids' school, everyone was trying to moon walk. Granted, it was shortly after MJs death, but still.

    I'm curious about the solar energy book and how it was handled in the 70s. Is it too hippyish? Or does it, as so many futurist books of the era did, over predict the impact of new technologies? (I remember, for instance, reading about the 25 hour work week we would all enjoy in the year 2000. Heh.)

  2. Greg

    It's not too starry-eyed–a little dry in places–but we're not quite where the author would have hoped we'd be re: solar energy, either…

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