Pelican Show-and-Tell

Most graduate school classes would consider show-and-tell a bygone exercise, but my scavenging through Amazon for the cheapest possible copy of Raymond Williams’ Culture and Society 1780-1950 resulted in a revival of that practice. When I ordered this text along with others for Raiford Guins‘ course on the history of the field of cultural studies, Amazon notified me that my five-dollar copy would arrive later than my Hoggart, Gilroy, and Denning because it was shipping from the United Kingdom. I had ordered my books early enough for this long transit not to trouble me, but I thought it odd that buying a used book from across the Atlantic cost less than finding it somewhere in the United States.

On the first day of class, Guins’ overview of the field began with the relationship between publishers, scholars, and the masses. He noted that Allen Lane, founder of Penguin Books, was “a visionary” who recognized the value of the ideas incubating in the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary and Cultural Studies. He described Pelican Books, a subsidiary of Penguin founded in 1937, as a press established to “take texts to the masses in a field based on scholarly journals.”

As Guins spoke, I looked more closely at my copy of Culture and Society. On the front cover, above the title, it read “a Pelican Book.” On the back cover, the price was listed as one British pound. “I have that printing,” I politely interrupted the oral chronology. I explained my process of purchasing the book, and with childlike gratification, I passed my historical bargain around the seminar room.

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