Ingathering of the intellectuals

Publisher Adam Bellow has married an 18th-century literary form to 21st-century digital technology.

adam bellow (photo credit: Courtesy)
adam bellow
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Known for publishing "Jewish" books, editor Adam Bellow was once asked by an interviewer to define what made a book Jewish. "Whatever books Jews want to read," he responded at the time, a response he now admits was a little flippant but one he continues to stand by. For Bellow, who began his career as an editor in one of the first American publishing houses established by Jews in the post-war era, the world of ideas is inherently Jewish. This may explain why he considers even his latest project, publishing thought-provoking pamphlets, a "Jewish" activity. The subject of the first series - the recent war in Lebanon - also speaks to Bellow's long-standing interest in Israel and the fate of the Jews. Bellow believes the ferment in the Middle East is now, and will be, the "engine" of America's intellectual life. "The disarray in our politics is directly related to the disarray in the Middle East and that won't change any time soon," he says. "Israel and the Jews are at the center of this conflict, like it or not." The project, spearheaded by Bellow and his partner David S. Bernstein, is new on two fronts: It marks the return of the pamphleteer, and it draws on the Internet as a source of intellectual fervor. As the title suggests "Blog Digest #1: The Hezbollah War," one of the pamphlets in the first series is a compilation of blog posts. Bellow plans to rely on the blogosphere for many of his future pamphlets. "I've decided to do it in a way that marries an 18th-century literary form to a 21st-century digital technology," he says. "Seems to me we have not only an opportunity but an obligation to go back to the origins of our own ideas and to democratize the debate and public conversation." The $4 pamphlets - small, staple-bound books - are Bellow's latest attempt to drive intellectual debate in the US and are being paid for with money he inherited from his father, Saul Bellow, the 1976 Nobel literature laureate. Bellow modeled his project on the Little Blue Books of the 1920s, a series of small staple-bound books published by the Halderman-Julius Publishing Company in Kansas. Halderman and his wife set out to publish low-priced pocketbooks that were intended to lure the ranks of the working and educated classes. Like its predecessor, Bellow's pamphlet series can easily fit into a back pocket and can be read in one sitting, on a break from work, or sipping a cappuccino. "In these matters less is more," says Steve Wasserman, former editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review. "In a world in which people think they are too busy to read a book, to read smaller books seems entirely seductive, and if it leads people to further exploration of ideas, it's for the good." BELLOW HAS been involved in the world of ideas for a long time. Having studied with Alan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, which became a kind of bible for the conservative intellectual revolt, he went on to publish the vanguard of younger generation conservative intellectuals, such as Richard J. Hernstein and Charles Murray, authors of the widely debated book The Bell Curve. He was also the editor of Deborah E. Lipstadt's Denying the Holocaust, one of the first books about Holocaust denial, that led to a much publicized lawsuit by David Irving, whom she referred to in the book as a Holocaust denier. As an editor Bellow has sparked controversy, in part for rejecting the dominant "liberal" or left-leaning New York Jewish intellectual tradition he grew up with on the Upper West Side of New York, for a still Jewish, but more conservative line of thought. But, politics aside, Bellow is a self-designated heir to a European approach to publishing that looks to publishers to drive intellectual debate, against the more passive and safe American model, which he calls "publishing in the rearview mirror." "I had been groomed as the heir to this tradition, very much a Jewish immigrant enterprise," says Bellow, who began his career at the Free Press under the wing of Erwin Glikes, known for having published some of the most prestigious intellectual figures. "From the start I wanted to be driving debate in this country, and books always seemed to be the main engine of debate." In the 1990s, however, the book industry came under attack. The rise of a mass market for books over the last 20 years pushed the publishing industry in unparalleled ways. The pressure for higher profit margins and the rise of chain bookstores that have the potential to sell large quantities of books have made it increasingly difficult to publish books that aren't best-sellers. The industry that has taken the greatest toll is intellectual publishing. When publishers found the opportunity to sell tens or hundreds of thousands of books, they started to publish books that could sell in those quantities. Books about ideas never sold, nor would they ever sell on such a scale. Intellectual publishing began to look less profitable and less desirable as large publishing companies continued to merge and publish fewer books. "Many books that come to me as an editor, I recognize as not viable because who really wants to spend $27 on a book arguing that [Herbert] Hoover was a great president after all," Bellow says. For someone interested in intellectual publishing, the parameters have narrowed, according to Bellow. "What happened in the '90s is that intellectual publishing hit the rocks in this country." For the last decade, Bellow has been looking for a way to make ideas viable again. Some years ago he decided that the solution to the problem was to bring back the pamphlet. "I knew many writers who would be delighted to express their views in 10,000 words - less than a book, but longer than a magazine article," he says. "There are many people bursting with provocative ideas that they are passionate about, but which they have no outlet for because no magazine will give them the scope, and no publisher will take a gamble." As a business venture, however, pamphlets were problematic. In the '90s publishers were limited to traditional distribution. The economics of the book business made it difficult to publish a product like pamphlets with conventional mass market distribution. Booksellers like Barnes and Noble can take up to 50 percent of the cover price, which means "you have to be able to market effectively," according to Bellow. "I realized that to launch it in a conventional way would require much more money than I could bring to the table." AFTER SEPTEMBER 11 the Internet exploded with talk about ideas. Unlike any other event in recent history, Americans and others were looking for a way to explain the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. And in the two years following, blogs emerged as a powerful forum for discourse. Bloggers across the world opened up the opportunity for large-scale, democratic debate. Bellow was interested in the possibility of a digital community before there even was one. In the early 1980s he was interested in exploring ways to use the digital networks to connect communities of writers and thinkers. He had some family connections to the Partisan Review crowd, and realized "that it was no longer going to be possible to have that very close geographically-centered intellectual/artistic community," Bellow explains in an on-line introduction to his pamphlets. Whereas others of his generation and older have resigned themselves to a changing industry that is driven largely by marketing and leave it to the next generation to find new ways around the problems, Bellow saw the blogosphere as an opportunity. "If I were 10 years older, I might think, like Moses, that the new world will always be closed to me, that I won't reach the promised land," he says. "I'm not prepared to surrender yet." Instead he is bringing his skills as an editor to the blog world. Bellow's idea is to provide an editorial filter to the blogosphere and give the ideas discussed there a "semi-permanent" form - more permanent than the Internet but less than a traditional book - in a series of small, paperback pamphlets. "I consider myself to be doing something analogous to what bloggers have done in relation to the news media - a popular revolt against the monopoly power of big journalism," he says. "No one has really done that in publishing." Bellow had been reading popular American blogger Michael Totten's blog Middle East Journal since shortly before the "Beirut Spring," when protests in Lebanon led to the end of Syria's military's occupation. With the financial help of his readers, Totten moved to Beirut to blog from the ground. He is distinct among bloggers in that he supports himself through blogging, and has a dedicated following on both sides of the political spectrum. In one of their many conversations, Totten told Bellow: "If you want to know what is going on in the Middle East, you won't get it from the media." Bellow took Totten's advice to heart and hired him to edit two of the first three pamphlets. The series includes "Blog Digest #1: The Hezbollah War," a compilation of some of the many blog posts by Lebanese and Israeli bloggers written during the war; "Hassan Nasrallah: In His Own Words," speeches and writings translated into English; and "Everything Could Explode at Any Moment," dispatches from the Lebanese-Israeli front by Totten. The recent war offered a unique starting place for Bellow's new project. What emerged was a series of individual accounts of first-hand experiences, and exchanges between bloggers in Israel and Lebanon. On many levels the aftermath of the war seemed like a suitable time to finally bring his project to fruition: "Basically we were surfers waiting for a wave," Bellow says. "Since the primary purpose [of the pamphlets] is to hold up a mirror to the blogosphere, the war in Lebanon was a good wave for us to catch." Before the war, both Lebanon and Israel had already established national blogospheres. Israeli and Lebanese bloggers were aware of each other and in communication. Many had developed friendly relationships on and sometimes beyond the blogosphere. Then on July 12 citizens on both sides were swept up by the sudden outbreak of war. "This war wasn't being fought far off in a distant land they could only dream of ever seeing," Totten says in his introduction to "Blog Digest #1: The Hezbollah War." "It was fought in their very own neighborhoods." Several of the bloggers kept up contact as the rockets and bombs fell on both sides of the border. No other media could equally capture these real-time conversations, and none had access to the personal and intimate voices that blogs are so good at capturing. Bob at the Lebanese Blogger Forum wrote that while driving home from Beirut as shells were falling a few miles away, Hizbullah sympathizers were offering passersby cookies and candies. "Tomorrow when I will see the destroyed bridge linking my home town of Saida to Beirut, I will only say from the bottom of my heart: Enough! Enough wars, death and destruction! Curse you Hizbullah to hell and back! For all this destruction, for all this death! No it is not Israel's fault! It is your own! Curse you!" At the same time, Israeli blogger Gavriel at Abbagav warned the Lebanese not to believe that civilian deaths are what Israel's military wants: "I'll guarantee you it's not. Because I know these soldiers. They're our neighbors' kids. They're all of our kids - for some of us literally so. We've known them since they were little. They've grown up in front of us, we've watched how they're raised... We know who they are, and who they are not. They're not killers but defenders, the best that we've got." Charles Malik, a Lebanese blogger, who during the war got 30,000 hits a day, first visited the Israeli blogosphere around Holocaust Remembrance Day, a period of intense mourning. The emotion conveyed on Israeli posts provided images that stood in sharp contrast to his prior perception of carefree Israelis. Malik found it "appalling" that the Arab press failed to report about this side of Israel. "During all the joy there is the constant remembrance," Malik says. Israeli blogs provided many Lebanese with a new world view: "They saw Israelis as a concept, not as people." And likewise, Israelis were opened up to Arab society in unprecedented ways. NOT ALL BLOGGERS stand outside the box; many repeat what they hear in the mainstream media, including intense hatred of the other. But the most interesting bloggers are those who haven't made up their minds about everything, says Bellow. "Those who are visibly struggling and wrestling with their own ideas and feelings. They engage with their readers in a lively give and take, and sometimes they change their minds." More than ever, the war made clear to many the larger significance of blogs, especially in the Middle East. Lisa Goldman, a Canadian-Israeli blogger who was corresponding with Lebanese bloggers throughout the war, called blogging "the hottest human interest story" of the war. "Not only was this the first time in history that residents of two countries at war were able to maintain an ongoing, uncensored conversation in real time, but it was also the first time ordinary citizens were able to provide grassroots reporting in real time," Goldman wrote in a recent piece in The Jewish Quarterly. The international media didn't fail to take notice. Following the war, Goldman was interviewed sometimes five times a day by media from around the world, including Japan and China. "What I really like about the Internet is that it liberates the individual's voice," Bellow says. "It doesn't matter who you are, or what your education is - if you have a voice, it will come through." The trouble is that individual voices often get lost in the sea of voices that is the Internet. Many people simply do not have the time or energy to sift through the myriad blogs, and therefore ignore them altogether. Others, such as Wasserman, are skeptical of the quality of the material being published on-line. For him the pace of the Internet makes it an unlikely source of quality intellectual material. "Speed hollows out thought and replaces reflection with noise," he says. But that's precisely where Bellow finds his niche. The problem is not quality, but rather how to weed through the sheer quantity of words to reach the pot of gold. His job, as he sees it, is to compile the best of what exists on the Internet. "There is a lot of material that deserves to be published that would be interesting to read in print," he says. To do that he hires experts in a particular field to edit the pamphlets. The business model is an editorial democracy: bloggers are being given their own imprints for a limited time. One of Bellow's long-term goals is to introduce American readers to the literature of other countries in small doses, especially Israeli literature. "The average American reader will not rush out to buy a book by an Israeli author who is not [David] Grossman, or [A.B.] Yehoshua, but if we have a pamphlet series introduced by Grossman they might." Philip Roth did this successfully in the 1980s by introducing Americans to Eastern European writers. Readers trusted Roth to guide them through a new literature they otherwise would not have been exposed to. The current release is "Best Recipes from the Jewish Blogosphere," edited by Judith Weiss, who blogs at Later this month Bellow and his partner plan to release "Embrace the Suck: A Pocket Guide to Milspeak," a dictionary of military slang and jargon coming out of Iraq edited by Austin Bay, a blogger and retired colonel. Further projects include a possible collection of writings by female Arab bloggers and testimony from people who have escaped from the North Korean gulag. "There is no limit to the amount of material we can publish," Bellow says.