Beat the Press

The University of Missouri says it can no longer afford to lose money with its publishing arm, University of Missouri Press. So UMP is being killed off with the coming of the new fiscal year on July 1. It will take a little while to wind things down but ten good and dedicated people are losing their jobs with an organization that has for more than half a century enriched the cultures of Missouri.

This writer needs to make sure the reader knows he’s talking about the people who took a typescript and a stack of (well, some disks full of) photographs and transformed them into a stunning book called THE ART OF THE MISSOURI CAPITOL a year ago. I’m so proud of that book, not because I’m the writer and co-author but because of the incredible job UMP did in producing it. The Capitol Commission, which raised money for the production of the book and for the subsidy to UMP to publish it, had been hoping there would be a second printing. But now, who knows?

Whether there is a second printing is a secondary matter when compared to the death of the Press.

The loss of the University of Missouri Press is a loss to all of Missouri, as the loss of similar university presses in to other states have diminished those states.

University presses have struggled for years in a weak economy and a changing world of book publishing and circulation. They don’t publish stuff like Harry Potter novels or Fifty Shades of Gray, or David McCullough’s latest best-seller.

But the University of Missouri Press has given us Vance Randolph’s multi-volume collection of Ozark folk songs, the collected works of Langston Hughes, Robert Farrell’s books about Harry Truman, the Missouri Heritage series of books covering a huge array of topics, and more. And so much more.

If the University of Missouri Press isn’t there to give all of us the opportunity to be better Missourians by learning about the great diversity of Missouri history and culture, who will give us that opportunity? It doesn’t appear anybody will, certainly not in the depth and variety UMP has given us for 54 years.

But the real world intrudes. University of Missouri Press has been losing money for a few years and in the last year the University subsidized it to the tune of $400,000. The university system—as is the case with all of Missouri higher education—has dealt with funding cuts and tuition freezes for several years and the governor and the legislature have little interest in solving that problem. In fact the legislature feels it deserves oodles of kudos for rejecting the governor’s request that it cut another $106 million from higher education in the next budget and instead holding funding at the current year’s level—which is about the same as the higher ed budget a decade or more ago. Lawmakers are proud that they didn’t follow the governor’s lead and cut the funding back to 1990s levels.

So universities have to look for things to jettison. University of Missouri Press is being thrown over the side. The chairman of the UMKC faculty council, in the Columbia Daily Tribune yesterday, says, “I could recoup this amount of money by eliminating two upper-level administrative positions somewhere on our four campuses. Should we close the libraries as well, since they are not income-producing units?” That’s a rhetorical question, of course. And a spokeswoman for the university has told the newspaper that two system-level associate vice-presidents HAVE been cut.

A lot of people who are upset about the decision see the University of Missouri Press has having a value beyond the costs of keeping it alive. Some people are upset enough that they’ve told the university to forget about future money donations. But it’s hard to see the curators changing their minds when the university has leaky roofs, outmoded laboratories, and faculty salaries that are often considered less than the salaries paid at the high-level universities that the University of Missouri likes to think it is.

We’ve covered a lot of legislator-talk about “right-sizing” state government and darned if we know what the right size of government is although we’ve heard them talk in a lot of general terms about small government operating on low taxes. In today’s political climate, there doesn’t appear to be much room for heritage, culture, literature, and meaningful published scholarship, at least not if those things are subsidized by taxpayers who, we are often reminded, can make better decisions about spending their money than government can.

Supporters of the cut say it will help “right-size” the university. Critics of the planned cut think the University of Missouri will be a lesser university because it is killing the University of Missouri Press.

Ellen Gray Massey’s new book

We see that Ellen Gray Massey has a new book out.  It’s kind of an autobiography titled “Footprints in the Ozarks, a Memoir.”   We’ll be watching for it on the shelf of our favorite bookstore.

Ellen Gray Massey is a Missouri treasure.  She has spent a large part of her life writing about life, teaching about life, speaking about life.  Life in the Ozarks.  Real people life.

History is too often written about people who achieve high office or high rank.  It’s written about explorers and outlaws.  It’s written about broad topics such as wars and depressions, and political movements. Ellen Gray Massey’s books have been about people who are historical figures living  next door, or who have lived next door or down the road from our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.  They’re not stories about people who use their hands to sign bills into law or use them to draw lines of strategy on map or use them to calculate economic trends and forecasts.  She’s written about people with callouses who live and have lived their lives down home.

Back in the 60s and 70s, when Eliot Wigginton’s first Foxfire books came out that preserved the life and culture of southern Appalachian people, Ellen Gray Massey understood the value of having her students at Lebanon High School learn to write by writing about people and their culture in the Ozarks.  The stories went into a quarterly magazine called “Bittersweet.”  Before long there were enough articles to put into a book–“Bittersweet Country.”  Another compilation of those articles followed later.

She retired as a teacher more than 25 years ago but she has kept writing and has kept telling stories about the Ozarks and its people.

So now she has another book out.  We have been enriched by each of her previous books and now we are richer still.

So this is what one looks like

Want to see what someone looks like who writes books your children should not be allowed to read? Want to hear what she sounds like when she speaks and what words she uses? Want to see if she wears fishnet hose, a short skirt, and bright red lipstick?

Get thee to Springfield late next month. Sarah Ockler will be in town. And while she’s there she will read from banned and challenged books. Right out loud and in public she will read some of this stuff!!

Sarah Ockler, in case you have not been watching the way the Republic School Board has decided to protect its students, is the author of “Twenty Boy Summer,” a novel that the school board has ordered off the general circulation shelves of the district libraries. The board has extended the same courtesy to Kurt Vonnegut’s most famous novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Vonnegut has been dead for four years but someone from the Vonnegut Foundation will be attending events in Springfield and also reading excerpts from banned or challenged books. So the curious can see what somebody who believes “Slaughterhouse Five” is great literature looks like and how he dresses.

The picture we’ve seen of Sarah Lockler kind of reminds us of Bette Midler, the singer. Maybe its the curly hair or the big smile. She certainly doesn’t look like someone who would threaten the safety or virtue of a school child or of the general population.

And based on photographs and writings and interviews, neither do Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Judy Blume, Jack London, Stephen King, Alice Walker, Ernest Hemingway, and J. K. Rowling. Or Upton Sinclair, William Golding, John Steinbeck, John Updike, Harper Lee, James Joyce, or Madeline L’Engle.

The American Library Association and the Radcliffe Publishing Course lists those authors as creators of the most frequently banned or challenged books in the country.

I must confess that I read banned books. Lots of them. And I’m looking forward to reading a lot more. When I was in High School I read “Peyton Place.” It was not in the school library but it sure was in circulation.

In fact, I distinctly recall my fifth grade teacher reading an entire banned book to my entire class one year. It was about a boy from Hannibal and his slave.

Those of us who write for a living, whether it’s news stories or books or magazine articles, stage plays or screenplays, grow nervous when someone wants to “protect” someone else from reading or hearing something.

A lot of parents don’t want their children to read something on a subject that the children have been talking among themselves about for quite a while, probably, or don’t want them exposed to words the kids have known about for some time—and are likely to have tried to look up in the dictionary. Remember how disappointed you were when….well, maybe I shouldn’t mention the words we used to look up and found either absent or with definitions that didn’t tell us what we really wanted to know.

As for Sarah Ockler, challenged book author: She’s a college graduate who wrote her first novel after attending the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. She teaches adult fiction writing there. Her controversial book–The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association nominated it for one of its annual book awards. Girl’s Life magazine rated it one of the Top 100 Must Reads. The Young Adult Library Services Association nominated it to its Top 100 Must Reads list. The kind of attention she has gotten for “Twenty Boys” reminds us of the kind of attention Judy Blue got many years ago for “Forever,” another novel of teen romance. I read that one, too.

Here’s what Sarah has written on her blog:

“I get that my book isn’t appropriate for all teens, and that some parents are opposed to the content. That’s fine…But don’t make that decision for everyone else’s family by limiting a book’s availability and burying the issue under guise of a ‘curriculum decision.'”

And she goes on a few lines later:

“You can ban my books from every damn district in the country—I’m still not going to write or send messages or make teens feel guilty because they’ve made choices that some people want to pretend don’t exist.”

She’ll arrive in Springfield on September 29th, we understand. And she’ll spend the next two days taking part in the library’s observance of Banned Books Week. A lot of the authors listed earlier who have written books that have been banned or have been challenged by those who know what’s best for the rest of us are dead. But if you want to see what one of these creatures looks like up close, living and breathing, get thee to Springfield.

One other thing. The Republic school board is meeting soon to talk about the books again.