Offprints in a digital age

An article of mine about a nineteenth-century con man and kidnapper is in the latest issue of American Literary History, a scholarly journal, and this morning my offprints arrived. I don’t think the world outside academia knows what offprints are any more, if they ever did. I say this with some confidence because when I gave one to a very worldly and well-read acquaintance, he asked, a few weeks after reading it, what it was. Had I had my essay privately printed? he asked. And that was more than a decade ago. I would like to assure everyone that not even I am so nineteenth-century as to have my essays privately printed.

Offprints are unbound printed pages of an article, which a scholarly journal provides to the article’s author so that he may share them with colleagues. The protocol is — or rather, was — that when a researcher wanted to read an article that happened to appear in a journal he didn’t subscribe to, he would send a postcard to the author, care of his institutional address, asking for an offprint. And the author, as a matter of scholarly courtesy, would mail it to him free. My father is a scientist, and when I was little and collected stamps, most of them came from the postcards sent to him and the other scientists at his institution, requesting offprints. In those days, the 1970s and 1980s, the requests by and large came from developing countries, where the research institutions had less money for their libraries. The postcards came from all over the world, in other words, from countries I’d never heard of and imagined I would never see, and it gave me a thrill to see them, emblems of the glamour and global reach of the life of the mind.

It tickled me, therefore, when, upon the publication of my first scholarly article in 1994, I received a request for an offprint.



I mailed the offprint to India very gladly. It was, unfortunately, the last such request I ever got, as well as the first, even though I’ve published several more scholarly articles since then. I don’t know whether offprints are still traded for postcards in the sciences. But in the humanities, at least to my knowledge, the use of them has degenerated to attaching them to job applications or to tenure files. The only people who see them today, in other words, are people operating in a supervisory or fiduciary capacity; the sharing of research is done through online databases like ProQuest, Project Muse, and JSTOR. Offprints are now just prettier versions of a photocopy; including one in your file is roughly equivalent to printing your resume on cream-colored paper instead of on flat white. The romance, in other words, has seeped out of it.

I have two dozen of them on my hands, however. So here’s the proposal: send me a postcard, a real one, on paper, and I’ll mail you an offprint. There is a slight advantage to the paper copy, actually; I couldn’t get online rights for one of the images, so that picture doesn’t appear in JSTOR, only in the printed version. But by and large the only cash value of what I’m offering will be best appreciated by collector geeks, the sort of people who worry whether they’ve been sold an original of the first issue of n+1 or a reprinting. Or for people who, like me, economize on printer cartridges. While supplies last, then, send a postcard to [sorry—address deleted for now, November 2016], and I’ll send you an offprint. Don’t forget to include your own snail-mail address. (If by some miracle I run out, I’ll warn you here.)

Poupées de cire, poupées de son

I’m reading Sybille Bedford’s splendid novel-memoir Jigsaw, and she tells a funny anecdote about a hazard with a homophone:

A friend once told me that as a small boy — he was the son of Aldous Huxley and thus not exactly reared in an intellectually deprived environment — he had read through a French two-volume history of Anne of Austria under the unwavering impression that the subject was a female donkey: Âne d’Autriche.

I was reminded of a misunderstanding of mine, when I was a college freshman taking a class on the French novel somewhat over my head. The professor devoted an early lecture to the genre of the novel and its antecedents, which, in retrospect, owed not a little to Georg Lukács. Letters, of course, and plays had made their contribution, but I was pleased to learn how much the novel owed to dolls. I imagined he was referring to some kind of puppetry that I, as an eighteen-year-old, had never heard of; I knew that Punch and Judy did go back. I was a little surprised to hear that passion for dolls had risen in the ancient era to the level of high art, but I took notes diligently — dolls in ancient Greece, dolls in ancient Rome — until the professor began to go into detail about the well-known dolls of the Odyssey, and the contribution of the trickster tale-teller Odysseus, and at last the realization dawned, to my chagrin, that the professor was talking about l’épopée (epic poetry) not les poupées (dolls). The study of literature was never the same after that.

Forthcoming, glossy, free

The next article of mine to see print will likely appear in the lavishly illustrated new magazine Culture & Travel, where Peter works as a senior editor. They don’t put very many of their articles online, and it isn’t easy to find on newsstands, so if you’d like to read it, your best bet is to click here and fill out the questionnaire to see if you qualify for a free subscription.

NYRB has a blog


You probably already knew that Serge Gainsbourg ripped off Paul Verlaine’s "Chanson d’automne" in his song "Je suis venu te dire que je m’en vais" ("I’ve Come to Say I’m Leaving"). In the poem, Verlaine remembers the old days and cries; in the song, the woman whom Gainsbourg is dumping does. (And maybe he ripped it off again in "Black Trombone," which, like Verlaine’s poem, rhymes monotone with automne; the idea of rhyming both words with autochtone, however, must be unequivocally credited to Gainsbourg.)

You may not, however, have known that the poem is painted on a wall in Leiden, the Netherlands. I was turned on to the wall poems of Leiden by a new blog, A Different Stripe, produced by the always-excellent New York Review Books (NYRB) series. Worth checking out.

They order this matter better in France

I’m a few days late in noticing it, but my friend Alexander Chee, the novelist, has posted some thoughts on World AIDS Day, which was December 1, and also a few funny and risqué public-service-announcement videos from the French group AIDES. (Alex’s blog is safe for work, but the videos aren’t, so don’t click them unless you’re comfortable watching something that’s mildly sexually explicit).