At first glance, Chelsea Green Publishing’s Instagram account is a bevy of beavers, bone broths, and biodynamic farms. The account’s voice is friendly, enthusiastic, and witty. The social media manager interacts with fans using a series of emojis and nature puns.
No matter how cute the marketing strategy of a publishing company, its books almost always work into a greater ethos. Spend a little more time browsing the photo stream and you will find a collection of progressive political nonfiction ranging from farming books to manifestos. Until I saw this recent post, I thought this was pretty well understood.
This is far from the most gutting comment section I’ve seen on a publishing related site. In fact, it’s about 1000% less vicious than any comment on a Publisher’s Weekly article.
Admittedly, Don’t Think of an Elephant is an overtly political book that clearly draws party lines. George Lakoff is a progressive cognitive linguist who has been writing about how the American left and right use language to frame ideology for decades. This book has been a top seller since its first printing in 2004, selling 250k copies. The 2014 anniversary edition has sold 25k so far. Chelsea Green has posted on Instagram about it three separate times in the past year and nobody batted an eye.
The last objection I could find on a Chelsea Green post before this one was for a book called The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, celebrating legalization of marijuana in Vermont. And that person was just arguing the merits of clarified butter.
So what was so special about this particular post?
Possibly it’s the book’s overt political themes in light of the divisions we see deepening every day. Some of their IG followers may have thought they were just following a stream full of nature photos. But I also think that this might be a reaction to an awakening to the fact that every statement of priorities, for oneself and for society, has a political undertone.
And what is an editorial strategy if not a declaration of priorities?
Food, drink, gardening, and farming are always political.
A great example of food intersecting with politics is found in The Cooking Gene from Amistad Press (which I reviewed last week). Michael Twitty unflinchingly delves into slavery and the way it resounds through American history. He brings it into the present, too—not just covering the historical travesties. Using his experience working as a docent at a historical plantation, he confronts how many still romanticize the ante-bellum past—even to the point of shouting him down as he recounts past wrongs.
Chelsea Green’s tagline is literally “The Politics and Practice of Sustainable Living.” And while I’ve heard that conservation and sustainability once were more apolitical topics, they certainly aren’t anymore.
We recently purchased Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self Reliant Gardening, which is a full-color book for home gardeners that want to use minimal fossil fuels, grow heirloom crops, and save seeds.
While this looks on the surface like a practical guide, you can see from the second paragraph of the description that it is highly politically charged:
“In Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening, Bonsall maintains that to achieve real wealth we first need to understand the economy of the land, to realize that things that might make sense economically don’t always make sense ecologically, and vice versa. The marketplace distorts our values, and our modern dependence on petroleum in particular presents a serious barrier to creating a truly sustainable agriculture.”
I’m not saying that every publishing company has a coherently targeted political agenda. Large publishing companies especially can be all over the place. Smaller companies tend to promote similarly-minded authors, though within their area of interest they’ll allow some diversity of opinion.
These are not always left and right issues either. For example, Chelsea Green has published a book by a doctor linking vaccines to multiple childhood diseases (and from the blurb, it appears this includes autism). For my own personal political reasons, I am not posting the link to it. This theme goes beyond political left vs. right, though, as the anti vaxxer movement comes from both sides of the spectrum. But nobody could argue that it isn’t political just like nobody can argue that the topic itself is off brand for back-to-the-land Chelsea Green.
There is a whole world of political dialogue in the world of books beyond questions of what’s allowed in school libraries and the latest inflammatory book by a pundit.
Your priorities shape what you read and where you go for your books. And publishers, if they’re doing their jobs right, know this and acquire accordingly. Demanding that your bookshelf be free of any political agenda is a form of self-delusion that can often be innocent. But it can also lead you to the dangerous conclusion that your way of thinking is “normal” or “neutral”—effectively shutting you off to the perspective-expanding possibilities that books have a unique way of providing. And it also can blithely lead you to accept anything you read as a fact rather than a position (however well informed that position may be).