The canon debates of the 1980s rested upon some crucial, largely unarticulated assumptions about the value of certain kinds of texts – assumptions so interwoven into the fabric of intellectual and cultural life at the time as to be practically invisible to those who designed, criticized, and/or defended Stanford’s Western Culture reading list. In this post, rather than exploring some of the substantive arguments of that debate, I want to look at one of those unstated assumptions about substance itself: the assumption that the proper material medium for any work worth studying was the printed word — more specifically, the codex, the book.
As John Guillory has argued, Stanford’s Western Culture syllabus was an instantiation of the university’s gatekeeping activity in determining what knowledge – what level of conversance with which texts — would comprise an education. In Guillory’s reading, the university “regulates, because it makes possible, access to this inheritable treasure. Individual works are taken up into this system (preserved, disseminated, taught) and confront their receptors first as canonical, as cultural capital.” In considering the mechanics of this process of preservation, distribution, and instruction, it is important to recognize how those gatekeeping activities of the university both depended on and drove the parallel gatekeeping activity of the publishing industry in determining what cultural expressions, old or recent, Western or “Other,” would be rendered into accessible and durable material form – what texts would be published in / as books.
In the case of the Stanford reading list, each work – including those works that were merely “recommended” — would have been readily available in relatively cheap paperback editions. Moreover, whatever emendations or substitutions might have been recommended for that list, whatever alternate or even “subaltern” reading list might have been proposed, the contents of that revised list – the contents of “a Stanford education” – would necessarily take the form of printed works. “It is not a mere contingency,” Guillory wrote, “that oral works must become ‘written’ in order to be brought into the arena of curricular conflict [even] as ‘noncanonical’ works, excluded or devalued by the Western text tradition. In fact, oral works cannot otherwise enter the institutional field.”  Before subaltern voices could be “heard” in the classroom, they needed to be printed on a press.
This requirement of a work’s printed textuality as a precondition for its assignment in a classroom meant that “alternate” or “non-canonical” readings would need to gain the imprimatur not only of the professoriate, but also – literally – of the publishing industry. Some professors worked around this latter challenge by assigning photocopied course readers. Yet even those (initially) less expensive reading alternatives depended upon a text’s prior publication. A 1991 U.S. Supreme court decision, finding that photocopying major portions – or even the entire contents – of books for inclusion in a course reader without paying royalties to the publisher was not “fair use” of copyrighted material, may have curtailed professors’ reliance on the course reader as a less costly alternative to published textbooks.
But even in the heyday of not-so-pricey Kinko’s course readers, while students might have appreciated the cost-savings, these roll-your-own codices were generally regarded not simply as affordable but also, less flatteringly, as cheap. Course readers were clearly second-class alternatives to “real” textbooks. For example, a 1986 review of the first “comprehensive course textbook for the sociology of law” hailed the publication of a true textbook rather than a course reader as a sign that the sociology of law was “now certified as fit for consumption by law students” and that the field had “officially come of age.”
Similarly, the move toward an explicitly multicultural or “representational” curriculum, at Stanford and elsewhere, both depended on and drove a shift in textbook publishing that served to signal the growth in prestige of once “marginal” textual traditions. Guillory identified two such “welcome and necessary” publishing projects connected with this shift, the Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (1985) or the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature (forthcoming at the time of Guillory’s writing, and published in 1997). He argued that the changing pedagogical landscape of American universities was “a condition for the production of both anthologies.” Other projects, such as the American Women Writers Series (launched in 1986), grew out of a similar demand for course textbooks. The “condition” behind the production of that publishing series included (re)legitimation of “lost” or overlooked works by making them widely available as textbooks for classroom use.
In sum, within the same timeframe as the 1980s debates over the canon, the American university and the book publishing industry were working together in a kind of reciprocating motion as an engine for generating value, minting cultural capital via a printing-press-to-classroom circuit. So while these debates over the “Stanford canon” may have destabilized ideas of “Great Books,” they did not destabilize the primacy of the printed text and the cultural cachet of the codex – or at least the participants at the time did not seem to think so.
Even though the debate at Stanford entailed a spirited and often unruly argument over which books students should read, the expectation that students should read books was never in question. Indeed, it really couldn’t be in question – not for another decade or so, anyhow. In the 1980s, the prestige economy of higher education relied heavily upon the mechanism and symbolism of the printed page. But from the vantage point of our digital present, that once largely unchallenged status of books as such — “great” or otherwise — as the chief medium for reproducing (or at least symbolizing) cultural capital within the university now stands out as a distinctively historical feature.
But if the codex is no longer the basic unit of currency for cultural capital in higher education (or maybe just “in the humanities”), what is taking its place?
 John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 56.
 On the profusion of paperback editions of “classic” titles after World War II, see André Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London: Verso, 2000), pp. 26-31; Jason Epstein, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2001), pp. 47-61.
 Guillory, 43.
 The case was Basic Books, Inc., et. al., v. Kinko’s Graphics Corp. (1991). See John D. Mittelstaedt and Robert A. Mittelstaedt, “The Protection of Intellectual Property: Issues of Origination and Ownership,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, Vol. 16, No. 1, International Issues in Law and Public Policy (Spring, 1997), 14-25.
Roger Brownsword, review, “The Sociology of Law: An Introduction by Roger Cotterrell,” The Modern Law Review 49, No. 2 (March 1986), 271.
 Guillory, 29.