What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price

Most of the talk about a supposed imminent and inevitable “death of the book” reflects a sincere concern, no doubt, but is generally too confused and dramatic to be helpful. I want a definition of terms before I can evaluate the danger…just what is meant by book? Is the concern for the physical object, its tactile pleasures, history or beauty? Is the concern for the kind of content and form of expression we experience in books? Perhaps it’s worry that the change of delivery technology will diminish the benefits we associate with reading?

Leah Price points out in her recent book What We Talk About When We Talk About Books that all of these issues have caused anxiety among readers for a very long time. There was never a “Golden Age” of reading but always a mix of purposes and quality for books and other forms of printing. I love books, in any definition, as much as the next reader. While for years I only cared about the content of what I might be reading, I’ve developed a strong interest in book history and appreciation for the artistry and craft of production. There will always be people who appreciate the beauty of fine printing, so I am confident that the book as art object will continue. I don’t expect to ever own one of those small press run gems but I can enjoy the trade edition.

There is unquestionably a lot of trash/junk/drivel, pick your own label, published now. But does it actually drive out good writing or is that an illusion? The range of fiction writing in the nineteenth century was similarly wide but we only think of the great works that continue to speak to us. As a bookseller, I sighed to see children loading up with the Babysitter or Goosebumps series; in a few years will they be the adults with the latest James Patterson or Danielle Steele novel? “At least they’re reading” isn’t a comfort. Reading is a skill that needs to be developed by engaging with good writing. The readership for literary fiction has never been large; it’s hard to make a case that it’s any smaller today.

I’ll admit to sharing some of the concern for the possible implications of the new delivery technologies. Tiny screens, blue light, multiple constant visual distractions, never reading more than a few sentences at a time…what might these do to our physical brains, to our abilities to concentrate, to think? Price writes about the explosion of new kinds of print media in the nineteenth century – pocket-sized paperbacks, news digests, tabloid newspapers – to meet new needs in the urbanizing, industrializing society. People needed something convenient to read for short intervals of waiting in lines, in offices, on the train or to provide isolation from the strangers around them. Sounds a lot like how we use electronic devices, so perhaps we’ll survive them too.

Price tells an interesting story of William Morris, the great champion of design and craftsmanship, who criticized the small paperback book because it is difficult to hold for comfortable reading. He also recognized the human bias to value things based on scarcity and effort required. His books are designed to encourage what we might call “slow reading”, by which the physical qualities of the book call attention to the quality of the content. By restoring the sense of occasion that he associated with medieval manuscripts, Morris hoped to forestall the always-on reading that we equate with the smartphone but that he blamed on cheap print. Like familiarity, ubiquity breeds contempt.

Those of us who love books, who love to read for any of the many reasons there are to read, want books to continue to be valued in our world. We respect the power of good writing to focus critical thinking and to enlarge our lives. It’s the writing that matters. A book is thinking and feeling made visible. The ‘book’ has had many forms over the centuries. How will it adapt in this one? That is what we should be talking about when we talk about saving books.

If you value the union of opposites brokered (sometimes but not always) by long-form, long-term reading–emotional absorption with intellectual reflection, inwardness with empathy, the capacity to withdraw from those around us while remaining attuned to distant minds–then the book may no longer be the only place to look. If we think of printed paper not as an inert collectible but as a cue or catalyst, then fetishizing the wood pulp and thread or glue onto which attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination have sometimes piggybacked means looking in the wrong place. More useful might be exploring what new–or old but forgotten–ways of circulating and sharing and responding to words might allow those habits to flourish.

Author: abookwomansholiday

The perfect holiday for a lifelong reader is one with a stack of books and few distractions. Retiring after three decades as a bookseller, I look forward to reading my way through the stacks and shelves and lists of books waiting for me. This blog will be something of a grab bag or commonplace book of reviews, quotations, notes on the history of books, the contemporary book trade, and anything connected with books and language. Reading is a great pleasure. Thinking and talking about books multiplies and intensifies that pleasure.

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