What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading
Reviewed by Clarissa M. Wilson
is their power to take new forms,
and to prompt new ways of reading as a result.”
The book is dead. Long live the book.
That is the conclusion Leah Price, book historian and literary critic, has come to in What We Talk About When We Talk About Books. Price uses her expertise to delve deep through centuries of material on what we read, why we read it, and how our ways of reading have changed over the many lifetimes of the printed word. The resulting collage of story and statistic helps the reader to understand that they are part of a legacy that is more complicated than the many think-pieces and anxieties published in recent years portray.
Price focuses in large part on the past few centuries to illustrate the ever-changing nature of readership, publication, and public perception. In particular, Price uses her focus on the more modern history of the book to challenge what she calls the myth of exceptionalism— that we in the 21st century are going through unprecedented and unparalleled challenges. More even than the parallels in book consumption that can be seen between contemporary and older audiences, what Price sees in the historical record is change— rapid, frequently decried change.
Price introduces us to the study of books by writing anecdotally of her own life, in which the ‘informal libraries’ of laundromats and curbside boxes helped develop her understanding of the book as a social entity. From this all-too-familiar image of secondhand and disheveled books Price reminds us of one of the greatest paradoxes that complicate the study of any class of object: the most popular, most used, most interacted with books are often the ones with the fewest copies left behind. Their frequent use rendered them ‘handled to pieces’ before they became a matter of history.
One of Price’s reoccurring considerations is the physicality of these examples she has pulled from throughout the ages. In an anecdote about two copies of Vegetable Cookery, arguably the first vegetarian cookbook in English (first published in 1821), Price remembers a revelation she had about the binding of the vegetarian cookbook (goat’s skin) and the sizing which coats its and its contemporaries’ pages (made by boiling bones, typically of a horse). “I usually imagine books as products of a person’s mind, not an animal’s body. But what was left of my appetite disappeared when I realized that the library in which I was sitting was a graveyard…the raw materials of Vegetable Cookery tugged against its plea for humans to live without taking the lives of other animals”. Presenting the written word has never been without controversy.
Books are, in all their forms, a temporal experience as well as a physical one. The newspaper or chapter-a-day read on public transportation, the hours at a time spent poring over an engaging novel (whether considered a sign of a good attention span or thought of as a symptom of idleness and anti-sociality), the assertion that an eighteenth-century gentleman made that he conversed “with grave folios in the morning, while my head is clearest and my attention strongest: I take up less severe quartos after dinner”— all are evidence that when we read a book it is not just the book that is important, but the when. What We Talk About When We Talk About Books addresses the concern of many that without time to read, the book would vanish: “The problem, I began to think, didn’t lie in our devices so much as in our schedules. When we mourn the book, we’re really mourning the death of those in-between moments”.
Ultimately, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books is a testament to the one constant in our consumption of the written word: us. Whether books are viewed as a panacea for modern vices or an incitement towards ‘cerebral disorder’ (the opinion of Isaac Ray, a founder of the American Psychiatric Association and outspoken critic of novels as morally and physically harmful to the reader) depends less on the book itself and more on the perceptions— frequently changing, often to emotional extremes— of the people who interact with it. As Price remarks, “What’s driving digital-age debates about print, I began to realize, may be as much a mood as a belief. That mood is fear”.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Books ends on a note of mixed positivity and caution. Rather than focusing on the forms or devices that facilitate reading, Price believes that as people for whom books are of the utmost importance— people of the book, if you will— it is our job to focus on the infrastructures and interactions that surround the written word. The defunding of public libraries, for example, should be of much more concern than the notion that most public libraries loan out more digital media than print. The social pressures of reading the right thing in the right way at the right time are neither new nor static, but Price is “confident that the experience of immersion in a world made of words will survive if and only if readers continue to carve out places and times to have words with one another.” What We Talk About When We Talk About Books makes one of the greatest cases for such an endeavour in the twenty-first century.
Clarissa M. Wilson (they/them) is a writer, activist, and scholar. They are currently working towards a Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK. You can follow them on twitter @chthrissa