The book is dead. Portable electronic devices have killed it.
But Leah Price’s new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, reassures those of us with an apocalyptic point of view that the book will survive. Price, a Harvard professor and a book historian, says people through the ages have worried about the future of reading.
It’s true enough that print experienced a golden age between the rise of mass audiences in the eighteenth century to the Cold War–era triumph of the paperback, by way of public school systems, cheap wood-pulp paper, browsable bookstores, and taxpayer-funded libraries. Parts of this story, though, began to strike me as unhelpful or even untrue. One is what I’ll call the myth of exceptionalism—that is, twenty-first-century readers’ sense of living through an unprecedented change. The more I tried to figure out how much time different societies had actually carved out for reading, the more the data confirmed that successive audiovisual media did indeed chip away at the dead time once filled by books. I was surprised, though, to find that the strongest proof of print’s vulnerability to competition wasn’t the smartphone. The best-documented such competitor turned out to be TV, whose arrival in the Netherlands in the 1950s, for instance, coincided with a dramatic and elegantly charted drop in rates of pleasure reading.
This smart, well-written history is almost as diverting as a 19th-century penny dreadful. Fingerprints on pages, coffee stains, marginalia, and the texture of the much-read or little-read page provide clues about a reader’s preferences. Price chronicles the history of books from papyrus scrolls to paperbacks, e-books and smart phones, libraries and bookstores. And did you know that 19th-century servants often read aloud to ladies who were having their hair done? And the ladies themselves didn’t always read the books straight through: they skipped around.
This book is lots of fun!