The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control
Columbia University Press, 2009
272 pp., 85.00
Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books
Yale University Press, 2010
295 pp., 25.00
It wasn't until after I read Ted Striphas' book The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control that I realized that its title and subtitle are somewhat at odds with each other. As I began reading, it was the title that governed my expectations: coined by Jay David Bolter, the phrase "late age of print" is meant to be analogous to the Marxist concept of "late capitalism." "Late" in this case suggests a highly developed, sophisticated set of structures that are beginning to fall into decadence—structures that have lost their essential motive energy and are living off capital generated long ago. With these thoughts in mind, I was expecting and hoping that Striphas would provide a kind of critical ethnography, and perhaps a diagnosis, of print culture in the past hundred years or so.
But no: the book really isn't about print culture at all; it is rather, as the subtitle more reliably informs us, about book culture. (A book on print culture—indeed, on "the late age of print"—would need to deal with newspapers, magazines, even the advertisements that show up in our mailboxes. Striphas does not mention any of these.) In his introduction Striphas cites the late great Raymond Williams' comment that only quite recently have books have become readily and cheaply available to the average person, employing that shrewd observation as a springboard for his own chief concerns: "The everydayness of books belies a long, complicated, and still unfinished history, one intimately bound up with all of the following: a changed and changing mode of production; new technological products and processes; shifts in law and jurisprudence; the proliferation of culture and the rise of cultural politics; and a host of sociological transformations, among many other factors."
As The Late Age of Print unfolds, it becomes clear that Striphas understands these concerns largely as a matter of one activity: the business of selling books. So he explores the possible business models for electronic books; the history of chain bookstores, especially Barnes & Noble (which had its origins in Wheaton, Illinois, of all places); the influence of Oprah's Book Club; and the rise of the Harry Potter series from one obscure novel to a vast empire-unto-itself. Striphas tells these stories pretty vividly, but most of them are well-enough known already—it's not clear whether we need another recitation of how James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces was revealed to be fiction—and it's hard to see what they all add up to. As I put the book down I reflected that it might better have been titled Selected Episodes from the History of the Twentieth-Century American Book Business.
Book culture is far more than the book business, but rare are the moments in this book when Striphas recognizes that. The handful of pages in which he describes the comments of participants in Oprah's Book Club are among the most interesting in the book, in part because they only touch lightly on the business end of the book world. It's a nice change of pace. The story of Candy Siebert—who at age forty read a book for the first time in her life, Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone, thanks to Oprah's recommendation—is worthy of a good deal more attention than Striphas gives it. It would be a difficult task indeed to trace the relations between the wheels and cogs of the conglomerate-owned American publishing world—She's Come Undone is published by Pocket Books, which is a subsidiary of Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS, which is controlled by a vast company you may never have heard of called National Amusements—and one woman's extraordinary experience with a novel—"I cried at the end and it was because I finished it and it was a great book"—but a writer who could do it would make a major contribution to describing what book culture really is. The Late Age of Print is so occupied with the economics of the book trade that it scarcely concerns itself with the lives of readers.
Now, that economic history has some fascinating twists and turns. Early in the book Striphas does an excellent job of showing how books were originally marketed as gifts, especially for Christmas and just at the time when Christmas was being transformed into a festival of conspicuous consumption. And he cites to good effect the historical work of Rachel Bowlby, who has shown that "in the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing and for what was not yet called self-service." The economic history of bookselling is well worth our attention; but it should not be presented as a meditation on book culture, much less print culture.
It is instructive in several ways to turn from Striphas' account to Margaret Willes' Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books. The history Willes tells is primarily English rather than American, but like Striphas she tells it episodically; given the period she covers, she could scarcely do anything else. Willes begins with what we might call the "early age of print"—when only the rich could own significant numbers of books—through the rise of a large reading public—which eventually led to the creation of lending libraries—and on to the highly consequential invention of the paperback and the sales of books in places other than bookstores. Near the end she even finds time to mention Oprah's Book Club and the Harry Potter books.
The complex economics of the book trade—of the various kinds of book trade that we have seen since the invention of print—is certainly central to Willes' story. She wants to know how people got books: Where did they buy them? How did they decide where to look? How did booksellers let people know what books they had available? (I was fascinated to learn that the famous annual Frankfurt Book Fair began issuing catalogues in 1564—1564!—and many English book collectors in the early modern period subscribed and ordered books from it.) But Willes always gives economic considerations their fully human context. She names for us the various London booksellers from whom Samuel Pepys acquired his vast collection, but also tells us that the famously randy Pepys made a point of kissing one bookseller's wife and was deeply disappointed when, on his subsequent visits, she was absent (probably intentionally). Pepys may not have chosen that tradesman wholly because of the excellence of his stock. In a similar mode, Willes describes the heroic but unsuccessful efforts booksellers made to save their books from the Great Fire of London in 1666: they stored everything in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral, trusting in the security of those vast stone walls, but when the church burned they lost everything. The diarist, gardener, and historian John Evelyn estimated that £200,000 of books were destroyed—something like $15,000,000 in today's money. Pepys' favorite bookseller at the time was one Joshua Kirton, and for November 1667 of the following year we find this entry in the famous diary: "This day I hear Kirton, my bookseller, poor man, is dead, I believe, of grief for his losses by the fire."
Pepys was a true collector, and not just of books: he owned, for instance, over 1,700 ballads, more than anyone else of his time, and Willes tells us that "over half the items in his collection are the only known copies in existence." In his last years he was anxious over the future of his library, which in the end went to his old Cambridge college, Magdalene. This anxiety is common among collectors, and Willes describes one of the more unusual, if successful, resolutions of the old problem: In 1631 one Sir John Kedermister left his extensive library to his parish church in Berkshire, and when the books were moved to the church the room in which they had been housed was reconstructed there. In the tradition of the time, his family owned its own box pew in the church, and from that pew a door leads into the library—a private space for reading and contemplation, in which, surely, Kedermister's descendants found a refuge from tedious sermons.
Collectors almost by definition have disposable cash, and they tend to dominate the early chapters of Willes' book: Pepys, the Elizabethan matriarch Bess of Hardwick, even Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's inability to resist desirable objects—often, but not only, books—sent him deep into debt, which at one point he sought to relieve by selling his library to the country. As is generally known, it became the foundation for the Library of Congress. But the passion for books is scarcely confined to the rich. The great scholar Erasmus famously said, "When I get a little money I buy books, and if any is left I buy food and clothes," but for some people those have quite literally been the choices. Willes cites the autobiography of the writer and political activist William Cobbett, who began his life in poverty and as a young man worked as a gardener on a great estate near Richmond. One day, when he had some time off, he decided to visit Kew Gardens, but on his way spotted a copy of Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub in the window of a bookseller for threepence. "The title was so odd, that my curiosity was excited. I had the [threepence], but then, I could have no supper." He bought the book and immediately became so absorbed in it—even though many of its learned references were inscrutable to him—that he read until it was too dark to see the pages, scarcely noticing his hunger pangs. Later he would ascribe to that moment "a birth of intellect"—an example of social conscience, of anger at cruelty, and the power of words to embody that anger.
I came away from Willes' book with an arresting awareness of the disparate ways in which books are objects of desire. There is the desire of the collector, which is very different from the poor boy's desire for knowledge—for a kind of power, if only a power of understanding, over a harsh and unjust world—and that in turn is quite distinct from the reader's passion for Story itself. Pepys may have owned a vast library, but, as he comments in his diary, he would often go to bed hours before his wife Elizabeth when she was absorbed by the latest French romance. Books have many and varied means of drawing people into their orbit. And once drawn in, it is awfully hard to pull away—even assuming that one would want to. I certainly don't.
This may or may not be "the late age of print": e-books are everywhere discussed, and I very much enjoy my Kindle for some uses, but there has never been as much print in the world as there is now. Who knows what surprises book culture, and print culture more generally, have in store for us? As I write these words many readers are excited about the forthcoming San Francisco Panorama, the latest creation from Dave Eggers's McSweeney's empire—a 320-page broadsheet newspaper. A gimmick, yes, but a telling one. And the people who want to buy the Panorama are interested it in not solely because of its "content"—to employ a widespread but fatally ambiguous word—but because of its status as an object of desire. Many books are received in this way also, and in our experiences, and then in our memories, the words on the page become intricately entwined with the pages themselves, with the paper, with the art on the cover or the color or the boards.
How many people will love books in this way a decade from now, or in fifty years? It's impossible to say, but in these discussions we tend to forget that bibliophilia has always affected but a small percentage of the population. And it's also important to remember—as Willes' story makes clear—that the love of books and the love of reading are two different things. They have been closely related in the past, if never identical—again, it would appear that Samuel Pepys loved books more than reading, his wife reading more than books—but it's possible that they may now be headed for an unprecedented divergence. Over here, a man wholly absorbed in a story that manifests itself in the electronic ink of his Kindle, clicking from page to page to page; over there, a woman noting the elegant typography of a just-purchased volume, its cream-colored stock, its strong and distinctive binding. Will they have anything to say to each other?
Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne) and Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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