The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control
Columbia University Press, 2009
272 pp., $75.00
Reading Matters: Five Centuries of Discovering Books
Yale University Press, 2010
304 pp., $25.00
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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