What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading / Eric C. Loy

Eric C. Loy, photograph of Delta seat pocket

Leah Price, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading. New York: Basic Books, 2019.

As I settled into my economy seat on a recent Delta flight, I was amused to find a label affixed to the seat in front of me, just above the storage pocket: “Literature only.” Even in 2019, we are still making space in our lives, and our airplanes, for books.

A popular narrative tells us otherwise, assuring us that, in our digital age of whizbang cyberspace, The Book is dying or dead. I hear it often: a civilian patron at a conference hotel bar scoffing at the idea that print books will persist in the Age of Kindle; a student confidently remarking on the steady historical transition from one dominant medium to the next. The narrative itself is practically ancient now, often traced back to the early-’90s biblio-apocalyptic musings of Robert Coover in his New York Times essay “The End of Books?” (1992) or Sven Birkerts in The Gutenberg Elegies (1994). Focused on the changing practices of reading and the shifting structures of texts, each writer pushed the prima facie case that new media had come to conquer and print would be the first casualty. A subtle quaintness colors their remarks today when we consider the industrial-sized boxy monstrosities they knew as computers back then. They barely knew the internet: Mosaic, the first (popular) graphical web browser, launched only in the interim between the appearance of Coover’s essay and the publication of Birkerts’s book.

Leah Price, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading. New York: Basic Books, 2019

The scholar, book historian, and self-proclaimed “literature lover” Leah Price offers a contemporary corrective to this persistent cultural narrative. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading, Price is not on a rescue mission. She does not directly contest the claim that books, as we know them, are dying; rather, she disputes the premise that we know what books are. In What We Talk About, Price weaves together personal reflections and scholarly research to argue the ever-shifting formats summed up under the aegis of  “the book” have ridden waves of media disruption and social change virtually from the first. Importantly, Price’s emphasis is not on timelines of change or advances in book design and production—no staid history of the medium here. The focus is truly on the “talk” of the title, in the reading, treatment, and consideration of books at different historical moments and in different cultural contexts.

In the first chapter, Price works to dispel notions that “the book” as a stable signifier can be used with any historical accuracy. Specifically, Price considers how books today are often held up as the “not-app,” “not-database,” and “not-website” (22). One need only think of the romanticized way books so often appear on Instagram: as cozy props for secluded readers in idyllic nooks.

Instead, Price writes, “when we put books under a microscope rather than on pedestal, we come to realize that what all printed books have in common is variety—across historical periods and even within a single culture” (29). Pocket-sized almanacs were once common, personal, and portable, much like today’s smartphones. Cookbooks, as early adopters and longtime innovators in print production and sales, have always been styled for information storage and querying. In this second instance, Price tells the memorable story of Vegetable Cookery: with an Introduction, Recommending Abstinence from Animal food and Intoxicating Liquors, the first vegetarian cookbook in English, originally published in England in 1821. While the content of Vegetable Cookery is a conscious critique of the “flesh-consuming community,” its physical form tells a different tale. The New York Public Library’s edition of Vegetable Cookery is bound in goatskin and its pages are coated with a product made from boiled horse bone. Price reflects that she “usually imagine[s] books as products of a person’s mind, not an animal’s body” (48). The contradictory case of Vegetable Cookery serves as a vivid reminder that the way we make books is often just as culturally significant as any book’s content. Apparently progressive agitation for animal rights looks more like gastro-anthropocentrism under Price’s microscope.

In “Reading on the Move,” Price tracks the mobility of books and reading, pushing back against Silicon Valley’s claim that Kindles and iPads have finally untethered our reading from cumbersome tomes. Historical examples are readily available: “Already in the late Middle Ages, hefty volumes chained in hulking cathedrals coexisted happily with ‘girdle books’ hung from clothing—the earliest wearables” (83). Additionally, Oxford University Press’s 1875 innovation of onionskin pages allowed its Bible to “slim down its contents as elegantly as any MacBook Air, without ever throwing lectern-sized Bibles out of work” (83–84). Importantly, Price does not claim that reading practices have remained static, attending instead to the often-complicated mix of new technologies, marketing strategies, and spaces for reading that drives the evolution of such practices. Public transit, hospital waiting rooms, and battlefield foxholes all became libraries of sorts.

For Americans, the most bizarre and amusing chapter will likely be “Prescribed Reading,” in which Price details the ongoing NHS Wales Book Prescription Program. This “bibliotherapy” program quite literally has doctors prescribing books to patients with minor to moderate mental health issues. With two branches of the program, one focused on self-help and the other on fiction, poetry and memoir, “literature has become medicalized . . . but also institutionalized” (121). Price counters this recent instance of healthy reading with numerous historical examples of books being blamed for myriad physical and mental maladies. Once seen as a threat to children, books are now an antidote for the plague of screen time. My, how times have changed; and that’s precisely Price’s point.

Price’s style and form serve her creative critical ends. While the prose is both autobiographical and conversational, each chapter in What We Talk About is structured as an impressively associative performance of anecdotes, scholarly research, and historical precedent. The project rings a bit of vintage McLuhan, with vignettes of thoughtful observation often punctuated by some of the most eye-popping one-liners you’ll come across in an ostensibly academic work. Early hits include: “If the book is dying, its funeral appears to be open casket” (20); “Perhaps print is to digital as Madonna is to whore: we worship one but use the other” (23).

What We Talk About is a pleasure to read—one deliberately crafted for casual consumption. With notes and other scholarly apparatus whisked discreetly to the end of the book, the text weighs in at a lean 170 pages. The svelte volume makes for easy transport; to be read on your daily train commute or, perhaps, tucked into the seat storage pocket on your next Delta flight. In addition, the fragmentary chapter structure not only allows for bite-sized nibbles of content—much like economist Walter Bagehot’s observation of train reading in 1855, which Price discusses (93)—it also encourages frequent breaks to make your own associative musings on your past and present relationships with books. Many readers will likely balk at the short “Interleaf” passage that extends lines of text across the gutter, a gimmick that heightens one’s material sense of book design but that quickly loses its charm. With my own copy, the bound leaves were not perfectly aligned, forcing my eyes to track up or down to the correct line as I also traversed the gutter. No matter. If you hate it, skip the eight pages. With books, you can do that, too!

What We Talk About is a project with the general reader in mind. Price’s treatment of her subject makes the history approachable and the biblio-criticism practical. Book lovers of all sorts will appreciate the expert care Price takes in delineating her professional practice from personal passion, and in seeing how results vary with each perspective. While the book makes no attempts at authoritatively (re-)defining a field or presenting exhaustive case studies—as accomplished to much acclaim in Price’s 2012 How to Do Things with Books in Victorian BritainWhat We Talk About is perhaps the best work to date that captures the spirit of practicing book history in the twenty-first century. Colleagues in the field will smile knowingly at the stories of triumph and horror in institutional special collections. And for those colleagues who may want, finally, to explain to others just what they do, Price has provided an exceptional opportunity to do so.

After all, books still make great gifts.