In her latest work, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Books,” Rutgers University professor Leah Price compiles historical research and recent data to make the case that the hand-wringing is the product of dystopian visions far removed from reality.
Price — who founded the Rutgers Book Initiative, a book history program — doesn’t dismiss digital-over-print concerns (besides pointing out that e-book reader sales have plummeted recently). But she posits that there’s room for both types of book in a reader’s life. Rarely does one technology swallow the other. She writes, “The rise of the podcast makes clear that video didn’t doom audio any more than radio ended reading.” The same can be said for e-books and audiobooks, which can coexist with that paperback you brought to the beach this summer and that textbook your son will be buying for the fall.
It’s also fascinating to learn how books have served as more than just vessels for information or entertainment. They can double as a badge of a reader’s identity. They can thrust readers into flesh-and-blood communities of like-minded book lovers, as we’ve seen with Harry Potter fan meetups.
Books can also be therapeutic, as Price points out in the chapter on bibliotherapy, which delves into a book prescription program launched in Wales in 2005. By 2011, Welsh doctors treating mild to moderate depression were handing out 30,000 book prescriptions a year. Price contrasts this project with the 19th-century view among physicians that reading fiction could cause madness and health conditions such as “gouts . . . indigestion, bad eyes . . . vertigo, winds, consumptions and all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting.” But once other technologies, such as film and television, arrived to challenge the book’s supremacy as popular entertainment, such concerns were transferred to the screen’s hypnotic hold on the public.
A recurring theme in Price’s book is that reading is intensely personal — that “the same act that gives pleasure to one person can pain another” – and that academia is not letting students fully experience those responses. College freshmen are urged not to “read for the plot” or form attachments to characters but to “see past the ostensible subject of a text to its linguistic structures, just as they see past the look and feel of a book to its textual content.”
Price is passionate about expanding how we view the book, expressing a love that ripples throughout “What We Talk About When We Talk About Books.” This is familiar territory for Price; in 2012 she wrote “How to Do Things With Books in Victorian Britain.” Writing cogently about books seems to be second nature to her. Her ideas on the book’s relevance and reinvention enlighten readers as to the many ways those crowded shelves tell stories of who we are and what drives us forward.
As Alberto Manguel did seamlessly in “A History of Reading,” Price slips herself into the largely research-heavy text, adding personal anecdotes to sections that need a bit of fresh fair. The academic tone of Price’s writing can sometimes weigh down a chapter , but her forays into such topics as reading groups enliven the pages with color and energy.
Anyone curious about how books communicate to us may be enthralled by Price’s intelligent look at what print has meant to the world. If you’re as fond of books as I am, you’ll be additionally comforted to learn that despite the many times pundits have proclaimed the book’s death, its heart has continued to beat strongly, transcendent as always.
David Silverberg is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and book critic who writes for BBC News, Vice, Ars Technica and NOW Magazine. Find him @SilverbergDave on Twitter.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Books
The History and Future of Reading
By Leah Price
Basic. 224 pp. $28