Reports of the death of reading are greatly exaggerated
Do you worry that you've lost patience for anything longer than a tweet? If so, you're not alone. Digital-age pundits warn that as our appetite for books dwindles, so too do the virtues in which printed, bound objects once trained us: the willpower to focus on a sustained argument, the curiosity to look beyond the day's news, the willingness to be alone. The shelves of the world's great libraries, though, tell a more complicated story. Examining the wear and tear on the books that they contain, English professor Leah Price finds scant evidence that a golden age of reading ever existed. From the dawn of mass literacy to the invention of the paperback, most readers already skimmed and multitasked. Print-era doctors even forbade the very same silent absorption now recommended as a cure for electronic addictions. The evidence that books are dying proves even scarcer. In encounters with librarians, booksellers and activists who are reinventing old ways of reading, Price offers fresh hope to bibliophiles and literature lovers alike.
Price (How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain), a Rutgers English professor and the founding director of the Rutgers Book Initiative, combines a lighthearted romp through literary history with a serious intent: to argue that the rise of e-texts is not the radical change often claimed. In fact, Price argues, change is the norm in print history: the world moved from papyrus to parchment to paper, and from scrolls to codices to books, while books themselves have changed from giant medieval compilations of parchment chained in place, to early-20th-century pocketbooks printed on onionskin. Price notes that with the advent of e-texts, physical books have a newly elevated status based in nostalgia for a pre-electronic era and are increasingly employed as therapy, their purpose displaced from the joy of reading to self-improvement. Price's factual tidbits are entertaining: for example, the first vegetarian cookbook was, ironically, bound with and printed on animal skins. However, her penchant for labored analogies "Print is to digital as Madonna is to whore" will strain even the most forgiving reader's patience. Nevertheless, Price provides welcome comfort that the beloved book is in good shape, regardless of the form it ultimately takes.