September 2019

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

By Leah Price
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It’s hardly surprising that a recent spate of books has lamented the lost art of book-reading in our distracted digital age. Writers and readers know best what such a loss could mean. 

But when Leah Price, a professor of literature and the history of books, began exploring the subject, she discovered that our perceptions of a glorious past of reading books are not entirely accurate. The way we read now hasn’t changed as much as we might think. In What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading, Price counters the biblio-doomsayers with an incisive look at what the archives reveal about books and reading—then, now and moving forward.

In her professional capacity, Price has spent plenty of time among the dusty, forgotten vestiges of the reading past. She’s scrutinized the marginalia in antique school primers and the fingerprint stains on old library books. Studying books can make it hard to venerate texts, Price writes. She’s discovered, for instance, that in old copies of Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century doorstop of a novel Clarissa, the sex scenes are often well-thumbed, while long passages describing pastoral landscapes are in pristine condition. This would suggest that our romanticized reader of the past was just as prone to skimming for the “good bits”—21st-century eBooks just make the process a little easier.

Pundits have been writing about some version of the book’s demise since at least the 19th century, Price finds. But in truth, the future of literacy doesn’t hinge on “whether we read in print or online or in some as-yet-unimagined medium but rather [on] the interactions through which we get our hands on books—and even more fundamentally, the interactions that awaken a desire for them.” Ultimately, she believes the experience of immersing oneself in a world made of words can only survive if readers continue to carve out the places and times to have words with one another.

Price takes this affectionate study of the history and future of reading in many disparate directions. She ventures into both contemporary psychiatry and the modern-day “archeology” of preserving and exploring Harvard’s remote library stacks. She takes us across centuries to the time of religious scribes, the innovations of Gutenberg and the digital success of Fifty Shades of Grey. She contemplates the reality that the challenge of reading today is not the availability of books, as it once was, but finding the time to read.

Eye-opening and filled with delightful nuggets of truth, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books offers no nostalgia for a more tranquil reading past but rather a hopeful glimpse into an essential reading future.

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