When I was growing up, my zealously frugal parents refused to buy anything from a bookstore, insisting that the local library had whatever it was we could possibly want to read. Faced with a small child’s intensive lobbying for repeated storytelling sessions with a lavishly illustrated picture book, my father would borrow one from the library and photocopy it. I still remember how anything colorful on the page (i.e. everything) would get transformed into dark blobs, the toner blurring the text and smudging my fingers.
In What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, Leah Price describes the book ownership I fantasized about as a child as a relatively recent invention. In the past, books were more often borrowed than bought, even among middle-class Victorians, who would pay to join for-profit circulating libraries so that they could rent books and get rid of them after reading. It took a concerted effort on the part of publishers to persuade people that sharing books was “immoral or disgusting,” Price writes. In 1931, a contest for stinging epithets to hurl at the wretched book borrower solicited entries that included “book buzzard” and “book weevil.” The winner (or loser) was “book sneak.”
Price, an English professor at Rutgers University and a book historian, is especially interested in books as material objects—not just for their literariness, that is, but for their literalness, too. “You wouldn’t have opened this book if you weren’t a passionate reader,” she writes, though even people who identify as such “may not be in the habit of thinking about wood pulp, ink and glue.” We tend to get so caught up by news about the perils posed by smartphones and abbreviated attention spans that we lose sight of how actual books have functioned in space and in time.
She begins with a panoply of distressing statistics, including the decline in literary reading over the past two decades and the precipitous drop in rates of pleasure reading with the advent of television. These numbers are real, Price says, but our anxieties about the future of reading extend beyond what we can pinpoint on a graph. Our lamentations have become diffuse and metaphysical. We mourn “the habits of mind or even soul” that we associate with reading books: “the capacity to follow a demanding idea from start to finish, to look beyond the day’s news.”
Do you get fidgety when you read a book, as if your attention keeps getting tugged elsewhere? Price would say that you’re not alone—though she also suggests that this collective plight may be much older than the digital technologies we like to blame. The golden age we long for was never entirely real. Nostalgia venerates the past by shrouding it in forgetfulness.
“The history of reading is also a history of worrying,” Price writes in one of her characteristically elegant formulations, presenting a charming and discursive stroll through various iterations of moral panic. Books were long perceived as a source of anxiety rather than its solution. Reading was faulted for a range of physical ailments that included vertigo, gout and indigestion—what the 17th-century scholar Robert Burton called “all such diseases as come by overmuch sitting.” Eyestrain was a perpetual danger, of course, but so was “cerebral disorder,” brought on, in the words of one American psychiatrist, by an inordinate “fondness for light reading.”
Even our tendency to imagine reading as a form of impulse control gets a rebuke from the past. Fiction was especially suspect. Children of earlier generations showed their resolve not when they forced themselves to sit through a book but when they resisted the urge to race through it. One of the earliest entries in the self-help genre warned of the disasters wrought by too much reading, drawing a distinction between “life” and “action” on the one hand and “literature” and “study” on the other. There was the sad case of a young woman who, in the words of a Victorian-era expert, “gratified a vitiated taste for novel-reading till her reason was overthrown” and she became “an inmate of an insane asylum.” Imaginary worlds were too rousing—or else they were too soothing. Price unearths a 19th-century journalist complaining of fiction’s sedative properties.
Contrast those dire admonitions against reading back then with dire exhortations for reading right now, and you’ll begin to see why Price’s book—unlike other examples of what she calls “autobibliography”—is funny and hopeful, rather than dour and pious. She finds a particular irony in a contemporary program called Mood-Boosting Books, sponsored by the National Health Service in Britain. “Where once governments focused on censoring books whose topics included sex or violence,” she writes, “now they’re just as eager to promote the experience of long-form literary reading, regardless of subject matter.” She visits a storefront in London where “bibliotherapists” scrawl fake prescriptions for what to read next. “You get toothaches,” they tell Price. “So does Count Vronsky.”
What We Talk About When We Talk About Books is an enjoyable tour, full of surprising byways into historical arcana, but I finished it not entirely disabused of what Price gently derides as “the digital-age fantasy that print inculcates patience, strengthens work ethics and stretches attention spans.” As much as we might exaggerate and idealise the habits encouraged by print, Price can only temper our suspicions that something irreplaceable is dissolving into the digital ether; she doesn’t fully repudiate them.
The knot of ambivalence contained in this book is appropriate, considering that her subject—“the history and future of reading”—is too enormous and various to speak with a single voice. Recalling an injury that a number of years ago made it hard for Price to read, she says her story “has that most bookish of structures, a happy ending.” This is Price the Book Historian talking; Price the Literary Critic seems to have a different and darker take. Later, reflecting on the desire to see fiction as therapeutic, she wonders how we might prepare for “that most literary of endings, an unhappy one.”
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES