What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading
“A professor of English at Rutgers with a specialty in the history of the book, Leah Price has encyclopedic knowledge. Citing dozens of primary sources, her book is a sparkling gem well worth reading and re-reading.”
Leah Price’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading takes a succinct approach to the history of the book from its beginnings as Roman-era papyrus scrolls to the ongoing ebook vs. paper and glue debate, and a dizzying number of stops in between. Bibliophiles will be left spent and breathless, well-sated by a rich diet of delights.
In her charming, conversational style, Price takes a balanced approach to issues ranging from assertions the sky is falling in the world of reading— dooming modern culture—to an ongoing, well-researched and reasoned study asserting there’s nothing occurring now that hasn’t happened throughout history, to one extent or another. Quit worrying so much is the implication. Books aren’t going anywhere, and people today are reading more than ever. It’s just the method and format that’s changed.
Each chapter presenting a different book-centric topic, she branches out into compelling, related issues best read slowly, to savor. Every page boasting highlighter worthy quotes, Price repeatedly courts controversial opinion, carefully outlining reasons both sides have valid points.
On the topic of declining attention spans, she questions how different “infinite scrolling” really is from the tendency to skim portions of longer, more complex books. There’s the issue of how many people who say they’ve read iconic tomes such as Ulysses actually have, citing Hemingway’s pristine copy of his “favorite writer’s novel,” an obviously unread copy gathering dust on his shelf.
Apparently, even celebrated writers occasionally fib to appear well read. Is that surprising, considering the monumental effort required in penetrating notoriously dense prose? Not much of a leap to assume the rest of us may do the same, accumulating scores of books impossible to read within multiple lifetimes. Price balances this with the Victorian tendency to read and then immediately sell off books, shelf space at more of a premium than showing off how many books a reader has consumed. Even Charles Dickens, she shares, had few works of fiction when his library was auctioned off, following his death.
So many books, so little time.
The topic of marginalia is particularly entertaining, the universally held 16th century assertion books were meant to be studied and marked up contrasted with today’s prevailing opinion that only philistines resort to such things. Ask any online book group their opinion and, invariably, the majority professes outrage many readers value the content of the book far more, having little reverence for the physical object. A recent news story about the discovery of John Milton’s own copy of the works of Shakespeare reveals it was the marginalia, in Milton’s distinctive hand, establishing its provenance. Without his scribbles, this doubly important volume would have forever held its secret. Take that, purists.
A professor of English at Rutgers with a specialty in the history of the book, Leah Price has encyclopedic knowledge. Citing dozens of primary sources, her book is a sparkling gem well worth reading and re-reading.
Those who relish books about books can only complain about the massive number of books to be added to their reading list after finishing this slim volume, all materials referenced conveniently cited in the more than 30 pages of notes at the end. A joy throughout, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books deserves a permanent spot on the shelf of every book lover.