Tuesday, March 17, 2020

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

What We Talk About When We Talk About Books
By Leah Price

I’ve recently finished this book about books and though it did peter out in the later chapters, there was still plenty to chew on and enjoy.    
Price first delineates three areas of book study. The first is the disease some of us caught when young and are still suffering from in our dotage—i.e. Booklover.  Some from this category will move on to become Literary Scholars and Teachers.   Her third area is the more rarified occupation of Book Historian.

Most readers of all kinds consider the author, the historical context, and the content as they read, but the book historian specializes in the physical book—its shape, its size, its construction and how the business of publishing has developed over time.

A book can take many forms. It can range from a fancy tooled leather-bound presentation volume, to a traditional hardback, to a cheap paperback reprint, to a computer file on a kindle or some other digital device. Those differences can lead the book historian to a multitude of other considerations ranging from why a reader chooses a specific type of delivery package to the world of typefaces, edition histories, and even extra-textual marginalia inserted by readers in a given volume over time. This might be called reading for dog ears and coffee stains. 

Book historians can  also delve into the economics of the book ranging from how many copies, at what price, and in what form were printed to the whole range of costs, advertising, distribution, inventory control, and other aspects of the publishing business. Price makes a case that the publishing industry has been a major initiator and contributor to the history of business including product advertising, commercial sales, and literally all current commercial distribution and inventory systems. She contends that because books were among the earliest of all mass marketed products that the systems to advertise them, market them, ship them, etc. were the models for most of our later systems of commercial exchange.

She also reminds the reader who wishes to puff up the intellectual contributions of books that the majority of things inscribed on paper or clay tablets since the invention of written communication have been made to throw away or be destroyed.  She cites Benjamin Franklin’s printing records and notes that forms, order pads, receipts, note pads, and announcements of temporal events were the most common jobs done by his business.  And she claims this continues to be true for the majority of printing businesses today.

Price gives no credence to the purveyors of doom who would have you believe that the printed book is dead.  She notes that information dissemination has always been on the cutting edge.  Manuscript copies of oral material represented a major advance just as the copying of those manuscripts by faithful monks added to the spread of knowledge. Guttenberg’s press, of course, signaled an exponential advance in time, price, and distribution of words, but the computer era has simply added to the variety and the speed in which words are spread. She admits that after the Kindle was introduced traditional book sales took a dip, but now they are rising again just as vinyl records are coming back in spite of the invention of the CD.

One of her final chapters deals with a particular modern problem. Although it is easier and cheaper than ever to buy or access books, it seems to be getting harder and harder to find the time to read them.  I hope that will not be the straw that breaks the camel’s and the book’s back.   

Till then "Happy Reading."

1 comment:

DramaJim said...

Geraldine Brooks, Pulitizer prize winning author of March, offers up a compelling literary mystery cum character study in her latest novel People of the Book. It is, as the author notes, "a work of fiction inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah."

Something I read in January of 2008 would seem to go along with my last post on What We Talk About When We Talk About Books.