The title of this book is distinctly enigmatic. Who is the we to whom it refers? Certainly not to any group of people with whom I am acquainted, though I talk a lot about books with my friends. A better title might have been What Certain Literary Scholars in Search of New Secondary Fields of Study for Lack of Anything Else New to Do Talk About When They Go to Academic Conferences Whose Proceedings No One Will Read. According to the author’s acknowledgments, however, she is indebted to approximately one “scholar, activist or other book lover” for every two pages of her 170-page text, so perhaps I am unduly harsh: there are more of such scholars than I think. (Surely it is time for someone to undertake Acknowledgment Studies? It would teach us a great deal about the psychosocial history of academe and the development of the concept of a research community in the humanities. It takes a village to write a book.)
The author, a professor of English at Harvard, is interested in the history of books as physical objects and in the ways and circumstances in which they have been both produced and read. These are not uninteresting matters, and I admit myself to a certain fascination with how, for example, pedants down the ages mark books, having often plowed their way through hundreds of pages of text to alight on a single error of no consequence, there to inscribe in the margin a triumphant exclamation mark, as if to say “I knew it all along, this author is an ignoramus!” Noticing this, I realized that the pedant delights in error, not in truth.
Too deep a concentration on these secondary or derivative matters, however, puts me in mind of Karl Popper’s criticism of Wittgenstein, that he was a man who was always polishing his spectacles without ever looking through them. No doubt it is important to know the conditions under which Dickens wrote, but it is more important to know what he wrote, to the understanding of which the former may indeed be something of an aid, but not the substitute that it can so easily become. If we really want to know the circumstances in which Dickens worked, it is because of a prior recognition that his work makes it worthwhile for us to know them.
Unfortunately, it cannot be said that a lifetime of studious reading and frequentation of books has had a good effect upon the author’s prose, which abounds not so much in purple as in mauve or violet passages. Frequently, she does not make herself clear, and while expository prose should not attempt more precision than its subject matter permits, it should surely be as precise and lucid as possible. Take the following passage as an example, not necessarily the worst:
Currently . . . despite the possibilities offered in principle by digital text that can be expanded or converted into voice, private companies’ digital rights management strategies are making texts less accessible to disabled readers than they were in the era that stretched from the early-nineteenth-century invention of Braille to the rise of the audiobook recorded on vinyl.
I find this difficult to understand. For physically disabled people in wheelchairs or who are bedridden, access to texts is surely much easier than ever before. Does, then, the author mean by the disabled the blind, and if so what politically correct pseudo-delicacy prevents her from using that convenient word? It might be, I suppose, that a smaller proportion than ever of texts are being put into Braille, but that would surely be because of the number of texts rather than because of the machinations of private companies’ rights-management strategies. Looseness of language is here symptomatic of looseness of thought.
Insofar as a book as discursive as this seeks to answer any questions that might have occurred to the general reader, they are as follows: Does the proliferation of electronic means of storing and retrieving books threaten the continued existence of books as a medium? Has that proliferation affected the way that we read, and, if it has, is the change for the better or worse, or neither?
These are interesting questions, susceptible of, if not definitive answers, at least more systematic and organized reflection than that of the author.
The retreat of the book, its declining salience in our culture, seems quite evident. Let me take just a few examples. The terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris from which I fly frequently had until three years ago quite a good bookshop; now it is a pharmacy. People, apparently, no longer need books on long flights, but they do need face creams. In England’s thrift stores, books not long ago were a major item of commerce. Now they are relegated to a very small corner, as if their sale were illicit or discreditable. Booksellers tell stories of libraries that are disembarrassing themselves of books (even rare ones) by the truck-load to make way for computer stations.
This evidence (of a kind observable in many places) is not definitive proof of the book’s demise, but on the contrary is perfectly compatible with the continued importance of books in the lives of people, since the way in which books are bought has changed so drastically. Certainly, there seems no shortage of new titles, by no means all of them worthless.
Has the nature as well as the quantity of reading changed as a result of the new media? There are two answers given when one asks this type of question: either everything has changed fundamentally or nothing has changed fundamentally.
Our author inclines more to the latter answer than to the former. People have always changed the way, and on what, they spend their time. She points out that fashions of reading have varied down the ages since the invention of movable type and that complaints that people read too much, too little, or the wrong things, as well as the dangers involved, have been constant. The availability and price of books has often affected patterns of reading more than what was written. The spread of basic literacy and the cheapness of print led to lamentations not dissimilar to those heard today about the internet and social media. It is always tempting to suppose that the changes occurring in one’s own lifetime are unprecedented in human history, especially when one believes them to be for the worse. For example, I have observed that some of the young people who still read books on the train (many more are glued to their smartphones) are now reading long comic-strip novels. There are bookshops that stock only such books, and they are reviewed with solemnity in avowedly serious literary magazines. I take this to be a sign of the increasing infantilization of the population, of its decreasing powers of concentration—although, in fact, I find such comic-strips impossible to concentrate on for longer than a minute or two. I remind myself that there is pleasure to be had in lamentation and being a crier in the wilderness.
The fact that everything changes and has always changed is no doubt comforting to some. But merely because change as such is unavoidable we are not absolved from the necessity of assessing the benefits or otherwise of any particular change. And in this book there is a passage which helps to explain to me the decline of the humanities in our universities. The author teaches “book history” at Harvard and may therefore be assumed to teach the best possible students. It is worth quoting the passage in extenso:
As photocopied course listings gave way to websites and apps, I found comfort in returning every September to an unchanging game. The night before class, I raid my son’s craft supplies for a roll of tape and a ream of construction paper to wrap the covers and spines of a dozen books like some amateurish Christo. I fish the anonymized books out of my backpack one by one, asking the students to identify each. Someone always spots the yellow pages thanks to their color, and even a generation reared on spell-check recognizes a thumb index. The pink fore edges and silk ribbon give away a leather-bound pocket King James Bible, and frequent hotel-goers spot a Gideon’s spongy shine.
On the last day of the semester, we return to the game that one student dubbed Name That Book—but now, we meet in the library. This time, instead of pasting over the covers, students take turns wrapping a dish towel around their eyes. Each has a chance to stumble to the wall, blindman’s-bluff-like, to pull down a volume at random, and to take twenty questions from the rest of the class.
There follows a pseudo-sophisticated justification for this manner of proceeding (now a tradition of twenty years), but I am not sure that if I were a parent paying whatever outrageous annual fees Harvard charges I should be altogether pleased to read this passage. It sounds to me like the Montessori approach to Foucault, but I concede that my judgment may be a little hasty.
Reflections on books and reading have a long history, and I regret to say that a page of Schopenhauer on this subject is worth a chapter or more of this book. One swallow does not make a summer, of course, but you have only to read a paragraph of Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Book Bag,” and compare it with the writing in this book, to appreciate, or at least to suspect, the damage to the capacity for thought and expression done by a modern literary education:
Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent nor praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me, and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe.
Compare this for style with the following taken at random:
It may be too soon to understand how the seepage of reading recommendations from school to NGO will alter the landscape created almost two centuries ago by the handover from church to school. But these organizations recognize what biblio-autobiographies, in casting books as liberators and imagining the library as the one place where otherwise powerless readers can escape all social constraints, obscure. Often, the choice to read comes from above as much as within.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 4, on page 77
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com