Leah Price, “Reading As If For Life”
In this article, Price provides us with points about books and how they have functioned in our society, but she also questions why the claim continues that books and reading as we know it are disappearing. She recontextualizes printed reading to meet reading information on websites. Additionally, she argues that books and reading never had one clear function in society. It is natural that we question their place in society, but Price critiques this fear of books/reading disappearing altogether.
Price seems to counter the argument that reading is disappearing by reimagining what reading actually is. She explains that the majority of book orders involve “books required for work” (487). Coupled with the rise of new media, Price acknowledges how researchers latch on to the argument that printed books and leisure reading are being replaced. This is especially critical when the reader is not even using a printed or e-book, but surfing the web. However, Price suggests that even then they are reading: “If a novel reprinted on the Kindle counts as ‘reading,’ why not text that was born digital—or even paratext (the sidebar or taskbar on your spreadsheet) or metadata (the tags and titles on YouTube)?” (488). Price responds to what I’m calling the “disappearing anxiety” in a similar way that Johanna Drucker argues that even reproductions of books still contain an aura. Just like how there is more to a book than its originality, Price argues that there is more to reading than the traditional act of sitting down, opening a book, and reading page by page.
Additionally, Price indicates that some of the current fear regarding books and reading stems from an earlier confusion about classifying printed texts. She explains how people questioned which printed texts should be placed in the literary section of libraries, and which should go elsewhere: “public libraries founded after 1850 in Britain—already sparked a debate over whether entertainment that happened to be vehicled by print should be classified with literary books, or with other (nontextual) forms of entertainment” (488). It seems understandable then that questioning the place of books and reading today in a digital age is rooted from their precarious position in society in the first place.
Furthermore, Price argues that the book has always served multiple purposes and is therefore valuable beyond its ability to be read. She writes how “the book has held meaning not just for readers but for users and has acquired value not just through reading but through handling” (493). Books are not just meant to be read; they have multiple functions. Here specifically Price notes on how books as objects can be used to store or hold things, but I think more broadly we can imagine that books serve as gateways to learning. We might read a book and be inspired to create something new, where we continue down the line knowing that it was the book that started it all. Price is arguing that books have a greater function in society—they do not disappear just because of the ways in which they are used are changing.
One of Price’s main points is to reconceptualize what it means to be reading. One can read printed books or e-books, but one can also read paratext and metadata. But what does she mean by reading, then? There’s a difference between reading and comprehending a novel, and reading and understanding a tag on a YouTube video. I think this difference points to our understanding of the overall shift from print to digital texts, and how they influence and are influenced by each other.
An additional confusion arises from the same one Price cites with Bradbury in her article—the one that asks what, exactly, are people afraid of? The NEA is Price’s focus, but she also means researchers and people in general. She writes, “Bradbury anticipates the NEA’s confusion about what lies at risk: great literature…? Pleasure reading…?” (491). She goes on to question whether their concern has to do with reading books and reading them on hard surfaces, versus digital ones. I’m not sure, though I’ve felt this same anxiety.
It’s interesting to think about the concept of the book as a means to help readers focus our attention, while the Internet diverts it through continuous opportunities to navigate to other pages. Price cites Marshall Poe’s statement on this: “a book is a machine for focusing attention; the Internet is machine for diffusing it” (486-7). Now some see the book as having more value, where back in the “good old days” one could sit down and simply do one thing at a time. I think this contrast between the endless capabilities of the Internet and the singular focus involved with the book is significant—how does it reflect the interwoven nature of printed digital cultures?