In “Reading as if for Life,” Leah Price aims to demystify the book in an attempt to make the phrase “death of the book” obsolete. She proceeds first by clarifying the difference by the many terms, often used interchangeably, surrounding the book: print, text, codex, book, etc. In clarifying terms and drawing both a broader understanding of the meaning of ‘reading’ and a narrow, precise meaning of ‘book,’ she calls into question the many surveys, studies, articles, etc., which have spread fear about declining literacy in the United States.
The fetishization of the book persists through history and is observable mainly in the perceived connection between novels and literacy, and novels and books. Other media, like the “mimeograph, the hectograph, and microfilm,” though essentially deceased, have attracted none of the outrage generated by a perceived threat to the novel. Novels are not only print media; audiobooks and e-readers are not objects of the same reverence as the physical novel, in book form (483). The fetishization of the novel as a physical object is most clear in the proliferation of “vanity publishing.” Ben Franklin’s printing press charged “three times the manufacturing cost,” producing expensive, amateur novels it was doubtful “anyone would buy, let alone read.” Even today, with blogs abounding, vanity publishing continues (485).
Yet despite the novel’s relatively small “quantitative” presence, it continues to dominate “our cultural imagination,” its magisterial presence due to the affordances of “absorption, linearity, imagination,” independent of its actual content (485-486). Novels, alone among books, seem to necessitate linearity; many of the most quantitatively popular books are used similarly to Internet mediums, as “reference databases” which “invite random rather than sequential access” (486). The idea of reading novels is more important than the object itself: reading novels, by virtue of their linearity, should “look laborious,” but usefulness is secondary at best. Our concept of the ‘death’ of reading, like the ‘death’ of the book, relies on an incredibly narrow definition of what reading is, excluding the more quantitatively popular codexes (like dictionaries and bibles), as well as a whole array of online reading or “useful” reading, like newspapers, informational magazines and textbooks. Price calls our lamentation a comparison of “real apples with ideal oranges” (486), in which those of the oranges forge their “identity” in direct opposition to the apples, creating the book as a sacred object (493).
Price ultimately concludes that reading, which we now define as “hard work,” but what was once equated with “laziness” (and even further back, with virtuous abstinence; see Johnson), serves as a reflection of the cultural values of the time. In the digital age, with new technology proliferating like hormone-injected lab bunnies, the novel and novel reading is increasingly seen as unique and therefore powerful, embodying a counter-culture irrespective of the actual content of novels. “The meaning,” in our age, “is imagined to inhere in the platform” (488). Dating as far back as the bible and the missionary’s goal of “literacy,” definitions of reading and the purpose of books have been a point of extreme social, and even political, tension (494). More recently, books were the focus of economic tensions with the creation of public libraries, which chose to stock primarily novels; so, only leisure reading, linear and imaginative in nature, was deemed culturally worthy of economic subsidy.
I don’t believe Price is correct in stating that the book is the only medium to have a cult, particularly when she sends that cult all the way back to the bible. Anecdote: Microsoft Word doesn’t mind “bible,” with no capitals, but it claims “internet” is grammatically incorrect—it prefers I type Internet, pretentious capital “I” and all. Example 2: if cultural paraphernalia is indicative of cultish status, how about Apple?
Also, though painful, I must mention statistics—I never thought I’d see the old “number of books in a household” survey brought up in this type of article, but there it was, snuck in right at the end, as if to say, SEE? Science backs me up! Price conveniently leaves out all the far stronger indicators of standardized test scores—like economic stability, to name one of the strongest—and also ignores the inherent cultural biases and general lack of actual value of standardized tests themselves.
I do, however, think Price’s discussion of “coffeetable books” is spot-on. The idea of scholarship is quite similar to the idea of health, in this way; Price mentions the stationary bike as an example, but I would also note the strange phenomena of fake fruit. Both pursuits, though culturally valued, present a number of economic disparities. Did the high price of books or organic apples come as a result of their high cultural value, or did the cultural value result from their expense?