Leah Price's book explores the history of books and our relationship to them, explaining how the books we read have always changed and evolved as we do.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading by Leah Price, Basic Books
We hear often the death knell being sounded for books—rung repeatedly by apprehensive authors and members of the press, and at times within the publishing industry itself. It’s a concern that has bounced off the walls of our company, as well, as the recession hit at the same time as the rise of Amazon and ebooks, and the bookshops we spun out of closed after 82 years in business. It wasn’t just the independent bookshop or the books they sold that we worried about losing. As Leah Price writes in What We Talk About When We Talk About Books:
Essays of every conceivable length braced us to mourn the habits of mind or even soul that books had once occasioned: the capacity to follow a demanding idea from start to finish, to look beyond the day’s news, to be alone. As our shelves emptied out, we feared losing ourselves.
It is from Price’s book that I learned that, while perhaps ramped up against the fear of digital disruption and displacement, the concern about the book's place in our lives isn’t unique to our age. What is unique to it is the idea that books, particularly novels, are actually good for us. We worry today about our lack of ability to get lost in a novel, to focus with rapt attention for extended hours on deep, concentrated reading. The prevailing worry about books in the Victorian Era was that people would do just that—become spellbound by and lost in books. Books have come to be seen as a panacea to modern day ills, but there was once as much worry about them as there are today about the screens that we lose our time to—worries about distraction, inactivity, mental and physical health. The term “book worm” was not in any way a compliment. Being “bookish” was to be frail, detached, absorbed in and distracted by a world other than the one in front of you.
By removing our eyes from the world around us and opening them to another, books provided the first immersive virtual experience. Doctors and psychiatrists warned that reading—especially at night, and especially fiction—worsened not only peoples’ eyes and posture, but their brain and nervous system. One of the founders of the American Psychiatric Association, Price tells us, had “attributed Americans’ growing propensity for insanity and suicide to their ‘increasing fondness for light reading, especially such as is addressed to the emotions and the passions’”—i.e. fiction. The fact is that:
[W]ell into the nineteenth century, experts were likelier to think that fiction caused madness than cured it.
Today, attitudes have reversed to the point that there is an entire subgenre within self-help literature dedicated to the power of literature to heal trauma and improve mental health. Through England’s Reading Well program, doctors even offer “Books on Prescription” writing out scripts for self-help titles, fiction, poetry, and memoirs—Mood Boosting Books—meant to promote the mental health, even the physical well-being, of their patients. The program is supported by England’s National Health Service, and has had a side benefit of helping support struggling libraries, who “within three months … had lent over 100,000 copies of the prescribed titles.”
It feels good to believe there is virtue and value in reading books, especially because here at Porchlight, “We believe in books.” But there is a danger in the idea of the book as a panacea, and in turning to the book as a “refuge from technological and commercial upheavals.”
The problem is that treating the book as a bunker may shortchange its potential to engage with the world—not just with the world represented by its words, but with the world of other human beings who made or transmitted the object itself. Yes, the book can be a shell (essayist Alberto Manguel reminisces that “my library was my tortoise shell”) but it can also be an antenna or a spear. Seeing books thrust into the service of comfort and sanity and good taste, I started wanting to recover the book’s power to upset and unsettle and even anger readers.
Far from being a “refuge from technological and commercial upheavals,” books have usually been in the vanguard of them. There should be no surprise that Amazon, “the everything store” that recently became the world’s second trillion dollar company, began as an online bookstore. As Price notes, “printed books were among the first mass-produced, mass-marketed objects … the first consumer good to be displayed on open-access shelves rather than kept behind the counter.” Encyclopedias were the first consumer goods sold on credit. Gutenberg’s Bible made history, but Gutenberg made his living printing religious indulgences for wealthy patrons who strayed from its teachings.
We’ve seen books pioneer self-service retailing in the eighteenth century, consumer credit in the nineteenth, automated inventory control in the twentieth, and e-commerce in the twenty-first.
It is also true that the idea of book ownership as the norm—one that ebooks are upending—is itself a recent invention. Price explains how, “From the beginning, printed books were more often borrowed than owned,” a history that mirrors our own company’s. We are a bulk book retailer shipping books all over the world today, but our company began as a rental library in the back of a beauty parlor on Milwaukee’s East Side. In fact, the original name of the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops was Casanova, perhaps hinting at the kind of material Harry thought he might be peddling. As Harry wrote in Fifty Years In My Bookstore:
Have you ever heard of a bookshop born in a beauty parlor? There have been bookshops born in restaurants, tearooms, saloons, antique shops, and perhaps in other places but never, I believe, in a beauty parlor. In the month of October 1927, we opened the Casanova Bookshop in a tiny corner of The Downer Beauty Parlor, 591 Downer Avenue, adjacent to the barber, who eyed us with suspicion.
The barber’s attitude was one widely held by society at the time, but Harry was a staunch defender of people’s right to read what they wished. When the Milwaukee Public Library banned what was then “hailed by reputable critics as the first significant homosexual novel,” Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Harry filled his entire display window with it. When Milwaukee’s district attorney requested that Thomas Heggen’s novel Mr. Roberts be banned from sale because of the profanity it contained, Harry offered to sell the book and get arrested. The publisher’s lawyers agreed to defend him in the case, but the DA lifted the ban before the plan was executed. As the company’s second owner, his son David (our current co-owner and CEO’s father) wrote in the book’s introduction, the bookshop’s history was one of “Years of resisting censorship while keeping the balance between a ‘serious’ shop and one that gleefully sold hundreds of copies of Tropic of Cancer, not for its literary merit, but because the good burghers of Milwaukee wanted to read a ‘dirty book.’” He also published a book by William Faulkner, now one of the most sought after by his collectors, a book of essays by Vardis Fisher, and authored his own book on book collecting.
Rather than collecting them, however, Price relates how most people treated early novels more like the periodicals they were often serialized in—by passing them on or discarding them once completed—and how, conversely, even newspapers were often resold from wealthy subscribers to a less wealthy neighbor before making their way to servants whose use of it was for the paper itself and not the information it conveyed.
As both a book historian and literary critic, Price lives her life studying books as both texts and objects, which allows her to appreciate the role of each:
Disentangling timeless ideas from time-bound objects shows texts freeing readers from their surroundings but books anchoring readers more firmly within them.
Book historians, Price asserts, “preserve books not as a bulwark against history, but as a witness to it.”
Far from providing a refuge from history, books make history—not just through the ideas the vehicle, but also through the technologies created for manufacturing and distributing them.
What we talk about when we talk about books here at Porchlight has changed over the years. As 800-CEO-READ, it was primarily about business. Jack Covert built the part of the business that endures as Pochlight today by responding to the needs of authors and publishers in the business genre, and teaching us to do the same. We have simply found, over the years, that the services we offer also meet the needs of authors and publishers in other genres, and the interests of other readers. We changed our name to reflect the fact that we have, for years, been doing just that. Even though we will be expanding the scope of our coverage beyond business, we will not be abandoning it. As the Introduction to The 100 Best Business Books of All Time states, “Sitting at the educational crossroads of “I know nothing about this” and “Let’s hire a consultant,” good business books contain a high-value proposition for thirty dollars and two hours fo your attention. It is similar to self-help books as a step between doing nothing and being able to see a therapist. Yet…
In overselling the book’s power to calm and console, these therapeutic claims undersell its responsibility to upset and anger us.
You can add the word “consult” for the genre we have traditionally sold most. The point is that books also have a responsibility to do what “respectable” society once worried they would do: inflame people’s passions—from the personal to the spiritual, the entrepreneurial to the political. And so we have also made it a point to promote the books that examine the ill effects of business alongside those that encourage and teach us to build better businesses, that might enrage as much as they inform, that call us to introspection if not action.
Price’s counterpoint to books being “prescribed” by experts are today’s biblioactivists who are as committed to guaranteeing all readers access to books of their own choosing as Harry W. Schwartz was. Here she turns to lending libraries for the homeless, the librarians of Berlin who have extended borrowing privelages to undocumented regugees, to the phenomenon of “silent book clubs” and reading groups that, rather than discussing a book everyone has already read, gather people together just to carve out time to read. Also funded in part by the NHS, Get into Reading and other “reading groups do indeed tackle mental-health problems like isolation, stigma, and even depression.” Because books, as both texts and objects, can serve multiple purposes. “Where texts train readers to empathize with fictional characters,” Price writes, “books allow readers to bond with each other.”
Perhaps books can fence and bridge at the same time—can help us be, in the resonant words of sociologist Sherry Turkle—“alone together.
We believe in books. We believe in them as a business model for the authors, publishers, and booksellers who make their living in books, as forces for change in the lives of individuals, organizations, and society. We believe that, in an ever more cacophonous media landscape, the best way to keep up with what’s happening is to slow down and dive deeper into the issues and arguments at the heart of them, deeper into the literary characters whose rich inner lives broaden our understanding of humanity and reflect our own. All of these are ways to immerse ourselves in and engage with humanity rather than seal ourselves off from it. We believe they will survive and evolve and change as long as humanity does. We believe, as A. David Schwartz—the son of the man that opened our first bookstore, husband to one of our owners, and father to our other owner and CEO—said, that the “true profit in bookselling is the social profit; the bottom line, the measure of the impact of the books on the community.”