Books about books and reading are a special breed. I’ve often thought that all bookstores should have a separate section devoted to them. There are so many that one could even classify them into further subcategories.
In fiction, to start with, there are plenty of novels to do with the pleasures of reading in general or the mysteries of a single book. Arguably, Cervantes’s
Don Quixote and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary are the forerunners here.
Reading and writing are at the heart of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s
The Shadow of the Wind. They are held up as symbols of liberation in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which is narrated by a lugubrious figure of Death. In Sam Savage’s Firmin, the narrator is a bookstore rat whose life is enriched by volumes on the shelves that surround him. It’s into a bookstore that a reader ventures at the start of Italo Calvino’s If on A Winter’s Night a Traveller, after which the novel spins off into a dizzyingly inventive series of first chapters.
With non-fiction, the range is as diverse. There are books on how novels by Tolstoy, Austen and George Eliot have been guides to life. There are others on how reading Hemingway in Kosovo or Lolita in Tehran have altered attitudes. There are yet others on an unhealthy obsession with John Updike, on how DH Lawrence is hard to write about, and on how Proust can change your life.
These examples only scratch the surface. Libraries, rare-book collecting, legal cases around books and more have been exhaustively written about, especially in recent times. When books and reading are supposed to be in terminal decline, one can see this over-production as a wistful look at a more ordered past.
Puncturing inflated nostalgia
The point of Leah Price’s new book,
What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, is to puncture such inflated nostalgia. When it comes to the state of the printed book, she counters the arguments of elegiasts and doomsday prophets on the dangers of the digital age and how it’s scrambling our brains.
As a literary critic, an English literature professor and a book historian, one can almost imagine her wagging a reproving finger at the worrywarts. Such forcefulness means that there are times when she over-eggs the pudding. Her book, however, is a clear-eyed look at books and reading over the centuries and provides a much-needed perspective.
Price affirms that the printed book, which we think of as immutable, is merely one of the devices for storing words. For ages before the existence of the book as we know it, there were rock inscriptions, papyri, codices and illuminated manuscripts. As she writes, “the digital-age printed book isn’t really an old medium at all. Rather, it’s a format being reinvented by booklovers before our eyes. In that sense, our own era continues, rather than breaks with, a tradition of innovation that has seen new formats emerge over and over again for half a millennium.”
It's a point she drives home in chapter after chapter. Parallels are repeatedly drawn between what we think of as current digital activities and a traditional past. Books were interactive: “readers underlined print, copied out passages, dis-bound books to arrange their pages in new orders.” They were the equivalent of social media: “hand-copied, recited, gifted, exchanged.” And, “for most of the half millennium since Gutenberg, readers have browsed and skipped their way around books.”
This last opinion reflects Price’s views on the supposed lack of immersive reading nowadays. For her, such careful, distraction-free habits were exceptions, not the norm. Nostalgists for print, she waspishly observes, “stack the deck by assuming a best-case scenario in which all printed books were great, and all reading rapt.” In short, they compare the way we use digital media with the way we wish we used printed books. They contrast “ideal apples with real oranges.” There’s certainly a case to be made for that.
Why readers fetishise the printed book
At the beginning and towards the end of her book, Price points to two reasons why readers fetishise the printed book. The first is a prevailing mood of anxiety, even fear, at our age of change. We seek refuge in the prior stability that books represent. “Treating the book as a bunker,” she writes, “may short-change its potential to engage with the world.” Secondly, when we fondly remember a childhood that predates digital media, we’re looking back at our “not-yet-professionalised selves, before reading became an activity done for pay and for publication.”
It’s time, then, for readers to find new ways of “circulating and sharing and responding to words” that promote attentiveness, curiosity, and imagination. Once we free ourselves from habit, we can “learn when to read in print and when to opt for digital, when to read quickly and when to read slowly, when to search an encyclopaedia and when to have [our] souls searched by a poem.”
The way we read, however, is such an entrenched part of ourselves that such changes will only emerge slowly and organically. Meanwhile, we can always turn to those comforting books about the way we used to read.
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.