“Poetry is Dead! Long live Poetry!”
When visiting my alma mater, I walk past a photocopied cutout of a newspaper cartoon bearing the above quote on a regular basis. When I started reading Ted Striphas’ book The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, the cartoon bubble lamenting and celebrating poetry kept popping into my head. There’s no comedic link between the two; it’s just that we are continually bombarded by the death and rebirth of book culture in a way we seem to be with poetry.
As someone who has just finished her MFA studies in nonfiction, the death of the book is something that intrigues me, but doesn’t yet quite worry me. I’ve worked in an independent bookstore, and shopped in both stores of that ilk and the larger box stores, and I’m pretty sure that books aren’t going the way of the Dodo in my lifetime. Striphas, who is an assistant professor of Communication and Culture at the University of Indiana, helps reinforce that belief by looking at the commercialization of the book throughout his own.
Briefly, in the intro, he discusses the more “imminent cultural crisis” in this “late age of print”: that of the dwindling number of readers of any medium. According to a 2004 study by the National Endowment for the Arts
In 1982 almost 57 percent of adults reported having read at least one literary work for pleasure in the preceding year. By 2002 that figure had stumbled to roughly 45 percent and showed no signs of rebounding.
Striphas sets up readers with these stats, then launches into an exploration of reading and books and the histories of authors, publishers and the people who create and consume them.
Consumption here, is key. The author takes apart book culture throughout each of his five chapters, examining how and why books became the things they have become today. But he also contextualizes literary movements and ideas within the consumerist framework popular to each era and trend he examines.For example, when Striphas discusses public lending rights, he begins in the 1800s, when
publishers, printers and booksellers in the United States were relatively free to produce, distribute and sell their own–some would say pirated–editions of foreign works to American readers.
From there he goes into Xerox copyright infringements by Ivy League colleges in the 80s and the current trends in piracy today and what it means for the industry and readers. In each of his arguments and illuminations, Striphas plays first the historian, then the economist, then, lastly, the bibliophile. In his examination of lending rights the author makes sure to set us up with an understanding of just how commoditized books were, even in the 19th century, as the industry grew and grew. Books have not always been the objets d’art that they became and must continue to be as the industry changes. No, throughout his book Striphas shows that books are just another thing to be bought and sold, so much intellectual chattel (although the section on fake books made me think of the people I know who don’t read but have books for posture).
Perhaps this is a severe simplification on my part. The Late Age of Print made me think about books in a new way and I learned a lot while reading it. The chapter on big box stores such as Barnes & Noble took me back to my days as a bookseller and content editor at a small, independent bookstore in Chicago. Transitions Bookplace had started out as an AA and recovery bookstore, then went all transendental spirituality, then urban yuppie, then into liquidation. I loved the fine dust of just-cut books that hung in the air with the knick-nacks and dream catchers and singing bowls littered all over the store, and I miss that place. We had the corner on self-help and spirituality books in Chicago, and even with a Borders just a few blocks away, the store did well for years. But in the end it was unwise business practices that shut it down; Striphas tells a similar story of many of the small bookstores in NY, CA, Chicago or Minneapolis that faced similar extinctions.
Popular institutions don’t arrive out of nowhere to transform local communities. For example, superstores are not the only cause of independent bookstores being forced to close, though that may be one direct consequence. Rather, it’s more accurate to say that they’ve folded into the intricately woven historical fabric of specific regions and locales–often before they even open for business…Superstores may be bound up with the repetitive routines that structure everyday life, yet they also offer the possibility of repeating everyday life differently.
In “History’s Folds,” the section within his chapter on the bog box stores, Striphas carefully and fairly, I would say, examines major independents’ closings over the years, noting that yes, bigger stores are competitors in what they offer, how much of it, and how cheaply, but it is not just this that forces a smaller store to shutter its windows. I used to be one of the people who blamed the conglomerates for squeezing life out of the independents, but now I can see other sides of this issue, even that there is some good found in these biggies. Especially when they come to impoverished areas and provide jobs and unity for locals, which Striphas covers, using the Raleigh/Durham area of North Carolina. As always, he is methodical, intensely tying book culture to capitalism, but so interesting that even someone like me, who dislikes consumerism, can get into the intricacies unwoven here.
That leads me to my biggest complaint about this book– that so much time is spent on the book as a commodity, something to be priced, traded and thus valued (or not) by financial consumers. Although the chapter on big box stores examines the way these stores have helped communities, and thus readers, the only chapter that really seems to consider the consumer-as-reader, and not the reader-as-consumer, is the chapter on Oprah and the way in which her book club defines (or doesn’t) current literary or bookselling trends. I add “bookselling” here because Striphas writes that “Oprah Winfrey does not make bestsellers nor has she changed the way in which Americans read..”
It’s an interesting argument, and instead of bashing Oprah like many do, Striphas again calmly dissects book culture and contends that Oprah, while perhaps not not adding anything terribly literary to the scene, is getting people to pick up books. Isn’t that what the NEA was after, all those years ago?
And so, perhaps this book’s greatest lesson comes in the subtle underpinnings of the economics holding both book culture and this book together. Book culture will not go away, and books will not die, and the late age of print is just an age,a period, a transition, not the wake or even final sacrament of literature. Books are too large a part of our economic infrastructure–here and abroad (see the final chapter, on Harry Potter for more on that)–to really go poof! in the way some fear and imagine.