Nostalgia on the Bookshelf

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It is impossible to talk about books, nowadays; to talk about books without nostalgia creeping into the discourse; though perhaps, to speak the lingo, perhaps ‘twas always so. Whether the specific tone is wistful, elegiac, defensive, hostile, or whether the talk is of an imminent and lamented end, or of a bitter and defiant survival, or of some type of triumphalist victory in another world, it is difficult to find a discussion of books that does not view the past as some better place. The title alone of the book under discussion, The Late Age of Print, offers all sorts of elegiac vapors—instantly retrospective, placing the present almost immediately in the past, it frames the now from the vantage point of a future from which we can gaze back upon the current times.

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

With a due allowance for Benjamin’s dramatic phrasing, and granting me a little wiggle room for my perhaps hyperbolic need to avail of that drama, this pretty much nails the position of the book / book establishment right now. And, while Striphas does not himself avail of Benjamin, I think he might approve. For neither is a sentimentalist and the brilliance of this book lies in the sober fashion in which Striphas reveals the recent history of American book culture to be decidedly at odds with the fantasy.

We tend to view history in terms of one age succeeding another, the greater vanquishing the lesser, or the tawdry always winning out over the elevated. The reality, Striphas demonstrates, is that we’re a populist capitalist democracy, a world where people are trying to get ahead, and the information contained in books, and the social status books have occasionally offered, are tools for getting ahead. Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism; they virtually began it, they are part of the fuel that drives it, and they are key for understanding ways in which consumer capitalism is changing and evolving, in some respects into a whole other beast. That is book culture. Books are not apart from commerce. And because that is book culture, it is far less in peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of the imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and separate from the everyday (a word Striphas is fond of, more of which anon) than it actually is.

By now, some facts might be in order, to buttress the following; and, not to be too polemical, but let’s start with the appalled reactions to the Borders’ CEO hires of the past decade: Greg Josefowicz from the grocery trade, George Jones from Saks, and Ron Marshall, once CFO at Pathmark. Each hire offered the opportunity for the book business to decry the groceryfication of the bookstore… utterly belying the reality that the bookstore is in fact the model for the supermarket.

In the history of shop design, it is bookstores, strangely enough, that were the precursors of supermarkets. They, alone of all types of shop, made use of shelves that were not behind counters, with the goods arranged for casual browsing, and for what was not yet called self-service. Also, when brand name goods and their accompanying packages were non-existent or rare in the sale of food, books had covers that were designed at once to protect the contents and to entice the purchaser; they were proprietary products with identifiable authors and new titles.

One can’t help but be stunned by this. And while the demise of Borders might suggest that those grocery CEO’s were bad choices, the reality is that Barnes & Noble is no better, with one third of its stock currently held by short-sellers betting on the further decline of its share price—and that’s run by dyed-in-the-wool book folk. Furthermore, the Borders example is mine. Striphas uses the more culturally broad case of the Tom Hanks / Meg Ryan movie You’ve Got Mail, where Hanks is CEO of a big box book retailer about to put Ryan’s quaint children’s bookstore out of business, as an example of how we’ve come to view the bookstore as a sacred rather than commercial space.

Here, again, Striphas bucks conventional wisdom, urging a more nuanced view of the chain versus independent dichotomy, by investigating and finding little evidence to support the claim that big box book retail has in fact put the independents out of business. He finds that in most cases the reasons for closure were either more specific—a fire, an over-expansion, a change in local transit arrangements—or more general, such as rising rents that couldn’t be sustained by relatively narrow book margins. To offer a more recent anecdote not from the book, one can contrast the recent closures of two B&N locations—Astor Place and Chelsea, both in high-demand, high-foot traffic areas—with the success of the independent McNally Jackson in an even more competitive and expensive retail environment, Soho: big box versus independent, in books at least, is not necessarily an unequal fight.

Having looked at bookstores in relation to one another, Striphas proceeds to examine them in relation to the communities in which they’re located, through the broader frame of the social, political, and economic background of a given geographical area. This is, in fact, his preferred method throughout the book: to take his subject in broader historical and sociological frame. In a fascinating case study, he situates the erection of the Barnes & Noble at New Hope Cross shopping mall as part of the effort of Durham, North Carolina, a small industrial city in decline, to rebuild its tax base and draw in (whiter) more affluent and better educated citizens of the nearby Chapel Hill. He simultaneously details the efforts by Chapel Hill residents to thwart it, placing the entire process in the context of the post-Civil War economic and racial history of the Durham-Raleigh-Chapel Hill conurbation. Barnes & Noble, as a bookstore providing tools for self-improvement, was seen as particularly critical component of the development. “These stores,” says Striphas, “are part and parcel of a larger historical project, to democratize American education and culture—despite how imperfectly and inconsistently that process has worked itself out…”

A Barnes & Noble in Durham is certainly one way to extend the American education franchise as Striphas sees it, noting “bestsellers reportedly account for only about three percent of B&N’s total sales—which is consistent with the rest of the retail book trade. This suggests that the large-scale corporate retail booksellers—or Barnes & Noble at any rate—aren’t dumbing down the world of letters to attract ever greater numbers of book buyers… [but] are developing effective strategies for communicating the relevance of and generating interest in books to both the general and actual book buying public.”

Another great force for accomplishing the same, which is also periodically contentious, is Oprah. In a superb chapter, Striphas performs a close reading of the choices of her book club and discerns in them a process of listening, of attention, of responsiveness to the audience. Where critics see, for example, a banal fixation with page count, and a facile notion of summer and winter books, Oprah and her producers are “keenly sensitive to how the reading of specific books matches the tempo and variable rhythms of women’s lives.” In another instance, Oprah warned her readers against reading in a car (for obvious reasons), thereby revealing that many women were choosing to read there: “In contrast to the home, automobiles seem to provide these women with something akin to a ‘room of one’s own’ and thus a measure of freedom away from—or even in the midst of—their everyday family responsibilities.”

Figuring out how read amidst child-rearing is a significant challenge; a number of readers on Oprah’s club have not read in many years. One way of accomplishing this is to find books that speak directly to those very challenges, books that contend with the challenge of navigating complex family dynamics, balancing individual and social responsibility, living for the present and for the future, and so forth:

Herein lies the book club’s dialectic with the everyday. On the one hand, the material facticity of the books themselves has provided at least some participants with much-needed time and space away from their daily obligations as partners, mothers, and professionals. On the other hand, the club has marshaled the content of the books to serve a seemingly contrary purpose, namely, that of facilitating a more intense, introspective engagement with women’s everyday realities vis-a-vis the main characters and events of the selection.

Through continuing guidance, through an “ethic of active listening” and through a range of diverse subjects that belies the stereotypical perception of an “Oprah pick” (but that “shouldn’t be mistaken for facile pluralism”), the club expands the audience for books “by sorting and classifying them assiduously, and by matching them up with appropriate readers at opportune moments in their lives.” Something publishers have frequently failed to do.

So, what has been the role of the publishers in all this? If the forgoing process of democratization represents one narrative strand of the book—a weakness of The Late Age of Print, perhaps inevitable given that it is very much a university press book in structure, is that one does have to pick those strands out—a story of control over the consumer is the other. In that story, the publisher is the would-be protagonist, though the publisher continually struggles with the semi-unpredictable actions of the consumer and one is tempted to place the reader in the role of the protagonist, with the publisher some hybrid of the omniscient but nevertheless slightly befuddled narrator. The story of the publisher and the consumer for the last one hundred years has been one largely of the publisher trying first to seduce the consumer (through the magic of marketing and advertising) and then to circumscribe her.

In this regard, be it in the 1920’s or the 2000’s, not so much changes. Faced with a scenario in which they can’t cost-effectively match supply and demand, publishers seek to use the new arts and sciences of marketing to persuade people to buy more. In 1930, a consortium of trade publishers hired Edward L. Bernays, the “father of spin,” to concoct a juice-up of the book business. Quoting Bernays’ biographer:

“Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respectable public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes.

While the bookshelf trick is truly ingenious, it only reinforced what was already happening, in that the burgeoning American middle class needed to communicate “respectability and plenitude,” even during or perhaps especially during, the Great Depression—libraries were an excellent way to accomplish that. Bernays was merely surfing an existing wave. Obviously the use of celebrities to coax America into reading is a hobby-horse of the present time too, but it is not the only echo. Bernays’ stunt in particular and the obsession with advertising in general (which Striphas catalogs for much of the twentieth century) reminds me of the current infatuation with social media. Then as now, publishers seize on the most superficial aspect of a social phenomenon—then it was the need for the growing middle class to ratify its status through books; now, it is the transformation of consumer-producer relations from monologue to dialogue. Yet, all that publishing provides is bookcases and all we offer now is Facebook fan pages for authors and publishers, as well as Twitter feeds that mostly (though, to be fair, not exclusively) still seek to push product.

Worse still, the product they are pushing is continually subject to ever more elaborate restrictions. When there is oversupply, Striphas argues, a publisher has two options, 1) seek to induce demand, largely by publicity and advertising, or 2) create artificial scarcity. The former, we’ve discussed; to achieve the latter, he sees a century of publishers resorting to complex, quixotic arrangements ranging from disparate territorial rights to elaborate security arrangements—the latter most famously in the cases of the Harry Potter books, the lengths to which its publishers and author went to manage it being the subject of an entire chapter. Perhaps the oddest to us now, though, having grown accustomed to the perversity of the security measures applied to the Harry Potter laydowns, might be the ruses of the 1920’s when a secondary move of Bernays’s was to launch a competition with the public for a suitable word, akin to “scofflaw” with which to chastize people who borrowed books from friends or libraries, rather than buy them (“Booksneak” won).

We have now reached the apotheosis of the publishing industry’s capacity to restrict a reader’s ability to do what they want with their books. Striphas points out that intellectual property law deals primarily with cases of actual infringements which, as far as the publishers are concerned, fails the cat-out-of-the-bag test. So the publisher creates a downloadable file, encrypts it, and doesn’t sell it in a legal sense, but rather licenses it to the reader, subject to terms including expressly prohibiting the reader’s right to copy it, and expressly reserving the right to revoke the license (The Late Age of Print was written before Amazon “vanished” copies of Orwell’s 1984 that were inadvertently put on sale by a vendor of public domain books—1984 was not in the public domain in the US, although it is in the public domain in Canada and Australia, and many other countries). This has the interesting effect of prohibiting two activities expressly permitted by Congress: fair use (the right, inter alia, to copy and paste little clips), and first sale doctrine (the right, inter alia, to give it to a friend.)

Clearly, neither Striphas nor I am happy with this approach to the downloadable file, but for Striphas this is more than merely objectionable behavior by publishers—it discloses an entire philosophy of engaging the reader, a mistrustful, adversarial, paranoid position-taking.

E-Books clearly have an important story to tell beyond their ability to reproduce the form and function of printed books… Today’s e-book technologies constitute the end result of more then fifty years’ worth of effort to render problematic people’s accumulation and circulation of printed books, as well as those of other mass-produced goods. As such, e-books both express and embody a practical critique of consumer capitalism. This is no cause for celebration, however. Whatever critique of capitalism they offer ultimately advances a more intensive mode of capitalist accumulation, one significantly premised on the management of commodities and hence the ways in which consumers interact with them. E-books don’t suggest a waning of consumer capitalism. On the contrary, they point to its intensification or, rather, to the emergence of new practices of controlled consumption….” [45]

The reader is either a sucker, to be conned into buying a book by advertising, or a thief, ready to give the book to another person and thereby cost the publisher a sale. Well, in fact, that’s really more my extreme position—Striphas embarks at this point in his argument on a very subtle discussion of consumption, one he calls “controlled consumption,” and one to which I will fail to do justice here. It is rare to say of a university press hardcover that it is a “must-read,” but for those interested in the confluence of culture and economics as it relates to books, that is what The Late Age of Print is: a key text advancing our knowledge. To quote the author himself,

The Late Age of Print indexes not a distinct historical moment but rather a point of conjuncture where at least two historical moments meet. Instead of the possibilities diminishing, it would be more accurate to say they’re being transformed—or maybe even multiplying.

Striphas is not in fact reviewing his own book, though—he’s unpacking the title itself for the reader. He sees in it not a nostalgia for the Early or Middle Ages of print, but a set of practical opportunities that are born not out of a fantasy of a literary culture now feared to be slipping away, but out of the actual practical everyday social relations that books enable. In other words, that the future of reading, and of books, is where it ought to be: in front of us, should we choose to face it.

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About Richard Nash

Richard Nash was formerly the publisher of Soft Skull Press. He is currently a publishing industry consultant, and is working on a niche social publishing community start-up, Cursor.