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What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

The History and Future of Reading

Leah Price



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Little, Brown and Company
29 October 2019
Around 2000, people began to believe that books were on verge of extinction. Their obsolescence, in turn, was expected to doom the habits of mind that longform print had once prompted: the capacity to follow a demanding idea from start to finish, to look beyond the day's news, or even just to be alone. The death of the book is an anxiety that has spawned a thousand jeremiads about the dumbing down of American culture, the ever-shorter attention spans of our children, the collapse of civilized discourse.

All of these anxieties rely on the idea of a golden age, when children and adults alike sat quietly for long stretches reading edifying literature that improved our minds and souls. A booklover by temperament as much as profession, literature professor Leah Price wanted to believe that. But as a historian of the book, searching out the traces of long-dead readers through their marginalia and their unbroken spines, she began to wonder if our current digital discontents were stirring up nostalgia for a past that had never existed.

When you look at old books, what do you find? A few well-greased pagespreads limply scattered among hundreds that remained spotlessly crisp; essays stained with beer from reading aloud at the pub; novels crumpled from being hidden in a pocket. From the eighteenth-century dawn of mass literacy to the Cold-War-era triumph of the paperback, few books were read cover-to-cover, meditatively, in silence. We have been shocked - shocked!

--by data from Kindle that shows that most readers start books but rarely finish them, or skip large sections in between. But it has always been so. And in fact, for much of history, deep reading was strongly discouraged. Doctors and clergymen warned that print could addict, distract, or corrupt--not the ideas it contained, but the very experience of running one's eyes over a page. Over the centuries, children and women especially were repeatedly warned not to spend too much time reading, lest it excite their minds and distract them from other, more edifying tasks.

Impatient with untempered book worship, Price emphasizes the continuities between past and present reading practices, and dispels the myth of the Golden Age of Print on multiple fronts. An anti-nostalgic examination of the past, present and future of reading, WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT BOOKS will fascinate bibliophiles and readers of all stripes.
By:   Leah Price
Imprint:   Little, Brown and Company
Country of Publication:   United States
Dimensions:   Height: 212mm,  Width: 142mm,  Spine: 28mm
Weight:   338g
ISBN:   9780465042685
ISBN 10:   0465042686
Pages:   224
Publication Date:   29 October 2019
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Hardback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Leah Price has taught English at Cambridge University, Harvard University, and Rutgers University, where from fall 2019 onward she will be founding director of the Rutgers Book Initiative. She is the author How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain and the editor of Unpacking My Library.

Reviews for What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading

Pithy and compact...[Price is] an engagingly breezy writer with a real talent for a clever phrase, and she wears her expansive learning lightly. --Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Price is one of the most interesting and provocative writers on books of her generation...[She] doesn't so much build arguments as allow ideas to explode on the page, detonating chain reactions as she goes. What We Talk About When We Talk About Books not only does its talking in original ways but also makes us think intensely about what books are. --Literary Review A witty, tonic rebuttal to the latest round of doomsday prognostications about the fate of literature. --Wall Street Journal A deeply researched and deeply fun-to-read reassurance that there is still hope for books-and that there always has been. --Shelf Awareness Price's book-unlike other examples of what she calls 'autobibliography'-is funny and hopeful, rather than dour and pious...What We Talk About When We Talk About Books is an enjoyable tour, full of surprising byways into historical arcana. --Jennifer Szalai, New York Times Eye-opening and filled with delightful nuggets of truth, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books offers no nostalgia for a more tranquil reading past but rather a hopeful glimpse into an essential reading future. --BookPage [Price] is not an elegist for print: her extraordinary grasp of every development in book history, from incunabula to beach reads, monasteries to bookmobiles, suggests that a love of printed matter need not be a form of nostalgia...Her radiant descriptions of the physical properties of books, the forensic traces-from smudges to candle wax-of earlier bodies holding them, immediately sent me to the Internet... --Dan Chiasson, New Yorker Price's premise, that there truly was no golden age of reading that we should be trying to get back to, is presented with humor and charm...Those still worried that technology has spoiled their attention span shouldn't be. --Booklist Price combines a lighthearted romp through literary history with a serious intent: to argue that the rise of e-texts is not the radical change often claimed...Provides welcome comfort that the beloved book is in good shape, regardless of the form it ultimately takes. --Publishers Weekly Predictions of the death of the book weren't only greatly exaggerated; as Leah Price notes in What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, they were old news. The book has survived numerous death sentences in the past, and this time, as before, it's been the occasion to reinvent old practices of reading. What the Victorians called furniture books continue to adorn coffee tables and the Ikea shelves widened to accommodate them. People still hold books in their laps on couches and in coaches (enjoying the library atmosphere of Amtrak quiet cars). Self-help books have their roots the bibliotherapy proposed a century ago. It is still a very bookish world that we inhabit, and I know of no guide to it more witty and engaging than Leah Price, whose insights, erudition, and apercus had me dog-earing every other page. --Geoff Nunberg, resident linguist, NPR's Fresh Air Books are not dead. That's the good news in this set of bookish essays...Readers who enjoy books about books will find much to like here. --Kirkus A dizzying, myth-busting history of reading. Upends a whole toolbox of old saws about readers' habits. --Keith Houston, author of The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time At once authoritative and accessible, Price's account busts many myths about both the past and the future of reading. Long may it keep us talking about books! --William H. Sherman, Director, Warburg Institute, University of London As entertaining as it is insightful, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books is part history, part social commentary, part memoir, and fully engaging. Leah Price pithily assesses the uses of books past and present, and upends assumptions about the future of books in a digital age. Her contagious delight in books makes this book a delight. --Maya Jasanoff, author of The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World Leah Price's radiantly intelligent book makes us rethink and re-view the endlessly alive, endlessly shape-shifting and self-reinventing activity that is reading. Its cracking readability -- when was the last time you had to disable the wifi for a book on books? -- should not disguise how cogently and coherently it is argued, and the depth of learning with which its arguments are meticulously substantiated. It is also profoundly witty, funny, and beautifully written (when was the last time you thought that about a book on books?). You emerge, after turning the last page, a smarter, better informed, joyous person. --Neel Mukherjee, Man Booker Prize-finalist author of The Lives of Others and A State of Freedom No one writes about books-and their bookness-with anything close to the daunting curiosity and dazzling acuity of the inimitable Leah Price. What We Talk About When We Talk About Books is a rags to paper to Amazon Kindle bookshelf of delight and instruction, as entertaining as it is illuminating. --Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States

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