Public Thinker: Leah Price on Books, Book Tech, and Book Tattoos

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Readers today believe that they are living through unprecedented changes in how ...

Leah Price is a professor of English at Rutgers University and founding director of the Rutgers Initiative for the Book. Though her specialty is Victorian literature, her new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, considers the history of reading from ancient Rome to the present. Readers today believe that they are living through unprecedented changes in how they read, but Price shows how the history of reading has always been shaped by the rise of new mediums and materials, demographic changes, technological upheavals, institutional shifts, and judgments about the most virtuous and most villainous practices. “Show me how you want to read,” Price writes, “and I’ll show you what you want to be.” Price’s book gives her readers permission to embrace all the childish, romantic, fantastic, fatalistic, and radical attachments we develop to our books, and through them, to the people with whom we read.

Merve Emre (ME): One of the things I admire about What We Talk About When We Talk About Books is how seamlessly you move between your professional role as a book historian and your nonprofessional identity as a “literature lover.” As a book historian, what do you perceive to be the difference between a literary critic and a lover of literature?


Leah Price (LP): Book historians and scholars in general are sometimes perceived by literature lovers as killjoys—as if what makes us academics is that we are literature haters, the ones reducing a warm, fuzzy, living, breathing experience to an insider’s game. I think book historians have a particularly important role in counteracting that perception of the academy, because for all our nerdiness, book historians are aligned with amateur literature lovers against the verbal focus of literary critics. We are not ashamed of judging a book by its cover or patting the bunny when we read aloud to our kids or arranging the books on our shelves by color.

And book history has always spoken toward a nonexpert audience. From its beginnings it has been a populist discipline. In the anglophone world, one origin for book history was Cold War–era cultural studies (I’m thinking here of classics like Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy). Which means that book history in itself represents a shift in understanding: from looking at texts through the vantage point of the author to looking at texts from the vantage point of the reader.

That makes book history a democratizing impulse, because authors are few and readers are many. Authors leave a written print and readers often don’t, which raises a lot of problems of evidence for book history. So book history on the one hand often claims to speak for an otherwise disempowered general reader. On the other hand, book historians problematize the category of the general reader or the common reader by emphasizing other distinctions that cut across the academic/nonacademic divide. I know you don’t identify as a book historian, but one of the things I learned from your book Paraliterary is not to lump all readers outside the university into a single negatively defined kitchen sink.

ME: Thanks! But what about writing for that audience, or those audiences, if you prefer the plural?


LP: One thing that most English professors share with many amateur literature lovers is embarrassment about their relation to the book as a material object. My general-audience writing and my scholarly writing are both efforts to deprogram people who’ve passed through English comp by giving them permission to think about the book as an object, rather than leaping straight over the material object to the words it contains. I think we miss a lot when we treat the book as a bucket into which verbal structures can be poured, in order to carry them conveniently from the mind of an author to the mind of a reader.


ME: The title What We Talk About When We Talk About Books riffs on Raymond Carver’s 1981 collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. How do you understand the relationship between talking about books and talking about love?


LP: Just as we lie about who we love, most readers lie about what books they love. Think of a book that a reviewer praises in print, but then resells to a secondhand shop with only the first few pages cut. Material signs of wear and tear allow us to cross-check the lies that we tell ourselves often about what we love or how we spend our time.

I sometimes think of evidence of reading as providing the same kind of corrective as those time-use studies that record people’s mood minute by minute, when they find that they’re happier when doing the dishes than when putting their beloved kids to bed.


ME: Is that what you were thinking of when you wrote, “Others’ reading remains as hard to peer into as others’ hearts”?


LP: Yes! One thing that made my research frustrating is that it’s precisely when reading becomes most passionate and most engaged that it stops leaving traces. I know from my own experience that I dutifully write in the margins of books when I am just going along for the sake of work. But if I get really caught up in the plot, the pen drops from my hand, and some future historian is not going to be able to distinguish whether that moment was one when the page became blank because I stopped reading out of boredom or because I had no mental energy left to do anything except race ahead.


ME: In college, I used to give people I was considering dating copies of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. And there was always a type of reader that would return it chock-full of annotations, which meant that he had kind of missed the point.


Is Handwriting History?

By Deidre Lynch

LP: Annotations for your edification?


ME: Exactly. My husband found a bunch of them once and wondered why all the “sexy pages” had been annotated.


LP: Depressingly, that shows how little changes. One of the pieces of advice that Victorian etiquette books give to courting couples is that a lady must never accept a present from a gentleman until they are engaged. But the two exceptions are that the young lady may accept sheet music and she may accept books that have been underscored by the gentleman to direct her to the most important passages.


ME: In that case, let me ask a different courtship question. My husband once made me a clock out of a rare edition of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. This required gluing the first three hundred pages of the novel together and then carving out—


LP: No. No.


ME: Yes. Yes—gluing the first three hundred pages together, then carving out the top half of those pages to insert the clock mechanism and the shaft, and then connecting those to the face of the clock on the outside cover. He made the book unreadable. Interestingly, this only intensified my desire to read that particular copy, even though I have three or four copies of Portrait on my bookshelf. Why are we so fascinated by unreadable books?


LP: We’re surrounded by books that nothing except our own laziness is preventing us from opening and reading. And yet when we see a book that is glued shut like that, we want to pry it open. I think it’s fascinating that he made you a clock, because I do think that there is something about the temporality of the book whose pages have not been glued together. It is, in a sense, a clock or a metronome that paces us through it as it consumes a certain amount of our time. And the printed book and the clock share an analog, retro fetish quality. They are both defined negatively against something like a smartphone, which both tells the time and delivers text to you in the form of an audiobook or an e-book.

I do think that the answer may be as simple as saying that we take books for granted. We don’t look at them, we look through them. But the minute that [a book’s] physicality is made visible, we feel frustrated. And this is the reaction the clock your husband made plays with: the pages are glued together, turning the text block into a kind of sculptural object that is then gouged into, so that a reader like you can feel outraged by the biblioclasm of cutting into the book but also frustrated by being blocked from turning the pages to delve deeper into it.


The Book Is a Time Machine

By David Henkin

ME: One of the things I think that answer gets at so beautifully and that I think your book does an extraordinary job of is disaggregating the term “technology.” Contemporary readers often don’t see how the technologies that shape the book relate to the technologies that shape our smartphones or e-readers. How do you think reading today can be enhanced by having that long history in hand?


LP: There again, I think one lesson of book history is simply to give digital readers permission not to feel embarrassed about or frightened of new delivery devices for text, because I think that that embarrassment or fear often stems from a false dichotomy between the printed book, which we imagine as a single, stable, unchanging, half-millennium-old thing, and digital technology, which we imagine as new and scary and ever changing. One of the strong claims of book history as a field is that the book throughout its history has been a driver of technological and commercial change.

For example: the media historian Ted Striphas shows that books were the first objects to be sold on credit in the 19th century. Books really paved the way for the kind of consumer credit that would later be applied to everything from layaway purchases of clothes to furniture to, ultimately, houses and the subprime mortgage crisis. We have books to thank for that. Likewise, books were among the first commodities to be bar-coded. They drove the beginnings of electronic inventory control, which is precisely why when a young entrepreneur named Jeff Bezos wanted a guinea pig for his new online marketing and distribution system, the most convenient thing for him to pick was the printed book.

When I see a library with something called a technology-free reading room, I’m deeply ambivalent. I love to retreat into the fold of a book as much as the next nerd, but it is an oxymoron to say that you have a technology-free reading room in a library, because books in general and libraries in particular have been the greatest driver of technologies, beginning with the card catalogue. Going back into the history of the book to remember all the different delivery devices that have not just succeeded one another but continued to compete with one another over the past half millennium and much further back makes our own transition to digital text feel less like a single cataclysmic disruption to a stable status quo and more like something analogous to the paperback revolution during the Cold War. (And at that time, people saw softcover reprints as the end of civilization as we knew it.)


ME: I’m glad you brought up libraries, because you have a wonderful reading in the book of the way the idea of the library has permeated spaces where you might not expect it: for instance, the Amtrak quiet car and its library atmosphere. A controversial question: What do you think of people who shush others on the quiet car?


LP: Oh, man. That is the hardest question you can ask. The quiet car must be up there with the technology-free reading room as a trigger for paralyzing ambivalence.


From Slate to Silicon?

By Priyasha Mukhopadhyay

ME: I disclose that I am a shusher.


LP: I’ve been shushed in my time, but I also shush on occasion. And I think when you or I shush people—well, I shouldn’t speak for you, but when I shush other people I’m really berating myself. I am getting angry at the self that, when not in the quiet car, inflicts literal and metaphorical noise upon myself. In the early days of Oprah’s book club, a book club member reported that for her children a book was like a “Do not disturb” sign hung on a hotel door. And on the one hand I think that’s a tremendously valuable function that books can perform. One of the things that I love about one of the still classic works of ethnographic book history, Janice A. Radway’s Reading the Romance, is that it was one of the earliest feminist attempts to disentangle the text from the book. It argued that while the verbal content of romance fiction was of course deeply patriarchal, the act of reading romance novels signified a carving out of space for the self—almost like a kind of domestic equivalent to the quiet car on the train.


ME: Can I pick up on something you said earlier? When you say that the person you’re truly angry at is yourself, it reminds me of your discussion in the book of the myth of the ideal reader. And it sounds like partly what you’re saying is that you continue to carry that myth of the ideal reader inside of you and project it onto those other people who are talking on the quiet car, who are being the less-than-ideal reader. A shusher is someone who tries to regiment everybody around them into the ideal reader.


LP: That’s great. And I think one reason that I’m ambivalent about shushing other people is that the book has not at every time and place been a stick with which to beat noisy people. It can also be a noise-producing object, as it was for most of its history, during which the vast majority of the world’s population was not literate. The default mode of accessing a book would have been to read aloud to a group of people, thus also making it accessible to people who couldn’t afford their own copy.

We are constricting the range of functions that a book can fill when we imagine that its only function is to be a kind of enabler of solitary individual interiority, like in the quiet car. Yet that solitary interiority is a tremendously valuable thing. And that dates back much further than the smartphone. The historian David Henkin, in his book City Reading, has a wonderful analysis of reading the newspaper in public in 19th-century New York, where retreating into the fold of the newspaper served exactly that shushing function. Other people in public could look at the outside of your newspaper, but they couldn’t see your face or your mind any more than they could see the inside of your newspaper.


The Material Life of Criticism

By Andy Hines

ME: Your book has an interleaf where the prose begins to run across both pages rather than stopping at the margin. So we encounter recto and verso simultaneously rather than one after the other. And I will confess, with the utmost affection possible, that I found this very irritating. I had to crack the spine to get at the words that were gathering in the gutter. And even then, I kept forgetting to continue across the gutter and ending up in the middle of nonsense sentences. What made you decide to irritate your readers like this?


LP: You are not alone! One of my friends, who kindly agreed to read the manuscript, ended up with a migraine. The textual content of that middle section has to do with the ergonomics of reading and the kinds of bodily posture that different forms of reading material allow or elicit. And it seemed to me that a book that is used lying flat while propped open with some object, like a stapler, functions quite differently from a book that is held in one hand on the subway while using the other hand to hold a strap.

Maybe I am as bossy as you are in the quiet car when you shush people. I wanted to force readers to place the book flat on a stable surface and to read it as an entire page spread rather than holding it partly closed in one hand. And one reason I did that is after a back injury I spent a lot of one very unhappy year lying flat underneath a glass coffee table, looking up at a book that I spread-eagled facing downward.

I hope you will never have that experience. But I know you’ve read while holding an infant, which I think for many readers is a moment of sensitization to what kinds of reading you can and can’t perform one-handed in dim light, beginning with the fact that you can’t annotate. As a professional annotator, I wasn’t altogether happy when I got my left hand back.


ME: As a parent to two young children, I can’t help but notice how materially innovative children’s books are. I was looking at my kids’ bookshelf this morning, and I noticed pop-up books, books with flaps and mirrors, books that play music. Their current favorite is a book that I remember from my childhood, The Jolly Postman, which has envelopes glued onto every page and letters inside the envelopes from fairy-tale figures. Are child readers primed to be good book historians? When is it that we lose the haptic sense for books that is cultivated early on?

LP: That’s a nicely Wordsworthian question. Or perhaps Blakean, since Blake never lost that childlike sense of the book as a three-dimensional object. Some people might date that loss of physical sensuousness to the moment of learning to read and graduating from books meant for looking and touching and listening to the kind of book that Alice in Wonderland does not like because, as she says, “What is the use of a book without pictures?”

A few years ago, Marah Gubar wrote a piece for this site called “Good Morning iPad,” which talks about the playful physicality of children’s books. But maybe this is less a property of the books being read than of the double touching going on. The lap sit—that’s a term of art that defines reading by body position rather than by content—reminds both the reader and the readee of the physicality of the book, because it reminds them both of the physicality of their own touching bodies. Whereas, for us as adults, reading often does the opposite. When we, as the saying goes, get lost in a book, we lose ourselves. We forget our bodies, except of course when we’ve injured them.

And the kids’ reading that we idealize as being before professional reading, before instrumental reading—actually, it really isn’t about an ideal reader surrendering to the book. Just the opposite: like so much else with young kids, it’s all about who’s in charge. I’m always surprised that although my kid isn’t old enough to read, he’s already laying down navigational rules. One is that we have to start all over at the beginning if we get interrupted, which drives me crazy when I’m dying to get to sleep myself. He insists on turning the pages so that the readee sets the pace for the reader, which also lets him infinitely defer the arrival of bedtime: Scheherazade.

That said, I’d still push back against the idea that children’s sensuous relation to the book is some kind of developmental universal, because the bedtime story is a very recent invention. Until the rise of mass literacy, not much more than a century ago, most children’s reading consisted not of being read to but rather of reading to an adult, because each successive generation was more literate than the previous one. And this of course is a kind of literacy that we still see very commonly, for instance, among immigrant families, where the child is mediating on behalf of the adult rather than being on the receiving end of the adult labor.


ME: Last question: Can I ask you to perform a book-historical reading of a tattoo I’m getting on Monday? I’d like to get the Library of Congress numbers of the books I’ve written tattooed on the left side of my ribs.


LP: Wait, you’re—


ME: Is it a good idea?


Physical Books, Digital Lives

By Tess McNulty

LP: Ouch. Though I guess it’s not as bad as the final scene of Fahrenheit 451. Remember the way those protectors of literature “become” a book by memorizing and reciting the text? Thank God you aren’t tattooing the full text of your four books, which would not fit even if you could stand it. In fact—and here’s my analysis—this is not a textual tattoo at all, it is a bookish tattoo, because you are not tattooing the content of your books; you are, instead, tattooing the metadata of your books. Second, you are going out of your way to privilege book borrowing over book buying and even book publishing—you could have chosen the ISBN.

Third guess, you want to complicate the binary between page and screen by introducing a third inscription surface that has something in common with older media made out of the skin of animals. Maybe you’re declaring your solidarity with the flocks of sheep that Oxford University Press regularly slaughtered for the inscription of Bibles.

Okay, a fourth hypothesis, and then I’ll stop: you didn’t choose the ISBN because the I stands for “International,” whereas the Library of Congress is American. As someone who has lived and worked in many countries and languages, how do you feel about having the US legislative branch right there on your body, so you could walk into any library in this country and shelve yourself correctly?


ME: My earliest memories from when I moved to the United States as a four-year-old are of going to the Brooklyn Public Library in Grand Army Plaza (I used to call it Grand Armory Pizza). I went specifically to take out American Girl books. For me, the concept of American assimilation, girlhood, reading, and libraries are so intimately bound up with one another that it didn’t seem to make sense to do anything but the Library of Congress numbers. Though that’s not the interpretation that’s really behind it.


LP: Can you tell readers what the real interpretation is?


ME: No, absolutely not.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

Featured image: Leah Price (2012). Photograph by Jon Chase