In 2016, while on the presidential campaign trail, Donald Trump explained to the Washington Post that he doesn’t read because he is “always busy doing a lot.” You could almost hear the eyeballs hitting the floor as they rolled out of the heads of bibliophiles the world over. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s elective illiteracy was taken as a sure sign of his philistinism — just one more piece of evidence that he was unfit for executive office. Such easy judgments might remind us of Leonard Bast, the impoverished striver of E. M. Forster’s Howards End, who believes that books are a stepping stone to self-improvement. In one of my favourite moments of modernist fiction, Leonard is eventually killed when a bookcase topples down on him. Undergirding both this Bastian idealism and our offhand dismissals of Trump is the naive tendency to equate reading with virtue and intelligence. Trump, of course, is a toilet bowl of a human being, but I doubt whether our opinion of him would suddenly change if we were to find out that he snuggles up each night with a copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in his tiny little hands.
Books, unfortunately, tend to produce a somewhat imperious preciousness. Self-described book lovers can sometimes be Li’l Johnny Judge‑’ems, a critical yet not very thoughtful bunch who are quick to value reading in itself, but only the reading of physical books, and then only the reading of books that they deem valuable, using some inscrutable metric. For such readers, quick to sneer at Danielle Steel or John Grisham, it might come as a shock that the many canonized classics of English literature we were force-fed in university were also the pulp fictions of their own time — potboilers to be quickly skimmed and hastily discarded. In the eighteenth century, some moralists even thought that reading itself was a slippery slope to lubriciousness. As one character in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s play The Rivals remarks, the circulating library — a commercial forerunner to the public institutions we have come to venerate — was an “evergreen tree of diabolical knowledge.”
An older fear of books and reading is hardly surprising when you think about how we once used and abused novels. Try to guess, for instance, where we find the greatest clustering of schmutzy fingerprints in eighteenth-century copies of Samuel Richardson’s punishingly long Clarissa, a million-word novel about the tragic abduction, rape, and death of a young woman. No wonder Jean-Jacques Rousseau called novels “livres qu’on ne lit que d’une main,” books to be read with one hand. Such onanistic, selective reading — the willingness to flit from one juicy section to the next while breezing over ponderous descriptions of landscapes — has always been par for the course. In medieval and early modern Europe, pick-and-choose reading was seen not so much as bad practice as a laudably instrumental use of a book. Take the motley collection of stories that make up Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The narrator actually encourages his readers to hop willy-nilly from one tale to the next: “Whoso list it nat yheere, / Turne over the leef and chese another tale.” If you don’t want to hear this story, then simply turn the page and get on to the next one.
Hence the need for someone like Leah Price, a former professor at Harvard and the current director of the Initiative for the Book at Rutgers University. What We Talk about When We Talk about Books is her brisk and clear-headed history of books and how we have thought about and used them over the last 500-plus years. Her goal is to demolish not one but two straw men of contemporary reading. The first she disposes of pretty quickly. The story goes that we are post-book — that the internet, with its bite-sized bytes and manic tidal waves of information, spells the end of books and of reading. This was a common refrain among hand-wringers throughout the 1990s and early aughts, and merely the recapitulation of an earlier narrative of imminent decline, when books began to battle other media, including cinemas, record players, the radio, and television. “Clotheslines, seams in stockings, books and jobs,” Marshall McLuhan confidently told Life in 1966, were all “obsolete.” One out of four isn’t bad, I suppose (if you’re willing to set aside gussets). Such stories are likely familiar to many Canadians. We have routinely been treated to fresh rounds of journalistic teeth-gnashing about the future of books and bookselling in Canada, as the business pages report on Indigo’s soft quarterly results. But Price makes it amply clear: books themselves are in perfectly fine shape. UNESCO estimates that more than 2.2 million new titles are published worldwide each year; small booksellers are actually flourishing; and, at least in the United States, physical books have been outselling ebooks since 2016.
The bigger fish for Price are boo-hoo complaints about how we read today, based on fantasies about how we interacted with books in some mythical age before distraction, Facebook, and Google. “Digital-age essayists can idealize books only by dint of imagining that reading has always meant curling up alone with a novel purchased for hard cash, read cover to paperback cover,” she writes. Nonetheless, “printed books took different forms and prompted different behaviors. Only by ignoring both kinds of variation can we make a monolithic printed past into a stick with which to beat our digital present.” One of Price’s greatest strengths is pointing out how books, throughout history, have always been a proxy for other values — not who we are but who we want to be, or at least whom we want to date. Think only of the Instagram account Hot Dudes Reading. Literacy today is at an all-time high — the rate among Canadians fifteen years of age or older, for instance, is currently 99 percent — yet public, supposedly non-economic pleasure reading has suddenly become a sign of virtue. Hot dudes who read get an extra bump in the hot-dude category (non-hot dudes who read are just called “readers”). Maybe more-marriageable men do read books. Important point: I would encourage no person to marry another person who does not read. Second point: I would equally discourage anyone from marrying an avid reader merely by virtue of that quirk alone. David Foster Wallace, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer — all avid readers, also all horrible human beings.
Preciousness over the cultural meaning of books sometimes leads to a fetish for the material object itself. “Different eras,” Price explains, generate “new assumptions about what aspects of these physical objects deserve readers’ attention.” This coddling of physical books sometimes even produces a paradoxical fear of wear and tear that is directly at odds with their actual use. Take a peek at your average professor’s bookshelves and you’re more likely to find ink-daubed tatters covered in Post-it Notes than pristine hardbacks cherished merely because they are books. I still remember the lovingly frayed editions my professor used for his undergraduate survey of English literature at the University of Toronto, most of which were held together by equally weathered elastic bands.
My own books are covered in a Pollockian array of scribbles and scrawls; I take almost erotic joy in breaking the spine of a new book, like some sort of sadistic chiropractor. Trigger warning for the bibliophiles: This past summer I encouraged my wife to tear our edition of Donna Tartt’s 700-page The Secret History in half. We were about to embark on a two-week biking and camping trip, and I couldn’t think of a good reason for her to lug around 300 extra pages that both of us had already read. How does that story end? Reader, I married the two pieces back together with a bit of tape. And no big whoop: books have always been repurposed. Today, we’re still finding lost medieval manuscripts that had been turned into “binders’ waste” and sewn into the spines of early modern books as backing.
One thing to keep in mind when we talk idealistically about books is that many of the people who work directly with them — publishers, retailers, librarians, and authors alike —generally value one form of paper over all others: money. Publishing, like all other industries, is a profit-minded business, and bottom-line thinking often has ugly consequences for the object itself. Price’s book, for instance, contains a provoking “interleaf”— a section of about eight pages in which you read each line of text from the left-hand page across the gutter of the book to the adjoining right-hand page. It’s a clever game of mise-en-page, driving home visually and phenomenologically how our posture affects our experience of books and how habituated we are to using the material form of a book one page at a time. But the “interleaf” is also a failed experiment, thanks to the sloppiness with which Price’s book was bound up. Not a single one of the eight pages in my copy lines up properly across the gutter, rendering a hands-on study in graphic design just an unreadable, vertiginous nightmare. You should love books, we are told, even when they’ve been assembled with the care usually allowed to a last-minute science project.
What I wouldn’t do for the loving attention to detail of a Charles Scribner. The Novels and Tales of Henry James, which began publication in 1907, was printed on a bewildering array of papers, all of different thicknesses. This was an attempt by Scribner, it seems, to ensure that James’s twenty-plus volumes would look nearly identical when elegantly lined up on a shelf, despite the fact that the largest volume (605 pages) was more than double the length of the shortest (235 pages). Authors too can be protective — even physically protective — of their works. This past spring, I went to Brussels to see the novelist Ottessa Moshfegh talk. Afterwards, I dutifully lined up to have my copy of My Year of Rest and Relaxation signed. I had bought it in Paris at Shakespeare and Company — the present-day inheritor to the bookstore that was once a hub for the Left Bank modernist scene — which stamps its Bard-headed logo on the title pages of the books it sells. “What’s that?” Moshfegh asked, an eyebrow raised. I explained. “Weird,” she said, with the awkward dead affect of her narrators. It’s authors who are meant to sign their books, not some dummy who sells them to you.
Price’s largest claims about how reading practices have — or haven’t — changed are persuasive; in fact, our willingness to imagine that reading always entailed a cup of tea and a crackling fireplace involves some magical thinking harking back to a vanished golden age. Simply put, popular ideas about how people used to read, in general, based on worries about how we read today, in general, are largely nostalgic bunk. Yet the tug of personal anecdote makes it hard to dismiss a contemporary queasiness around our changing individual relationship to books — not books in general, not reading in general, but the nuts and bolts of personal experience. If you’re reading this magazine and have made it this far, I’m sure you have experienced the sadly short-lived feeling of total absorption while reading. I know it well: with Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and all of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. But I also know the doldrums and longueurs of boring books — novels too, too numerous to list.
What our nostalgia about a bygone era reveals is less the bad historicism of internet-age doom-and-gloom opinionators than a genuine desire among readers today for an absorption, once and only fleetingly felt, that is almost impossible to recover voluntarily. We can have both, of course: we can read listicles, watch TikToks, and endlessly scroll until our thumbs cramp up. But we can also hope to recover for ourselves, as individual readers, the joy of a truly intoxicating book. The world may be a total dumpster fire of double-tap imbecility and mouth-breathing vulgarians, but that shouldn’t stop you from relishing a good book every now and again, if you can find one. As Price concludes, “Whatever its medium, I’m confident that the experience of immersion in a world made of words will survive if and only if readers continue to carve out places and times to have words with one another.” Whether you become a screen-obsessed zombie is largely up to you. Perhaps all you need to do, dear reader, is stop scrolling through this article, and pick up a book, and read.