The Past and Future Histories of Books: An Interview with Ted Striphas

Ted Striphas's The Late Age of Print will change how you think about books. Most of the ways we've been taught literature seek to make the print medium itself disappear. We are left thinking about the text as pure expression removed from the material conditions by which it is produced, distributed, and consumed. There is, to be sure, a strong history of work on the history of print and of books, but it still remains highly likely that you can get through most high school and college Literature classes and never really engage with books on that level. Yet, the prospect of delivering these texts through some other medium -- digital, perhaps -- may make many of us passionate defenders of the book as a vehicle for communicating knowledge, as a medium which shapes our experience of reading. So, that's where Striphas starts, with the recurring anxiety that books and book culture may be endangered, but he does not stop there, taking us deep into the history of book stores, book publishing, even the routing process by which books reach consumers. And the result is utterly fascinating.

I had a chance to meet Ted Striphas, who is a professor at Indiana University, when I gave a lecture at Bloomington this past fall, and there we hatched a plan to bring an interview about his book about books to this blog. Throughout this conversation, Striphas gives us a sense of print -- not as a medium at risk, but certainly as a medium in transition.

You titled your book "the Late Age of Print" and your book begins by looking critically at some of the claims being made right now that print culture is in crisis or in active decline. What do you think such writers get right? What do they get wrong?

First, Henry, let me thank you for kindly inviting me for an interview on your blog. What a delight to dialogue with you.

One of the principal claims we hear reiterated about books is how electronic media are, for lack of a better word, their competitors. First it was radio, then it was television, and now it's the internet, video games, and other digital technologies: they're slowly siphoning off the audience for books because of their flash, interactivity, and verve -- or at least that's the story. The upshot is that electronic media are causing books and book reading a slow and agonizing death. This is basically the conclusion that the National Endowment for the Arts reached in its widely cited report from 2004, "Reading at Risk," although similar claims had been made countless times before then in a host of venues.

What the alarmists get right is an appreciation for how books exist within a densely packed media sphere, where more and more media seem to vie for our attention each day. Unfortunately, they tend to glance over just how complex this relationality actually is. Pick up a paperback book and turn it over. What do you see? Endorsements, a summary, maybe a few words telling the bookseller where the volume ought to be shelved. Now look closer, to the part of the book you're not supposed to focus on: the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and Universal Product Code (UPC). These machine codes tell us that the distribution, selling, and ultimately consumption of books all rely significantly on digital technologies. In other words, the very technologies that are supposedly killing off books also facilitate their consumption. That's a fact that most traditional bibliophiles have yet to work through.

Was print culture ever stable in the sense that these writers seem to imply?

Never. In fact, the claims you've asked me about follow in a long line of fears about new technologies edging out the old, either in terms of the technologies themselves or the capacities they're purported to encourage in human beings. Plato bemoaned the technology of writing for making us stupid, because he saw it as an enfeebling prosthetic for our memories. Rousseau said almost exactly the same thing 2500 years later. During the first century of print, scribes bemoaned printed books for being devoid of the mark of the human hand, suggesting that they were existentially inferior to manuscripts as a result. Ditto Martin Heidegger, who made a similar claim in reference to the typewriter in his lectures on Parmenides.

One of my favorite examples, though, comes from a Massachusetts librarian named J. M. Hubbard, who, in 1884, had this to say about popular novels: " our danger in this day of public libraries and cheap literature, that the mental strength of our youth will be weakened through...too much reading of a multitude of books." In other words, it wasn't all that long ago that the very media form we now hold up as sacred -- printed books, or at least a particular genre of them -- was the one being accused of diminishing young people's moral and intellectual wellbeing.

The book historian Elizabeth Eisenstein probably said it best in an essay of hers appearing in The American Scholar called "The End of the Book?": "Premature obituaries on...the end of the book are themselves testimony to long-enduring habits of mind. In the very act of heralding the dawn of a new age with the advent of new media, contemporary analysts continue to bear witness, however inadvertently, to the ineluctable persistence of the past." In other words, the feeling of crisis you've pointed to may well be the only constant in the history of books.

A key theme for you is the "everydayness of books," the ways that they have become incorporated into familiar routines and patterns of our lives. Why is this stress on the "ordinary" so important to your analysis?

One of the questions I ask in The Late Age of Print is: how did books become a prevalent-to-the-point-of-being-banal part of people's lives? This strikes me as a crucial starting point, because it compels us to think about the myriad ways in which books have been incorporated into people's daily routines beyond, say, the reading of them in literature classes. So much of what we know -- or think we know -- about books is premised on a model of literary education from the 20th century, where people are expected to pore over words and interpret them for meaning, symbolism, artistry, and so forth. That's all well and good, but what else do people do with books? I have a bunch of books right now propping up a damaged bookcase. What does that tell you about the uses of books? In the 1970s, Barnes & Noble operated a bargain-basement store called the "Sale Annex," where customers could purchase books by the pound. Were they actually reading them? Maybe. More than likely, though, they were buying them in bulk to fill up what would otherwise be empty bookshelf space.

The point of thinking about the "ordinariness" or "everydayness" of books is to expand our understandings of what books, as cultural artifacts, are or actually do. They're literary objects, to be sure, but they're also space-fillers, positional goods, tools (ever killed a bug with a book?), and more. Unless you start from the everydayness of books, you're apt to write a one-dimensional history of a technologically and culturally complex object.

On a more intellectual-historical note, the concern for "ordinariness" derives from my interest in the work of the cultural studies scholar Raymond Williams. His essay from 1958, "Culture is Ordinary," is one of the key theoretical touchstones of The Late Age of Print and indeed of my larger body of scholarly work.

At San Diego Comic-Con last year, there was a panel on "Comics Without Borders." In years past, this title might have refered to the transgressiveness of underground comics, but this year, it refered to the anxiety caused by the closing of a major book store chain and what that means for the comics industry's hopes for more mainstream (non-speciality shop) distribution. This is one of the biggest changes since you wrote the book. How has the collapse of Borders impacted American book culture?

It's difficult to be sure, since it's only about a year since Borders filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, following a year or two of shuttering unprofitable stores. Having said that, there's at least one immediate effect that's clear: more than 500 retail book superstores disappeared from the American landscape within the space of about two years. That's more than 12 million square feet of bookstore space, to put it in another perspective. What that also means, following the closure of many independent bookstores in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is that there are now just two major players on the bookselling scene: Barnes & Noble and (although we shouldn't forget the so-called "non-book outlets" where printed books are also sold, e.g., pharmacies, discount department stores, etc.). This winnowing is alarming, if for no other reason than it suggests something of a return to the era of mass culture, at least where books are concerned. Together, Barnes & Noble and Amazon possess unparalleled leverage in terms of book distribution and selling, which means they can place extraordinary pressure on publishers to do their bidding.

The collapse of Borders was also something of a wake-up call in terms of getting the book business to begin thinking seriously about the long term viability of its mainstay, printed books. The latter are cumbersome, consuming lots of space and natural resources -- all very costly on a number of levels. And in this, publishers, distributors, and others were reminded of the collapse of two comparable institutions: Tower Records, once an icon of super-sized music selling and now a mere memory, a casualty of (among other things) the explosive rise of digital music in the early 2000s; and Blockbuster Video, whose stores once dotted almost every suburban landscape. Many in the book industry now seem convinced that "efficiency" and "competitiveness" can only mean "digital," a message Amazon in particular is only too happy to reinforce.

I'm not sure this is the absolutely correct conclusion, however, and I think Barnes & Noble may be right in terms of hedging its bets. The company has decided to pursue an aggressive digital strategy while maintaining a more traditional paper artifact/physical bookstore approach. Borders' woes, though related to the rise of digital books, had much more to do with years of mismanagement, including a string of ineffective CEOs who knew next to nothing about books and how to sell them. Again, it's not entirely clear whether digital and paper media are sworn enemies, and whether, then, the new must drive out the old.

Your book mentions several times the crisis in publishing experienced in the early 1930s. What can we learn about today's anxieties around print by looking at this earlier transitional moment? How did the book industry respond to that crisis?

The crisis in books of the 1930s was precipitated largely by the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent Great Depression. With millions out of work and with less disposable income, the book business suffered, as did most major industries of the time. The downturn forced the book industry to get really creative in its approach to promoting books and reading. For instance, a group of New York publishers began working with the public relations guru Edward L. Bernays, who concocted a clever scheme designed to stigmatize people who loaned their books out to friends -- a practice that must have become all the more commonplace given the economic conditions of the time. Bernays organized a contest in which the readers of several major New York City papers were asked create a neologism -- a put-down, really -- to describe people who, in passing on their books, were depriving authors and publishers of sorely needed sales and thus furthering the Depression. The winning entry was "book sneak," and though it never really made it into the American English lexicon, it's nonetheless a fitting reminder of the indirect -- you might even say backhanded -- ways one might promote book buying.

Bookselling isn't experiencing a complete slump today, although the current economic downturn has affected it negatively, to be sure. And as I mentioned before, many publishers now seem to think that a digital strategy will be the turnkey solution to all their problems. To me this demonstrates unimaginative thinking, as the Bernays example shows. Why not encourage home builders to install bookshelves in new homes, as Bernays also did? Why not try to figure out how to connect books better with readers, as Oprah Winfrey did? Apropos, one of the most interesting things Winfrey did through her Book Club was to avoid reinforcing the longstanding distinction between fiction and non-fiction, which seemed irrelevant to many of her viewers. Still, book publishers persist in categorizing and marketing books in this way, because, in their view, these categories are sacrosanct. All that to say, book publishers and book sellers need to question everything they think they know about the book business, beyond the very obvious distinctions to be made between atoms and bits.

You cite a cartoon from The Chronicle of Higher Education which said "the problem with e-books is that they are e-books." Why do so many intellectuals seem to have a problem with the idea of e-books? What do current sales patterns around the Kindle and the Nook suggest about the future impact of digital technology on books?

I have to confess to being one of those intellectuals who has a problem reading e-books. I'm not a fan, although having forced myself recently to read the Kindle editions of Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration; Moneyball: The Art of Winning and Unfair Game; and the Walter Isaacson biography, Steve Jobs, I'm becoming more comfortable than I once was.

For me, the resistance to e-books (and I don't think, as a humanities scholar, I'm alone in this) has everything to do with the intensive way in which I interact with paper books. I underline and takes notes on key passages as I go. You can do that on a Kindle, but you cannot then do what I also do: create an alternative index based on my idiosyncratic trajectory through the book; separate my "brainstorms" from my bootstrap index and marginal notes; and start an additional list of notes in some other location of the text for purposes of, say, leading a class discussion.

The more e-books I read, the more I begin to realize that: (1) Kindles, Nooks, and other e-reading devices are engineered around a conception of what the book industry calls the "general reader"; and (2) academic readers -- especially those of us in the humanities -- are atypical in terms of the ways we read and relate to texts. What that also tells me is that we're still very much in a "one-size-fits-all" phase for e-books. Their growth has been explosive in recent years (assuming we believe Amazon's many unverified claims), but, truth be told, at this point e-book sales have nowhere else to go but up. Eventually the adoption of e-readers will reach some type of limit, which is going to leave companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble (assuming it survives), Apple, and others scrambling to find new, more specialized markets (Apple may already be doing this through its recent iTextbooks initiative). Maybe then e-readers will become even more full-featured and better able to accommodate the needs of weird readers like me.

Ted Striphas is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication & Culture, Indiana University and book review editor of the journal Cultural Studies. He research and teaching interests include media history, the digital humanities, and the future of scholarly communication. He blogs about books and digital culture at The Late Age of Print. You can also find him on Twitter: @striphas.