- - Thursday, September 19, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Unfortunately for the general reader, Rutgers English professor Leah Price identifies herself primarily as a “book historian,” a leading member of a relatively new and questionable academic discipline. Fortunately for the general reader, Leah Price is also an excellent writer: intelligent, engaging, knowledgeable and amusing. This makes her uneven but rewarding discourse on books and reading more satisfying than annoying since Price the Writer ultimately triumphs over Price the Pedant.

Not a moment too soon. Book historians, she tells us early on, “study inscribed objects. That can mean long-form print, but despite their name, book historians have extended their remit to manuscripts, newspapers, even postcards and tombstones. Some, called bibliographers, focus on the transmission of texts. (These texts can be electronic: one of the field’s most prominent scholars, Matthew Kirschenbaum, specializes in the history of word processing.)” 

On the face of it, this would put “book historians” in a relationship to writing about as exalted as the relationship of beer can collectors to beer brewers and drinkers: odd enthusiasts fixated on containers vs. content. To continue the bibulous analogy, consider the author’s citation of  “artist and scholar Amaranth Borsuk’s lovely metaphor, ‘rather than offering up crystal goblets’ into which words can be poured, digital-era approaches to reading ‘invite us to trace our finger along text’s rim and make it sing.’” Lots of graceful but gossamer verbal squiggles and swirls like this adorn Ms. Price’s text, shimmering without casting much light.

But just when you’re about to give up on Price the Professor, Price the writer comes to the rescue with common sense and humor. “[C]ollege students endorse print no less roundly than any middle-aged professor … Students in the United States, Germany, and even smart-phone-dense Japan report that they understand and remember more on paper.” This opinion was even shared by one student who inadvertently proved the point by complaining that reading hardcopy “takes me longer because I read more carefully.”

Or consider the exquisite irony in the following send-up of what might be called books about books: “As Clay Shirky points out, ‘an entire literature about the value of reading [Marcel] Proust is now more widely read than Proust’s actual oeuvre.’ Every minute that you give to ‘How Proust Can Change Your Life’ is a minute that you’re not spending with ‘Remembrance of Things Past.’”



Although an English professor herself, Ms. Price skewers some of the more egregious trends in today’s English departments where professors nag students to resist the temptation to skip and skim, exhorting them “to care enough to finish the reading. But beyond influencing whether our students read, we also determine (or try to determine) how. We coax freshmen to care less about the world represented in fiction, shaming those who read for the plot or pick favorites among characters. We train them to see past the ostensible subject of a text to its linguistic structures, just as they see past the look and feel of a book to its textual content.”

In a chapter dealing with the potential therapeutic effect that reading good fiction can have on the depressed, perplexed or jaded denizens of our cluttered, distracting modern age, the author recognizes both up and down sides: “On mornings when the urge to find out how a story ends is all that gets me out of bed, I think Mood-Boosting Books are on to something. When the telltale compression of pages or the dwindling scroll bar warns me that the imaginative world in which I’m taking refuge is about to come to an end, though, books feel more like intimations of mortality.”

For years, she confesses, she rationed the novels of Victorian master Anthony Trollope, “keeping a new one in reserve next to the unopened chocolate bar stashed away for consolation if and when my equally bookish boyfriend walked out. But when I turned the last page of ‘The Last Chronicle of Barset,’ it was Trollope’s series that abandoned me.”

As someone who has been an avid reader all his life, and who has been a published critic for half a century now, I still feel a fleeting sense of loss when I reach the last page of a truly good novel. But then I remind myself that finishing a pleasing book is like heading home after a delightful vacation. Parting is always, at best, sweet sorrow. But the supply of new trips worth taking – and new books worth reading – is virtually endless. 

• Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

• • •

WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT BOOKS: THE HISTORY AND FUTURE OF READING

By Leah Price

Basic Books, $28, 224 pages

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