Short take: The Late Age of Print by Ted Striphas

A wonderfully fun book! I read this last winter for a break from the medieval and was well rewarded. I admit that the title initially made me think that it might be a lament for print or an encomium for the digital. However, reading some of the reviews as well as the author’s website and blog assured me it was neither. This is a description of the continuing function and role of print in a late capitalist, consumer-driven society.

The introduction invokes familiar names for those interested in the every day and the book (Lefebvre, de Certeau, Marx); makes special mention of Febvre and Martin’s The Coming of the Book; and suggests that the idea that books are more than a commodity (they represent learning, knowledge and so self-improvement) is in itself a way of distinguishing the good in the commodity market (9).

And in the subsequent chapters amidst the discussion of cultural structures of book production, we learn about bookshelves becoming an integral part of the modern ‘home’, the development of the barcode system and the market in Harry Potter-derived media. All very clearly exposed and tantalizingly spun.

In a few of the chapters, there is a pattern, perhaps a hint of a routine. For example, the exploration of the opening of a Barnes and Noble in Durham/Chapel Hill and the study of Oprah’s book club, both set up a sort of conventional wisdom. That is upper-middle class, well educated, left-leaning consensus holds, for example, that box stores are undesirable and Oprah’s book club is low-brow. Striphas then illustrates the positive economic effect the big book store had for the comparatively down-and-out Durham area and the way that Oprah’s book club helps fit reading (and communal support) into the lives of people who may have neither the time nor the socialization required to read and appreciate ‘masterpieces’ of world literature. These are necessary correctives to notions that books belong to the intellectual and educated and that only those books that appeal to this segment of society are those that deserve academic and ‘serious’ attention. All well argued and eloquent.

The concern I have is that seen from this angle we are allowed to make the conclusion that the market, whether it be in books or something else, provides access to a better life, more prosperity, greater communities. And so we might be led to believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds (Not that Striphas ever attempts to play the role of Pangloss, but one can see how others might get the idea).

Yet there must be alternatives (no I don’t believe that the (illusory) triumph of liberal democracy has brought about the end of history). If everyone had equal access to education, equal opportunity and the means to pursue lifelong learning, perhaps we might develop a system in which work (mental or manual labour) offers, not just a marginally better living, but the promise of financial security, healthy habits and justice. Yeah, a part-time, no benefits, job might offer a step up to the person born with little, but is it the best that we can flipping do?

But now we’ve crossed the bounds of the book’s enterprise. One of Striphas’ strengths is his insistence and explication of the human element involved in the massive social and economic structures that we develop and must navigate. While the distribution system of the Amazon’s of the world and the electronic production of digital media might seem mechanical, effortless and automatic, they are not labour-free. Striphas is an excellent guide to their underpinnings.

A blog, taglined ‘beyond the book’, continues discussion of the book’s themes, as well as the author’s activities. Striphas’ academic homepage at Indiana University is here .

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