What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading

by Leah Price

Hardcover, 2019



Call number



Basic Books (2019), 224 pages


Reports of the death of reading are greatly exaggerated Do you worry that you've lost patience for anything longer than a tweet? If so, you're not alone. Digital-age pundits warn that as our appetite for books dwindles, so too do the virtues in which printed, bound objects once trained us: the willpower to focus on a sustained argument, the curiosity to look beyond the day's news, the willingness to be alone. The shelves of the world's great libraries, though, tell a more complicated story. Examining the wear and tear on the books that they contain, English professor Leah Price finds scant evidence that a golden age of reading ever existed. From the dawn of mass literacy to the invention of the paperback, most readers already skimmed and multitasked. Print-era doctors even forbade the very same silent absorption now recommended as a cure for electronic addictions. The evidence that books are dying proves even scarcer. In encounters with librarians, booksellers and activists who are reinventing old ways of reading, Price offers fresh hope to bibliophiles and literature lovers alike.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member datrappert
I gave up on this pretentious nonsense on page 85. It is repetitive, only vaguely informative, and mostly boring. I'm not sure the author has the slightest idea what she is talking about, but she knows how to string together paragraph after paragraph of academic-speak that is the exact opposite of what a reading experience should be. Yes, the death of "real" books is overstated. But you could present that argument much better in 10 pages. And when I get to a statement such as, "Once a sign of economic power, reading has become the province of those whose time lacks value. This isn't just nonsense; it's the worst type of BS. How did this crap ever get published?

(As is my custom with something I don't finish, I won't give it a rating.)
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LibraryThing member francesanngray
Didn't much care for her writing style - a bit pompous in my view. I found it hard to clearly identify her thesis since she seemed to contradict herself from one chapter to the next. Also, her claim that mental health professionals, in recommending self-help books, have outsourced their work to librarians, completely neglects to mention that the same self help books are often written by other mental health professionals.

Not recommended.
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LibraryThing member MM_Jones
An exposé on books and reading. At close to two hundred pages, this book contains lots of words, but minimal information other than book trivia sprinkled throughout. The two most important items conveyed are, one, the author expects the reader to skip around, to not read every page and two, the author is a Harvard professor, a tenured Harvard professor, did I mention Harvard? Time better spent elsewhere.… (more)
LibraryThing member barlow304
In the end, this is a fascinating book. But for much of its length, this slender volume is far to discursive for my tastes. Professor Price is probably a charming and engaging teacher, but I find her most recent book to be wandering about.

Perhaps the problem is with my expectations. I thought the book would be tightly structured. Such a framework would help me see the connections that Professor Price was trying to make. But the chapters were not distinct enough from one another. Although the chapters dealt with different aspects of book history, I felt like I was reading the same chapter over and over.

In spite of my reaction, I think Professor Price makes some very good points about the history of reading and the history of the book as a physical object. I would recommend this book to people who prefer a more free-form discussion of this fascinating topic.
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LibraryThing member BenKline
I slow read this to start and then fast-read this to finish (primarily because its due back before today's opening at the Hershey Library). It is more a history of BOOKS and HOW and the PHYSICAL of books rather than the WHY, WHAT, or WHO of books.

There is a lot to unpack in this, and its done very well. This easily would be a 3.5 on LibraryThing where here I give it a 3. A lot of good information, a lot of fun snarkyness, and a lot of fun interesting side notes, anecdotes, and general facts and informative quips and nuggets of factoids. There is definitely a lot of good in this book and a lot of stuff to make you go "hmmm". It is interesting to see a history of books and how things went from animal skin to onion skin to paper, etc. And how that changed how books were made, why they were made, etc.

It also puts the constant (in this day and age) repeat of "digital media is killing books" into perspective. And as some of her stats and factoids show, this isn't the case, now or in previous few years, and most likely not (at least for now) for a while.

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LibraryThing member dono421846
The theme for this author appears to be that print books are interesting, but not really all that different from digital formats that offer equivalent texts.

There is no denying the author's expertise on the subject of books, and she writes with a delightful and engaging style. For me, the problem with her thesis is that her focus on the individual book all but blinds her to the possibility that books in groups (e.g., the library) display emergent properties that are not reducible to the book.

Admittedly she is inconsistent in this position, so she may perhaps disagree that she thinks this at all. For example, she writes that "my husband and I didn't really feel the weight of our vows until, unloading volumes from one final U-Haul, we started to interfile." Nothing she's told us about books, however explains this common reaction to dispersing a collection. In fact, she's spent the whole book telling us why it shouldn't happen, since print books are not that different from ebooks, which one does not collect at all.

The intention to dispel the reverence for the print book, even if warranted, should not lead her to imply a similar lack of unique value to books in the aggregate. By her own description, she is a historian of the book, but not of libraries, and she should recognize her myopia on this greater topic.
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Original language


Physical description

224 p.; 5.85 inches


0465042686 / 9780465042685
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