Do you worry that books are dying because of the digital age? English professor Leah Price finds scant evidence that a golden age of reading ever existed. In encounters with librarians, booksellers, and activists who are reinventing old ways of reading, Price offers hope to bibliophiles and literature lovers alike.
What We Talk About is a trade book—an academic’s gamble to curtail the jargon, abridge the methods, and efficiently translate the discoveries for a broad readership. In those respects, Price’s work is a stunning success. Its line of argument is so clean and its prose so seamlessly driven by its embodied 'I' that we forget the ghost of the archives hiding in the footnotes ... What We Talk About may open with a scene on Amtrak, but it’s replete with sourced data and illustrative passages on railroad reading. It may gently state the difference between a 'book' and a 'text,' but it still includes the moment I like to call the 'scholarly drop'— when a writer maps the academic terrain, summarizing the half-dozen books that promote the myths to be challenged. In doing so, What We Talk About makes an implicit, and important, bid for one value an English academic brings to the public sphere: to tell the history of literature ... It reminds us that when a sterling English professor talks about books, she may offer something different from judgment: truth.
Price is not an elegist for print: her extraordinary grasp of every development in book history, from incunabula to beach reads, monasteries to bookmobiles, suggests that a love of printed matter need not be a form of nostalgia ... Price’s book about books reads like an anthology of ironies, including several that pertain directly to it. This book is self-consciously shaped by, and susceptible to, its own account of how we read now. Price takes divided attention for a virtue, and practically invites a reader to keep a device nearby to flesh out her examples. Almost every piece of data has its own story to tell ... Her radiant descriptions of the physical properties of books, the forensic traces—from smudges to candle wax—of earlier bodies holding them, immediately sent me to the Internet.
Price is passionate about expanding how we view the book, expressing a love that ripples throughout What We Talk About When We Talk About Books ... The academic tone of Price’s writing can sometimes weigh down a chapter , but her forays into such topics as reading groups enliven the pages with color and energy. Anyone curious about how books communicate to us may be enthralled by Price’s intelligent look at what print has meant to the world. If you’re as fond of books as I am, you’ll be additionally comforted to learn that despite the many times pundits have proclaimed the book’s death, its heart has continued to beat strongly, transcendent as always.