The book business as Benjamin’s Angel of History (my take on Ted Striphas’s THE LATE AGE OF PRINT)

So I’m now in the review business (and damn, it’s a lotta work…). Daniel Pritchard has a lovely new literary review site, The Critical Flame and he asked me to review an awfully important book, Ted Striphas’s The Late Age of Print. I’d originally heard of the book via Scott Esposito’s superb interview in Quarterly Conversation this past Spring and urge you to check it out pronto.

In the meantime, a couple of my favorite bits below, and the link itself, natch.

bq. We tend to view history in terms of one age succeeding another, the greater vanquishing the lesser, or the tawdry always winning out over the elevated. The reality, Striphas demonstrates, is that we’re a populist capitalist democracy, a world where people are trying to get ahead, and the information contained in books, and the social status books have occasionally offered, are tools for getting ahead. Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism; they virtually began it, they are part of the fuel that drives it, and they are key for understanding ways in which consumer capitalism is changing and evolving, in some respects into a whole other beast. That is book culture. Books are not apart from commerce. And because that is book culture, it is far less in peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of the imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and separate from the everyday (a word Striphas is fond of, more of which anon) than it actually is…

bq. [B]e it in the 1920’s or the 2000’s, not so much changes. Faced with a scenario in which they can’t cost-effectively match supply and demand, publishers seek to use the new arts and sciences of marketing to persuade people to buy more. In 1930, a consortium of trade publishers hired Edward L. Bernays, the “father of spin,” to concoct a juice-up of the book business. Quoting Bernays’ biographer:

bq. “Where there are bookshelves,” [Bernays] reasoned, “there will be books.” So he got respectable public figures to endorse the importance of books to civilization, and then he persuaded architects, contractors, and decorators to put up shelves on which to store the precious volumes.

bq. While the bookshelf trick is truly ingenious, it only reinforced what was already happening, in that the burgeoning American middle class needed to communicate “respectability and plenitude,” even during or perhaps especially during, the Great Depression “” libraries were an excellent way to accomplish that. Bernays was merely surfing an existing wave. Obviously the use of celebrities to coax America into reading is a hobby-horse of the present time too, but it is not the only echo. Bernays’ stunt in particular and the obsession with advertising in general (which Striphas catalogs for much of the twentieth century) reminds me of the current infatuation with social media. Then as now, publishers seize on the most superficial aspect of a social phenomenon — then it was the need for the growing middle class to ratify its status through books; now, it is the transformation of consumer-producer relations from monologue to dialogue. Yet, all that publishing provides is bookcases and all we offer now is Facebook fan pages for authors and publishers, as well as Twitter feeds that mostly (though, to be fair, not exclusively) still seek to push product.