The Late Age of Print

In The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas looks at the ways print culture, from big-box stores to “Oprah” to the Harry Potter phenomenon, has evolved over recent years, specifically focusing on what he deems the “everydayness” of the system. He looks to explain why we prefer certain books over others, why some books gain popularity while others languish, and what goes on behind the scenes to develop, produce and distribute these items of both cultural and economic significance. Of course, he is interested in not only this current moment in publishing, but also the history that has prepared for it; he strives to show how our approach to the book, from the way we purchase it, use it, and perhaps pass it on, has been cultivated over time. One of his primary objectives is to prove that current publishing practices, problems, and trends are not as “current” as we think they are: that is, they can be traced back, in some form, even to what we consider the “golden age” of publishing. As such, they certainly do not sound the death knell for the book publishing industry. Indeed, this is the lasting message of his book, that even in this “late age” of print, the printed word is still relevant, still vital, and not going anywhere.

In focusing on the “everyday,” on the book culture that even the most reluctant reader would be familiar with, Striphas presents an argument that feels less like abstraction and more like a lively discourse on how books have shaped our world. His choices are timely, as well as appropriately ubiquitous. There are no doubt very few people unfamiliar with Oprah’s book club. Similarly, the wide ranging effects of Harry Potter culture, from the books themselves to the movies, the merchandising, and now even the theme park, ensure that everyone is familiar, on some level, with the frenzy that the Harry Potter franchise stirs in fans of all varieties. By choosing these subjects, which, significantly, also draw their strength from other forms of media aside from the book, Striphas asks his readers to question their own reading (and book-purchasing) habits. In what ways are these habits decided by marketing, decades-old publishing practices, and, simply, personal preference? Striphas is clearly fascinated by all aspects of book culture, and writes for an audience that feels the same way. Although he may at times become too absorbed in the particulars, in those quirks or tiny processes that reveal little about the industry as a whole, he is, by and large, very skilled in painting a broader picture of how the book industry works (and, no less significantly, why it matters).

Striphas’s strength is in his ability to present these issues both on a personal level and at an academic remove; his style is such that he succeeds in being engaging and easy to read without losing any of the intellectual heft necessary to portray his book as a serious piece of scholarship. By the end of The Late Age of Print, readers are reassured, left with the sense that books are not as endangered as they feared. There is hope for a future, which Striphas predicts not directly, but through examples of the past and present. Ultimately, Striphas tells his readers what they most likely want to hear, but his voluminous research lends enough support to allay any suspicions of his predictions. Striphas shows that it is easy enough to fear the worst, to interpret trends as signs of an irreversible decline, but that often this fear comes from an insular and imperfect view of current issues. The impulse to predict the death of books and book publishing can best be understood as the result of an uneasiness regarding change. Yet as the adage goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Striphas comforts us with the thought that book publishing will not change, in the ways that count, nearly as much as we consumers (and book-lovers) might fear.

Striphas divides his book into five main sections, which he calls “sites.” These sites, or “pressure points of complex modern societies” focus on different aspects of contemporary book publishing (14). Essentially this results in a series of long, self-contained chapters, which both structure the book, and make it feel somewhat disjointed. Although Striphas adheres to his concept of “everydayness,” he approaches this idea in a variety of only loosely related ways. Striphas himself addresses this, stating: “Each chapter comprises a layer that partially overlaps with and conditions each of the others, so that the narrative of the book accumulates gradually, unevenly, and, like sediment in a river, shifts along the way” (14). This gradual and uneven accumulation might not appeal to all readers, and, in fact, it sometimes makes the book feel more like a collection of articles stitched together than the product of a single thesis. Often the connection appears to be tacked on to the end of one chapter, to be opened up in the next. Yet, Striphas’s topics are good ones—both engaging and important—so any interested reader should get a sense of his argument, even without a clear connective thread. He covers an impressive amount of information for such a slim volume, touching upon everything from e-books to book clubs to the politics of intellectual property. At the beginning, he announces that his approach will be “strategically eclectic,” and perhaps this is the best description of his particular brand of scholarship (13). His eclecticism, incorporating elements from history, sociology, literary criticism and political economy and legal studies, ensures that the image he presents will be broad enough to discount the doomsayers foreseeing the death of the industry.

Striphas brings up many ways in which book publishing has improved, which perhaps makes the strongest claim for books of the future. In particular, he addresses its shift into more egalitarian territory, as in his chapter on Oprah’s book club. Although many critics lament the loss of book publishing as a genteel industry, Striphas notes that there is something to be gained by shifting the focus from independently-wealthy white males. With the advent of such wide-reaching phenomenons as Oprah’s book club, women and minorities now have more of a claim to what is published, what is successful, and what is appreciated as modern literature. Similarly, while there might be some uproar over big-box stores gradually replacing independent bookstores, Striphas points out that there are benefits to larger stores in terms of accessibility, closing economic gaps, and so forth. He often goes against the grain in his interpretations, positing theories that are not universally accepted, but in doing so, he highlights the difference between calculated rhetoric and concrete information. His personal anecdotes, such as that referring to his first introduction to chain stores, also help to emphasize how his arguments are grounded in reality. While these anecdotes are not presented with any regularity, they do succeed in bringing the book down from its sometimes overly academic plane, making it more accessible for the average reader. As they are supported with numerous sources, readers are assured that they are not simply reading about one man’s experience…nor are they simply reading about one man’s theory.

Striphas does a commendable job in making current publishing issues both understandable and relevant. He discusses topics that are of current interest, and even places his criticism against long-held beliefs, in order to highlight the ways in which such ideas can be approached differently. He succeeds not only in informing his readers on the history of book culture, or its current economics, or even cultural theories, but in showing the way all of these elements intersect. He proves that book culture is complex, something that cannot be defined by the sometimes romanticized images of genteel editors and serious readers. Furthermore, Striphas reminds us that our relationship with books has always been  complicated—we have long regarded them as various types of objects depending on their content and our need for them. He states: “Books are more than just things people read. They’re also props, part of the decor, psychological barriers, and more” (12). In showing us the many facets of books, and of book owners, he effectively dismantles the myth of the book as a high culture artifact, something that is beyond the exigencies of economics and other societal needs. Through this, we see that books will always occupy a play somewhere between product and art.

Although Striphas cannot predict the future, he does effectively argue that books will never truly be obsolete. He shows, through examples like Oprah’s book club and Harry Potter, how books can still generate excitement. Above all, he proves that there is still a need and a demand for books. Though various laws and technological advancements may threaten the book as we know it, nothing can truly replace the book or make it obsolete. The Late Age of Print is a call to readers to ensure that books do not become consumed by their many problems, but rather emerge all the more robust, able to weather each new prediction of their untimely demise.

Works Cited

Striphas, Ted. The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control. New York: Columbia UP, 2009. Print.

This book is also available as a free digital download. It can be found here.


Summer Reading

Image courtesy cmcgough via Flickr.

.I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve always been pretty serious about planning my summer reading. Or, at least, I’m serious enough to take the time to compose a list of books I want/need/ought to read—whether or not I actually get around to reading them is another story. I’ve always thought of summer as my chance to make up for all the times that I could have been reading but wasn’t, a golden opportunity to fill in those gaps in my literary knowledge. Frankly, there are only so many times that I can pretend to have read Pride and Prejudice and A Tale of Two Cities before someone finds me out.

Since it’s almost the beginning of May, and since spring semester is over in about two weeks, I figured I should start thinking seriously about this year’s summer reading list…and maybe look back on the list that I made last year in order to see what I could do differently.

Last year, I was ambitious. I chose 12 books (plus substitutes) and even made a schedule. I stuck to this schedule for exactly seven weeks, during which time I read A Confederacy of Dunces, four short novels by Marguerite Duras (The Square, Moderato Cantabile, Ten-thirty on a Summer Night, and The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas) and As I Lay Dying. I was doing pretty well, but for whatever reason, it didn’t stick. Instead of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, I was reading Stephenie Meyer’s The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner. After that, there was no going back.

I guess the problem with summer reading is that you inevitably end up choosing a book or two that makes sense at the beach. Sure, I’d like to eventually read Infinite Jest, but it’s pretty tough getting sand out of more than a thousand pages. It’s just safer to stick with short, easy, inconsequential works of mediocrity, you know? And if I had to think too hard, I might forget about other things, like applying sunscreen. If I had stuck to my list of David Foster Wallace and Toni Morrison and Virginia Woolf, I could have easily gotten burnt out and burnt up.

So, it seems, I always succumb—at least after a while—to that whole “summer is a time to relax” mentality. I defend my choices in various ways: it’s “research,” I’ve already exceeded the recommended yearly allowance for great works of literature, someone lent me this and I need to give it back…. Mostly though, I think I’m just not a serious enough student to spend a whole summer with Soren Kierkegaard, Joseph Conrad, and Vladimir Nabokov. (Except in my screenplay, in which we all rent a beach house together. Spoiler alert: hilarity and hijinks ensue!) Even my brilliant plan to present my reading list in syllabus form wasn’t enough to keep me on task. I decided that from July 25-31 I wanted to read what I felt like—to Hell with you, Appointment in Samarra, even if I’d probably like you under normal circumstances.

So, anyway, this year, I am just compiling a list of some books I would like to read. Period. No schedule. No debate over literary merit. Maybe I won’t even set myself a goal of how many books to read.

Tentatively, my summer reading list is shaping up as follows:

  1. Vanity Fair — William Thackeray
  2. The Lovers — Vendela Vida
  3. Bossypants — Tina Fey
  4. Swamplandia! — Karen Russell
  5. Sense & Sensibility — Jane Austen
  6. The House of the Seven Gables — Nathaniel Hawthorne
  7. Super Sad True Love Story — Gary Shteyngart

A total mix of new and old, light and serious. I don’t even have a reason for choosing them, other than that they all looked interesting. If I read them, that’s great, but if I don’t, oh well. I’m trying something new, easing up on the summer reading madness this year. Ultimately, I just want a list to take with me to the library, a guide so that I end up choosing books I’ve been wanting to read, rather than whatever I find. Yes, this probably means another year of not reading Ulysses, but I’m okay with that. You know that most of the people who claim to have read it have only read that one chapter anyway.


Jane Eyre

Depending on how you look at it, I am either the worst or the best possible reviewer for a film adaption of Jane Eyre. Consider the facts: It’s my favorite book of all time. I’ve read it over and over again, sometimes in an academic context. I’m irrationally defensive of it, and in fact take it way too personally whenever someone suggests that Jane is a) an unreliable narrator b) a sad sack and/or c) weird. (She’s just misunderstood!) Regardless of whether my opinions actually matter, you can bet that I do have strong opinions about this movie, and that I just might get into a first fight with director Cary Fukunaga over them. You see, while I found Jane Eyre to be a perfectly serviceable adaptation of the greatest book of all time, I just didn’t think it was at any point distinctive or inventive enough to justify its existence. It was very “by the book,” in word, though not in spirit…so much so that I suggest you just buy the book.

The film gets off to a weird start: it opens just as Jane is running away from Thornfield Hall, distraught over the revelation that her intended, Edward Rochester, is already married…and to a “madwoman in the attic” no less! Thus, our first introduction to this so-called strong female character is a view of her curled up in the fetal position, sobbing. We get no dialogue—not even Jane’s famous narrative voice—but only a vision of abject misery. (It’s at this point that a few people in the audience left to sneak into Hop.)

The plot picks up once we get into the flashbacks, which, of course, actually come first in the novel. We see Jane as a young girl being tormented by her brutish cousin, John Reed. He hits her, and she hits back; this is one of the few times in the film when we actually get a glimpse of the “passion” Jane is so often accused of having in excess. After being deemed unmanageable, she is carted off to Lowood School, where we see, in fast forward, the development of her friendship with Helen Burns. Once Helen dies, we watch the remainder of Jane’s time at Lowood (during which she became a teacher) play out in roughly a minute and a half. With little ceremony, Jane leaves to begin her “real” life.

It is clear that the main event is Jane’s experience at Thornfield Hall, and thus this, essentially, glorified exposition serves only as an obligatory preamble. We do not need to know too much about Jane’s childhood and development—just enough to show us that she, like Rochester, is a sensitive soul searching for a human connection. Yet, once at Thornfield, Jane’s life appears little improved. Any excitement one might find in the book is here crushed by Jane’s overly-severe countenance. Indeed, this is one of the major problems I had with the film: Jane Eyre looks miserable all the time. She never shows any pleasure in her new surroundings, or even in bantering with Mr. Rochester. Part of the problem may be that the film dispenses with the narrative voice that makes the character of Jane so distinctive. We are left only to guess at Jane’s inner passion, which is a challenge given Mia Wasikowska’s dour, or at best blank, expression. Still, I think that the major problem lies in Jane’s being reduced to a 19th century Bella Swan.

Although Jane offers some perfunctory explanations of her personal philosophy, the strength of her character is largely overshadowed by the need for major plot developments. The movie presents a reading of the story that is so different from my own: it completely misses out on Jane’s humor and strong sense of self, and instead focuses on the melodrama and “romance.” As a result, she might as well be choosing between a vampire and a werewolf! Still, there’s something weirdly muted and slow-paced about the whole affair, which almost makes one wish for some supernatural excess. Even the already vampiric Bertha Mason, Rochester’s wife, is less sensationalized in the movie than she is in the novel. All of Charlotte Bronte’s charmingly weird flourishes have been expunged, or glossed over to present an unnecessarily staid production.

Thus, the plot of Jane Eyre is just as you remember it in the book…but without any of the details that proved to your high school English teacher that you had actually read it. At times, this means the complete omission of several minor-but-still-important characters—namely, the only people who were ever nice to Jane during her childhood. (Seriously, how are we supposed to believe she turned out reasonably well-adjusted with so little exposure to actual human decency?) At other times, this means skipping over scenes that are too bizarre and/or playful for the tone of the movie, such as when Mr. Rochester arrives at Thornfield disguised as a gypsy. It’s understandable that certain details would not be included in the movie due to time constraints, but this does not always explain why other scenes (such as the overlong opening scene of Jane literally at a crossroads, and then returning to the womb of nature) were included.

All in all, I questioned the choices made by the director, the screenwriter, and even the casting agent. There was nothing wrong with the movie, and it was quite lovely to look at, but it just did not offer the reading I was hoping to see. Additionally, the cast fell short of my expectations. For one, Judi Dench was completely wasted as Mr. Fairfax. (Come on, it’s Judi Dench!) Furthermore, neither Mia Wasikowska nor Michael Fassbender brought anything new or interesting to their roles. Fassbender is far too good-looking, and not nearly commanding enough in appearance, to make sense for Rochester’s character. Wasikowska, usually very pretty, is somehow too plain even for Jane, perhaps because she appears to be forever scowling. I did not dislike either of them, but I was also not convinced by their interpretations.

Still, all this really means is that the film could not live up to the version in my head. And, for that, I cannot fault it too much (or, at least, any more than I already have). It was entertaining enough, and certainly visually-appealing enough, to provide a pleasant evening out. It’s sure to please some fans and disappoint others, but either way, it’s not so bad. It still beats finding out that your fiancé is stashing his homicidal first wife in a room just above where you sleep….

Kathleen Recommends…Underrated TV Characters

Sue Heck — “The Middle”

Sue Heck was a girl you went to middle school with, but probably never noticed (except for that one time she went to the school dance dressed as a crayon). She was the girl who tried so hard at everything—to fit in, to be good at things, to get boys to like her—but never quite succeeded. Instead, she ended up with a gay boyfriend, an 8th place ribbon in a square dancing competition, and a wardrobe seemingly composed entirely of unflattering sweaters. You probably would have pitied her, if you had ever bothered to notice her (hint: she’s the one who came in dead last at that cross country meet), but, the thing about Sue is, she doesn’t need or want anyone’s pity.

On “The Middle,” Sue Heck (Eden Sher) is upbeat even when life is beating her up. She continues to believe in herself even when all evidence points to the contrary. Sure, there is something downright delusional in the way she finds success in her failures, but, frankly, it’s the kind of delusion we could all probably use more of. She’s willing to celebrate personal victories, even if they don’t look like much from the outside. Although she’s the quintessential awkward teenager, you get the sense that, in the future, she will be just fine. And she knows it. She’s know that middle school, and high school, and probably the first few weeks of college, won’t last forever. She’s buoyed by the knowledge that the best is always ahead of her.

Let’s face it, I probably like Sue Heck because, at some point in my life (maybe even now) I was Sue Heck. I was awkward. I was forgettable. I didn’t do a whole lot of winning. But, like Sue, I didn’t let that shake my sense of self. I didn’t allow myself to be defined by others’ versions of success.

…Plus, Sue is just super funny. Eden Sher is great at both delivering the jokes and doing physical comedy. She doesn’t worry about looking cool or being “hot” — she just goes for it. The result is a character whom we all recognize and take notice of, even when no one in her world does. She’s someone you actually want to root for; even when all that rooting gets her is just a trophy for punctuality, you still count it as a success. Because that’s what Sue has taught you. And it’s good enough for her.

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