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.

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