Dead Trees, or Dead Formats?

Dead Trees, or Dead Formats?

2010-11-04
The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control
Ted Striphas
New York: Columbia University Press, 2009

David Haeselin reviews Ted Striphas’ The Late Age of Print, which explores the crucial role of book publishing in today’s society of controlled consumption. The oft-repeated death knell for reading, Striphas argues, is the
equivalent to a Fox News jeremiad on the death of American morality:
it’s wholly ideological and selective.

In 1929, Joseph Wharton Lippincott, the president of the National Association of Book Publishers, penned an article in Publisher’s Weekly noting a nascent trend of built-in bookcase construction in new houses, as well as ways of retrofitting older ones. Strangely enough, many customers needed “mimic books” to actually utilize all of this newly constructed space. Sold by the yard, these leather-bound lengths of book-shaped cardboard were marketed to high and middlebrows alike. A 1927 New York Times article soothed its readers by suggesting that “the best people” were using these fake books to fill up their rapidly growing shelves which would add, as a similar article suggested, “a little touch of modernism” to the average suburban home (qtd in Striphas 28-29). This was not the first time that books were widely affordable for a large group of people, nor was it the first instance of cultural concerns colliding with politics, but this moment locates a uniquely American anxiety. The best way for turn-of-the-century Americans to exhibit the growing distinction of American culture to their Continental cousins was to appear as if they were consuming books by the boatload. Much like the analogous popularity of the Book of the Month Club and the Harvard Classics (Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf of Books), this example demonstrates a pressing need to chart the development of American taste, and the subsequent production of a vibrant middlebrow. These institutions signify the emerging cultural narrative that education is worth almost any investment, even when the returns are symbolic. The most ordinary question of where to store and how to display the mass-produced objects that a burgeoning middle class were snapping up serves as a parable for the larger economic, social, cultural, political, and intellectual trends of the time, and of the history of book selling more generally.

In his 2009 book, The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas uses modern and historical examples - such as the popularity of mimic books - to construct a dialectical relationship between modern consumer capitalism and economic/political control exerted by the global book industry. The oft-repeated death knell for reading, Striphas argues, is the equivalent to a Fox News jeremiad on the death of American morality: it’s wholly ideological and selective. His investigation tries to expose the crisis surrounding the future of books as a fog that conceals the shifting relationships between cultural consumption and the new techniques of rationalized efficiency that aim to manipulate the ordinary consumer. A central assumption of Striphas’ work is not that people have stopped reading, but that scholars are no longer tuned to how and what people read. Striphas explores the driving forces behind the book industry, what he pinpoints as the “legal codes, technical devices, institutional arrangements, social relations, and historical processes whose purpose is to help secure the everydayness of contemporary book culture” (10). The book form becomes what Marx calls the “social hieroglyph” that grants access to obscured relations between capital, commodity, and class. Interrogating modern-day institutions like Oprah’s Book Club, Amazon.com’s just-in-time book delivery systems (both electronic and print), and the massive digitization of our print-based cultural memory allows Striphas to better grasp the future of books, as well as the new realities of consumer capitalism.

Adopting Raymond Williams’ famous model of emergent/dominant/and residual cultural formations, Striphas transcends the “dead” or “indispensable” binary by using books (digital or print) as examples of feedback mechanisms that determine contemporary consumer culture. Rather than regurgitating either the “book is dead” platitude of the popular press found in Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies (1995) and Jeff Gomez’s Print is Dead (2008), or fetishizing the book’s transhistorical importance seen in more traditional book history, the reader is asked to interrogate the underlying narratives that obscure the material relations between cultural production and consumption. Striphas writes a multi-leveled book history in the age of digital reproduction without succumbing to simple romanticization - the tactic of many digital converts - of the scholarly tools related to that technology. He illustrates that reading has not been entirely eclipsed by digital media, but has become something different that must be understood in order to defend our continued allegiance to the book form as a medium for thought and political analysis.

The book, it seems, is a duplicitous object, and acts both as commodity and agent of control: perhaps the clearest example of this in Late Age is the third chapter, which outlines the history of the development of the International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Introduced in the 1960s and 70s, the ISBN would later enable Amazon.com’s meteoric rise to domination. This narrative stems from the reformative efforts of early 20th century booksellers, and concludes by dissecting what could be called “Bezosism,” named after Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos. A pinnacle of efficiency and just-in-time production, Amazon relies on a “twenty-five-million-dollar sorting machine, which can process up to two thousand discrete orders simultaneously” (105). Furthermore, the barcode-based business practice enables Amazon to “know if the worker has slowed down” which, in turn, has “doubled the average productivity of temporary workers” (106). These mechanisms of surveillance have allowed the book business to lead the way towards a hyper-Taylorism, joining its peers to worship at the altar of productivity. In order to respond to the contemporary crisis of book production, Amazon, and the book industry more broadly, have adopted similar strategies as previous crises. This artificial regulation of the market for cultural goods produces what he calls a “complex circuitry of control” felt in both production and consumption of cultural goods.

Many large entertainment companies have begun hard-coding limits to how users can interact with content. Striphas is particularly - and rightly - critical of this practice because it highlights the contestation of cultural ownership that drives his main argument. What Striphas calls “controlled consumption” has gotten so flagrant that in many cases the consumer ends up spending their hard-earned money to purchase a license for their movie, MP3 or piece of software instead of owning it outright. This widespread practice, innocuously called digital rights management (DRM), has sparked controversy wherever implemented, but has become only increasingly popular since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998. The book industry has followed suit installing analogous control mechanisms in many e-books and other digital products, thereby suspecting all of their consumers of being thieves to protect against the unauthorized usage and transmission of intellectual property (IP). While many humanities scholars almost naturally see books as different from other forms of culture, Striphas shows just how much books are starting to resemble any other hyper-controlled cultural product. The dicey legal and political climate surrounding these new methods of cultural duplication and transmission are expertly depicted in his discussion of knock-offs and unauthorized adaptations of the Harry Potter franchise, specifically Tanya Grotter (a ten-volume series in Russia), Harry Potter and Leopard Walk Up to Dragon in China, and numerous unauthorized fan-translations from many countries worldwide.

While piracy in developing nations is nearly always construed by Western content publishers as lost sales, Striphas illustrates three additional elements of this equation. First, in many counties where these piracies occur, the authentic versions are either not released at the same time as in the West, not published in the reading language of the country, or simply too expensive for the vast majority of people. Instead of working to make their products fit the markets in these countries, many Western companies punish and threaten people who desperately want to consume their products but cannot. Second, the money wasted on litigation could be used to produce quicker translations, or to offset the lost profits of selling the books at a fair market value, but as Striphas nicely shows, “scarcity takes work to produce” (157). It remains more important to exert control over a product than to actually get it into the hands of the most possible consumers. And third, Striphas goes on to accuse the Western culture industry of a treacherous case of amnesia of both “British and American imperialism” and the economic crises “brought on in no small measure by Western financial institutions calling in loans en masse they had made to East Asian counterparts” (168-169). The crisis of global IP piracy is more imbricated in economic, social, and political history than it seems at first glance, and it exemplifies the dependency between content and consumers that motivates Striphas’ analyses.

If these contemporary examples were not enough, Striphas also reminds us that, for the first century of its existence, the United States was a pirate nation, refusing “to sign onto or abide by any international copyright treaties until March 1891” (32). Now that the global culture industry is headquartered in the U.S., as opposed to England or France, the U.S. has become the world’s largest crusader against IP pirates. The RAND Corporation has even gone as far as to classify these pirates as terrorists (Treverton et. al). Striphas argues that while IP laws should be understood as culturally relative, they are instead strong-armed by a few Western nations, leading to exploitation and general misuse. “Bricolage, indigenization, parody, and other forms of [creative] appropriation” he suggests, “are frequently perceived [by Westerners] to be insufficiently or inappropriately transfigurative acts” (170). Striphas excels here in finding a crossover point between the deep history and the near future of knowledge production. The history of the book - for Striphas, a synecdoche of all cultural products - shows us that these problems of creative reuse of previously published content is a transhistorical and transnational political dilemma that demands the attention of scholars, political activists, and the bookish alike.

One of the few missteps in the book comes when Striphas tries too self-consciously to resist the prevalent liberal criticism of big-box superstores for whitewashing variety. While he attempts to contextualize and historicize Barnes & Noble, this argument comes off as a belabored apologia for the hegemonic position of malls in contemporary America. After spending many pages “localizing” Barnes & Noble by narrating its growth from two small time educational publishers into the world’s largest brick-and-mortar book retailer, Striphas examines a specific case-study: the Barnes & Noble superstore in the New Hope Commons shopping center, “technically located in Durham [North Carolina], but…actually situated closer to Chapel Hill (74). Since smoking was scientifically proven to be hazardous, many of the working-class jobs in the area - specifically the more working class Durham, once the so-called “capital of the Black middle-class” - have been extinguished (qtd in Striphas 72). Striphas, in turn, intervenes to argue that this Barnes & Noble “needs to be recognized as an engine of economic development for the city of Durham, and more specifically, as a strategy for redistributing the area’s wealth” (77). Because, according to Striphas, the more affluent Chapel Hill residents will be compelled to shop at a location that lines Durham’s coffers, racial and economic inequality will also be mildly ameliorated. Despite the fact that national chain stores funnel the majority of their proceeds to the corporation’s headquarters - in Barnes & Noble’s case, 5th Avenue, New York City - he assumes that plentiful low-skill, low-wage jobs are better than fewer independently financed ones. Of course, the situation in Durham, as in many urban centers, particularly in the American South, is dramatically bad, so some jobs are certainly better that no jobs. What is troubling about his effort to rebuke the critiques of corporate takeovers, however, is that it runs contrary to the very rationale he uses to defend the markedly middlebrow (or in his terms, “everyday”) cultural institutions that he champions.

Striphas overlooks the fact that many independent bookstores, in addition to having the moral high ground over corporations, serve a particular genre: romance, graphic novels, true crime, poetry, academic monographs, experimental writing, etc. Independent bookstores fulfill their most useful purpose by stocking an extensive, expertly selected collection of books that “fit.” While he is quick to point out that sales at some independent bookstores - New York City’s Shakespeare & Co., for one - suffer due to elitist staff and taste regimes, he overlooks the danger of what he flippantly calls “homogenization.” Striphas successfully accounts for part of this claim by showing evidence from a 1998 article in Business Week that notes “best sellers reportedly account for only about 3 percent of Barnes & Noble’s total sales”. The fact remains, however, that a majority of the titles available for purchase in Durham would be the same as those stocked in Honolulu or Calgary or probably even London (78). Indeed, big-box stores are not solely to blame for thousands of indie bookstores closing their doors, but giving some minimum-wage jobs to a tiny percentage of the folks that need them is not nearly enough to come out even.

This discrepancy aside, Striphas’ work is impressive in scope. As rare as it is to see print culture from a justifiably digital perspective, it is also rare to see self-professed cultural studies attempt to tackle digital issues. Striphas works in the communication department at Indiana University; all the same, he classifies his book as “assuredly…a work of cultural studies” (13). What was once championed as “interdisciplinary,” Striphas calls “strategically eclectic” (13). He explains his paradoxical intellectual forebears as “the sociology of books and reading, yet…not exactly a work of sociology…[ranging] from literary theory and criticism to political economy and critical legal studies” but “proper to none of these fields” (13). When Striphas declares his work to come from the cultural studies tradition, it seems, however, that he means this more in terms of a Marxist theory of commodification than defending - what David Parry calls - “the place of ‘justice,’ that which is beyond critique.” In fact, the title of Late Age itself indicates this point, adopting Jay David Bolter’s phrase with a nod to Frederic Jameson, “the late age of print.” More than arguing for the ethical ramifications of the waning of print - which, of course, there are many - Striphas analyzes the book as a commodity and, thereby, the growing political currency of media as well. Striphas’ lapses into ethical appeals are where his argument is weakest. Late Age doesn’t perform pop cultural studies, dull book history or even obscurantist High Theory, but a mixture of the best elements of all three methods in order to analyze the political and economic lives of media culture. In Striphas’ book we see a digital book history and a digital cultural studies, two disciplines that need to continue to develop in order to answer the pressing questions posed by the future of culture and media.

Late Age begins by invoking a recent National Endowment for the Arts Study “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence”, but Striphas’ passionate defense and rearticulations of the field of cultural production argue that the study’s initial conclusions appear deceptively clear-cut. As The Chronicle of Higher Education reports: “15-to-24-year-olds spent just seven minutes on voluntary reading on weekdays - 10 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays. They found time to watch two to two-and-a-half hours of television daily” (Howard). These findings are undoubtedly frightening, but even though there are more distractions and more competition for people’s “leisure” time than ever before, this does not mean that people - especially young people - have completely forsaken reading; reading, instead, has changed. As Nicholas Carr suggests in his widely-discussed 2008 Atlantic article “Is Google Making us Stupid?,” “thanks to the ubiquity of text on the Internet, not to mention the popularity of text-messaging on cell phones, we may be reading more today than we did in the 1970s or 1980s, when television was our medium of choice.” Reading has become more digital and more susceptible to control, yes, but this is not without historical precedent. Just as “late capitalism” is still a vibrant and plastic capitalism, so is the “late age of print” mutating and evolving between the dual pressures of increasing control placed on all intellectual property via digital technology and cultural politics. Books, and reading along with it, are not dead, but that does not mean we can rest in peace either. More than anything else, Striphas’ book reminds us what we already knew: only through vigilant analysis into the production and distribution of books as commodities can we defend reading’s relevance and centrality to our global culture. If books still matter, we must make them the heart of our advocacy. The material aspects of the book are just as important as the ideas published within them.

People have not stopped buying books - far from it. Striphas makes it clear that NEA’s study does not accurately take digital reading - either e-books or online - into full account. Apple’s newly released wonder gadget, the iPad, is being marketed as an advance over the iPhone because of its functionality as an e-reader, which has compelled Apple to create a new iTunes-like bookstore for purchasing books and periodical subscriptions (Ganapati). In the Holiday season of 2009, Amazon sold more e-books than print books (Allen). While this seems catastrophic for traditional bibliophiles, we must keep in mind that Amazon’s best-selling product is the Kindle, a $259 device (the price was recently dropped to $139) that can only be used for reading. Of the hundreds of millions of products on Amazon, its top seller is its e-reader, which must make even the most ardent Luddite a bit optimistic about the future of book buying (Allen). Print books were among the first mass-produced commodities, and now we see them evolving into the paradigmatic commodity of the digital age. Just as readers gobbled up mimic books in the 1920s to fill the built-in bookshelves they were surrounding themselves with, so are modern-day consumers rapidly accumulating digitized texts to fill up the new storage media that clutter their houses. People haven’t stopped consuming reading material. Neither, however, have the perils of the book have been exaggerated. Ted Striphas’ The Late Age of Print should help scholars and readers alike achieve a more realistic and in-depth understanding of precisely what - and how - people are reading. The ignorance that his book exposes is the real crisis surrounding the future of the book.

Works Cited

Allen, Katie. “Amazon e-book sales overtake print for first time.” The Guardian. 28 December 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/dec/28/amazon-ebook-kindle-sales-surge

Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic Monthly. July/August 2008.http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us- stupid/6868/

Ganapati, Priya. “Apple iPad Raises the Stakes for E-Readers.” Wired Gadget Lab. 29 January 2010. http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2010/01/apple-ipad-ereaders/

Howard, Jennifer. “Americans Are Closing the Book on Reading, Study Finds.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 19 November 2007. http://chronicle.com/article/Americans-Are-Closing-the-Book/232

Parry, David. “The Digital Potential: Leaving Open the Future of Scholarship and the University.” electronic book review. 1 September 2009. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/technocapitalism/digital

Treverton, Gregory F. et al. Film Piracy, Organized Crime, and Terrorism. Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation, 2009.