Even before the digital age, book-lovers were always prone to distractionby Sameer Rahim / September 27, 2019 / Leave a comment
Attention spans are getting shorter. We no longer have the patience to read properly. The printed codex is a dead technology and the future is browsing ebooks and hyperlinked webpages. Listening to an audiobook isn’t as good as reading a proper book. These are some common arguments you hear. But are they right? Leah Price, an English scholar at Harvard, says we’re too quick to assume that there was a golden age of reading from which we have declined. Prospect’s Sameer Rahim talked to Price about her new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, down the line from America. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Sameer Rahim: Towards the end of the book, you quote Marshall McLuhan writing in 1966, who listed books as an example of outdated antiques. People have been declaring the end of the book for a while, haven’t they?
Leah Price: When people talk about the death of the book, they’re often talking about two quite different things. One is the death of a particular kind of object that looks and feels and smells a certain way. And the other is a set of practices or activities, which that object has sometimes prompted. You might think of that as the difference between form and function. Personally, I’m not concerned about the survival of the object; I am very concerned about the survival of those human practices or activities.
SR: There’s this myth of an ideal reader, isn’t there?
LP: In the digital age we think of someone reading a printed book curled up in bed or sprawled under a tree, reading for pleasure, probably some classic work of imaginative literature. But for most of the history of printed books, that kind of reading has been distinctly in the minority. If you asked people in Britain or in the US a generation ago what book they had in their house, the most common answers would have been a Bible and a telephone book. So when we blame the absence of printed books for the distraction and the impatience and superficiality of the digital world, it’s unfair. We’re comparing an ideal scenario of print reading with a more realistic assessment of digital…