Monday, January 7, 2013

Review of Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print

Over the break between semesters, I've been tackling some reading that doesn't concern my dissertation or research directly--and it's been a great break while still feeding my mind. I was especially happy to stumble across a free digital version of a book by Ted Striphas, The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control (New York: Columbia UP, 2009). The digital version may be found on Striphas's website, since he's offering it through a Creative Commons-licensed pdf through a "pay with a tweet" system (props to him for doing this).

So I want to offer my review of the book here (disclosure: I've also posted this review on Goodreads, and plan to post it on, too). Though it's not directly related to the medieval period, I do see a lot of implications here for how we think of book history; and I think that there is a lot here that intersects with how we think about scholarship.

In The Late Age of Print, Ted Striphas sets his main approach as a nuanced examination of American book culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In doing so, he challenges crisis discourses and laments for the loss of books. Striphas presents a well written, accessible, anecdotal, and effective critique of ideologies behind consumption, control, and transformations in American book culture.

Much of this study relies on the cultural history that Striphas establishes from the outset, emphasizing "the history and conditions by which books have become ubiquitous and mundane social artifacts in and of our own time" (4). By charting book culture from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first,  Striphas lays out "a changed and changing mode of production; new technological products and processes; shifts in law and jurisprudence; the proliferation of culture and the rise of cultural politics; and a host of sociological transformations, among many other factors" (5). He does so by focusing on various aspects of American consumerism, the book industry, legal history, media relationships, all circulating around attitudes about the value of books in the everyday. With these topics as the mainstay themes of the book, Striphas takes up the topics of American bibliophilia, digital media, big-box bookstores (especially Barnes and Noble), online marketing (especially, Oprah's Book Club, and Harry Potter--all centerpieces of his cultural examinations.

Ultimately, he demonstrates, through several case studies, "how printed books and electronic media can complement one another" through a type of "synergy" in culture (188). Yet he does not insist on ignoring the transformations that have taken place and will continue to occur. He equally insists that consumers must be aware of the ways in which control--by the industry, marketers, publishers, as well as consumers and various aspects of popular culture--underpin the most important facets of book culture. Indeed, the polemical features of Striphas's book emphasize the need for continual reconsideration of these issues to best understand the various complexities of intermedial relationships. This is particularly the case for his approach to intellectual rights laws in a global economy and with emergent digital concerns. All of this is offered with well-balanced and salient critiques of the past, the present, and the future.

As an extension of my review, I also find my own access and approach to this book intriguing for its implications about the type of "synergy" that can arise from print and electronic media. The fact that I accessed the book through a Creative Commons-licensed pdf, which Striphas offers essentially free (no need to go through the Columbia UP publisher; nor any need to mediate my reading through some sort of book-seller, in a store or online), raises a whole host of questions related to his discussions of control and consumption--I'm sure much could be said about this. I downloaded the digital version that Striphas offered on his site three years after the book's initial print release (2009); I synced it in my DropBox folder; I read the whole of it on my iPad, digitally annotating as I read. I may even buy a print copy now--but I will certainly keep the digital copy with all of my first-reading notes.

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