In What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, Leah Price, Professor of English at Rutgers University, argues that change has been an ever constant in reading patterns and book production.
Many commentators currently argue that reading attention spans are being impacted by internet mobile phone usage and social media tweets. Price counters by saying we are reading more than ever before but in different ways. She places, for example, current "infinite scrolling" in the context of historical skip reading of books, and notes the book has become "both buffer and antidote to the allure of surfing and the demands of the tweet and the e-mail".
Price reminds us, through historical examples, that print has often been seen as a change agent. Books were amongst the first objects to be sold on credit in the 19th century, and among the first items to be bar-coded. Price shows how the history of reading and use of libraries has always been shaped by the rise of new mediums, technological change, institutional shifts, and reader habits.
Price relishes the physicality of books without ever losing a sense of proportion. For instance, she quotes Ben Franklin who wanted most of his Philadelphia press output to be "sound- bite size ephemeral and profit driven". Nonetheless, whatever the form, she wants to "recover the books power to upset and unsettle and even anger readers".
Price believes what has impacted reading patterns is a change in commuting reading habits, with mobile devices and audiobooks providing rapid access to content. The president of the Association of American Publishers recently commented, "Everybody thought the e -book was going to be the thing, and it turns out the audiobook is the thing".
Audiobook sales in the UK jumped by 43 per cent between 2017 and 2018 to reach £69 million. Global sales, according to forecasts by Deloitte, could hit US$3.5 billion in 2020. Price acknowledges the evidence that e-book production has plateaued in recent years and that print book sales are increasing. Another downside to e-books is that that the buyer of e-books never actually own the content, instead only purchasing a license to read. There is no sense of permanence if access is reliant on digital delivery.
Price concludes that we should see books and reading in individual and communal frameworks and within that context, reflects deeply about what books and reading constitute in a digital era: "Show me how you want to read and I'll show you who you want to be".