In the midst of the 2013 Supreme Court hearings on the Defense of Marriage Act, which sought to outlaw same-sex unions, Amazon aired an advertisement for its newest e-reading device. Side by side on lounge chairs against a backdrop of beach umbrellas, a man strikes up a conversation with his bikini-clad neighbor: “That’s a Kindle, right?”
She looks up from her reading. “Yeah, it’s the new Kindle Paperwhite,” she replies.
“I love to read at the beach,” the man says. “But . . .”
“This is perfect at the beach,” the woman reassures him.
“And with the built-in light, I can read anywhere, anytime.”
After a pause spent squinting down at his iPad again, the man announces triumphantly, “Done!”
“With your book?” asks the straight woman—literally straight, as we’re about to discover. For when the man explains that, on the contrary, he’s done buying a new Kindle device and invites his neighbor to celebrate, she sidesteps the question by noting demurely that her husband is bringing her a drink. Her comment sets up the Kindle buyer’s newly topical punchline: “So is mine.”
The Kindle ad equates modernity with mobility: the freedom to marry who you want with the freedom to read wherever you want. Expanding on the theme two years later, Amazon marketers began to solicit photos with the hashtag #haveKINDLEwillTRAVEL. The resulting flood of images—a white man holds a Kindle on a dirt road; a white man reads silhouetted against a bell tower; a pair of white palms cradle a Kindle in a windowsill overlooking a cliff—measure the power of the device by the sublimity of the landscapes that it blots out. (Only the most riveting read can compete with the Taj Mahal.) Borrowing Microsoft’s metaphor of the “window,” Amazon’s al fresco scenes naturalized an otherwise daunting new technology. The wage slave might hunch over a computer in a fluorescent-lit cubicle, but the Kindle’s user remained a free spirit, shaded by trees that memorialized now-obsolete wood-pulp paper.
Yet Amazon’s 2013 ad’s celebration of the latest legal decision turns out to look oddly atavistic. Amazon’s his-’n’-hers contrast harks back to a paperback-era New Yorker cartoon where the symmetry of identical bedside reading lamps belies the contrast between a woman’s book and her husband’s antennae peeking out from behind his newspaper.
And even that pun on 20th-century bestseller Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus can be traced to turn-of-the-19th-century iconography that associated men with the ephemeral, fragmentary, fast-moving modernity of the newspaper. In contrast, the heroine of one Victorian novel hesitates even to touch a newspaper, managing instead to pinch it “delicately between her finger and thumb; for the Carlingford papers were inky and badly printed, and soiled a lady’s hand.”
Kindle is to book as iPad is to newspaper: one self-contained (designed for offline reading of durable long-form text), the other outward pointing (designed for online browsing of constantly refreshed snippets). Whether men are shown with paper broadsheets or with electronic tablets, cartoonists continue to picture women clinging to the always-about-to-be-superseded book.
Those cartoonists have a point, for industry statistics cast what looks like a reading gap as something more specific: a book-reading gap. In most parts of the world, including the United States, books remain the province of white women, while magazines and newspapers come closer to being evenly distributed. Even as Amazon’s ad celebrates the freedom to marry whomever we like, its ad still counts on the viewer to place reading habits on a gender binary.
Once a sign of economic power, reading has become the province of those whose time lacks value.
But this gender gap might be less about men’s and women’s device preferences than about the time they have to devote to reading in any medium. In an 1869 etiquette manual, the Anglican moralist Charlotte Yonge explained why women read more than men: “There are so many hours of a girl’s life when she must sit still,” according to Yonge, “that a book is her natural resource.” Most American parents today would nod in recognition at Yonge’s claim that girls read more. That may be because reading thrives on the absence of opportunity cost. Books find readers when more lucrative work is ruled out by gender (earning 83 cents on the dollar, American women outspend on books) as well as age (literature reading is highest among those too young or old for paid employment). Once a sign of economic power, reading has become the province of those whose time lacks value.
Yonge’s observation would have startled her grandparents, though. For most of British history, men across all social classes read more and read better than women. Only in the 19th century did women’s literacy begin to climb faster than men’s, finally overtaking it at century’s end. Today in developing countries, girls’ literacy continues to lag. Economically, that makes perfect sense. Investment in boys’ education promises payoff in the form of high wages, while teaching girls to read withdraws their short-term unpaid work from the household.
Only thanks to servants was the time that Yonge’s readers spent outside of the labor force freed up for reading. As a new parent condemned Tantalus-like to push a stroller through the library without stopping anywhere except story hour, I, too, began to wish that bookstores would sell babysitting coupons. Unopened novels found themselves crushed by a stack of the board books that I read with near-liturgical regularity, Goodnight Moon replacing bedtime prayers. In the small fraction of brain not devoted to memorizing Dr. Seuss, I remembered Schopenhauer’s joke: “It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time in which to read them.”
The defenders of print books are as likely to forget this as the sellers of e-readers. The volunteers of Britain’s Reading Agency could usefully remember Schopenhauer’s aphorism as they plan this year’s celebration of the annual World Book Night. A few years ago, I accompanied an alumna of the course where we played Name That Book as she marked Shakespeare’s birthday by handing out free copies of a movie tie-in paperback, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, on the Boston T. She had been instructed to give copies to “infrequent readers”—but how to profile the hurrying commuters by their likelihood of already having reading material in their backpacks? In the sea of faces reflected in glowing smartphones or canted toward billboards, it proved hard to spot a reader for whom a giveaway wouldn’t prove redundant.
In reality, sedentary books were never really swept aside by nomadic successors.
At a historical moment when paperbacks litter curbs and ebooks can be downloaded for free by the thousands, the obstacle to reading isn’t getting your hands on a book; it’s finding time to read it. The volunteers who celebrate World Book Night by handing out paperbacks might be confusing objects with practices—things with experiences. Yet media history reveals that what gets people to read, or stops them from doing so, is rarely the presence or absence of just the right gadget.
Marketing campaigns that tout the portability of e-readers recycle an older triumphalist history that depicted monumental, site-specific volumes giving way to handier, nimbler printed pamphlets, books, and periodicals. Ever since the beginning of the print era, the reformers who made books’ mobility stand for readers’ modernity cast this change as not only an inevitability but an improvement: more freedom, less friction. Erica Jong might have called it a zipless read.
In reality, sedentary books were never really swept aside by nomadic successors. Already in the late Middle Ages, hefty volumes chained in hulking cathedrals coexisted happily with “girdle books” hung from clothing—the earliest wearables. Oxford University Press’s 1875 India-paper Bible used the new technology of onionskin pages to slim down its contents as elegantly as any MacBook Air, without ever throwing lectern-sized Bibles out of work.
How big your reading matter is turns out to hinge more on where it’s consumed than on when. Amazon’s fantasy of books without borders airbrushed out the commercial strategies that made e-reading more site specific than print had ever been. Not only do the ebooks available depend on what copyright area you inhabit, but the device on which you encounter those books is determined largely by where you live. Next to income, the best predictor of whether you read on a large or small screen is nationality. Throughout East Asia, phone reading caught on before dedicated e-readers had a chance to break in on their market. French ebooks gravitate to laptops, while book-length content is likelier to be found on Americans’ tablets. In Britain, e-readers have begun losing ground to phones. How a nation reads turns out to be as distinctive as what: even when the same texts circulate across the anglophone world, they take the form, once again, of different books. Yet the implicit claim of Amazon’s ad campaigns that reading is getting better every day in every way emerged long before electronic media did.
Back in New York Public Library’s lobby, I crane my neck to take in a four-part mural that wraps around the foyer like two ripped-apart page spreads. The first panel poses a larger-than-life Moses with the Tablets of the Law. Both elbows braced, five fingers splay and another five clench to support the weight of a supersized hunk of stone. This version of a handheld tablet bears five of the Ten Commandments, though an inadvertent scrambling of two Hebrew letters has turned “thou shalt not steal” into “thou shalt not wipe.” The remaining five are relegated to a heap of shards at Moses’ feet. Their jagged disarray reminds viewers that stone, however monumental, lacks the tensile strength that allows paper’s cellulose web to bend without breaking.
Moses’s tablets dwarf the printed sign explaining that the mural was commissioned from Edward Laning in 1938 by Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, that attempt to revive for a secular age the publicly accessible art that once lived in medieval cathedrals. Three more panels complete Laning’s narrative. On the next wall, a monk hunches over a lectern, his shoulders and wrists as tightly rolled as his manuscript. At his feet, a book’s clasps seal it as hermetically as the cloister encloses the monk.
That portable books were associated with freedom didn’t mean that the wares themselves were free.
Laning’s third panel leads us back outdoors to the 15th-century German marketplace where a bearded Gutenberg, aided by a burly pressman, shows the local political boss his double-columned proof sheet for the first Bible ever printed. From Palestine to Germany, then westward again: the final panel lands us here in New York, where a fin de siècle gas lamp reveals the besuited owner of the New York Tribune, Whitelaw Reid, and the inventor Otthmar Mergenthaler eyeing a sheet printed by Linotype, the method of casting an entire line of type at once that displaced letter-by-letter typesetting in newspapers well into my own lifetime. In the background, a young news vendor shouts out the headlines. The only female figure whom Laning includes is smaller, above one door. There, a mother teaches her son to read. When the goal is a literate new generation of men, women’s literacy is only important as a means to an end.
Laning called his series The Story of the Recorded Word. Taken together, though, the four panels tell stories, plural. As you circle the lobby en route to the printed paper you’re after (or manuscripts, microfilms, or digital catalog records), you progress not just from past to present and East to West, but also from stone to wood pulp. That means from sacred to commercial, from monumental to portable, from precious to universally available, and from the timelessness of the Decalogue to the timeliness of tomorrow’s fish-’n’-chips paper.
The grandeur of Laning’s Art Deco murals risks overshadowing the 125 miles of stacks that, Atlas-like, hold up the football-field-sized reading room. The content of Laning’s images, though, undercuts his chosen medium—the mural—by emphasizing the advantages of flimsy, nondescript paper. Precisely because of its expense, stone has usually been the medium of choice for one-offs—tombstones, for example. In contrast, parchment and, even more, paper lend themselves to multiple copies, decoupling the survival of the text from the durability of any one of its instantiations.
Paradoxically enough, expense also exposes stone to destruction: reuse value makes those tombstones worth rubbing out and re-chiseling, where the cheap modern rag paper shown in panel four isn’t worth the trouble of erasing. Laning wanted to emphasize the dignity of the leather-aproned worker who shares the frame with his boss. Yet he draws just as much attention to the muscled man’s inanimate counterparts—to the humble but hardworking wood pulp and self-effacing mass-produced print that crowd out the more glamorous, ceremonial, richly textured media such as stone and parchment.
As Laning’s panels juxtapose sacred with commercial writing, they also contrast indoor spaces with outdoor ones. A circuit of the room takes viewers from a lightning-bathed mountaintop, to a day-lit scriptorium, to a newsroom’s lamplight, only to end up back outside again with the bareheaded youth whom Laning painted above the Salomon Reading Room door. Stretched under a tree with Huck Finn–like abandon, he’s tossed his hat onto the grass. Unlike the customs officials at the New York docks, he’s not doffing to the Gutenberg Bible across the lobby. Unlike the inhabitants of the next-door Rose Main Reading Room, he doesn’t rest his hardback on a table or his own back on a chair. Instead of a painted ceiling, he sits beneath a tree uncannily like the oak whose branches crown Amazon’s Kindle icon almost a century later. Lolling on the grass without worrying about stained pages, this reader makes books al fresco as characteristically modern, and American, as the picnic.
Where once readers traveled to books, now books would seek out their readers.
Or, perhaps, as the bookmobile. Walk past Laning’s panels into the wood-pulp-filled, wood-paneled reading room, and you can request a 1901 pamphlet in which the American librarian Melvil Dewey (better known for his eponymous decimal system) declares the new century an age of “traveling libraries.” By this, he didn’t mean bookmobiles. His goal was, instead, to build a collection that would rotate through rural branch libraries, themselves stationary but constantly unburdening and restocking their shelves with new deliveries. This analog “refresh” button would periodically update the titles available to local users.
Dewey freighted such “itinerating libraries” with more than practical importance. In the new century and the New World, he boasted, “the cheapness and quickness of modern methods of communication” makes books “grow wings.” As smugly as any i-marketer, Dewey bragged that texts “which were thought to belong like trees in one place may travel about like birds.” The grand staircases leading up to Andrew Carnegie’s free public libraries associate books quite literally with upward mobility—just as Carnegie’s own life story credited rising with reading. Dewey attributed that uplift more specifically to deracinated books, as if social mobility depended on the material movement of paper.
The new American century made books pioneers. Calling “the traveling book” “the precursor of the traveling library,” Dewey contrasted a bookmobile-filled America with a dark European past in which readers had to walk “hundreds of miles, perhaps begging their way, to read some book securely chained to a pillar.” The chains meant to protect books from theft appear here more like a means of imprisoning them. Where once readers traveled to books, now books would seek out their readers: adventurous volumes playing Odysseus to passive human Penelopes.
Dewey’s allusion to mendicant friars invokes a Protestant gothic that recasts each new technology as another dissolution of the monasteries. I once was bound but now am free: as the text’s power to liberate minds becomes the book’s to shake off its chains, the Prometheus of Laning’s grand ceiling changes from a reader to an object being read. The artist’s confusion of books with readers prefigures the anthropomorphism of visionary Stewart Brand’s 1985 claim that “information wants to be free.”
Brand’s want was Dewey’s need. “Libraries must be mobilized,” the library reformer wrote; “books must travel.” Nothing worse than staying on the shelf. Walter Benjamin would later compare buying “a book abandoned on the market place” with “the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in ‘The Arabian Nights.’” As Benjamin’s collector manumits an individual book, so Dewey saw himself as emancipating an entire medium.
That portable books were associated with freedom didn’t mean that the wares themselves were free. London publisher Allen Lane sold the first English paperbacks on train platforms, branching out in 1937 to vending machines with the start-up-esque name “Penguincubators.” The perfect fit for a uniform-pocket sized for an entrenching tool, Lane’s invention took off thanks to World War II. (Ironically, their standardized size and color coding by subject imitated the softcovers already being published by the Albatross Press in Hamburg.) Long before ebooks, the cheap softcover reprint allowed the field to displace the library. Eventually, like so many other military technologies that subside to civilian uses, Lane’s brainchild would allow books to flee the desk for the bus and the treadmill.
In 1958, an expert predicted that microfilms would replace books only once “some genius develops a way for reading them everywhere that books can be read: in the subway, in the bathtub, in a fishing skiff.” In practice, of course, a fishing skiff had never been the easiest place to read an exhibition catalog or a folio dictionary. That those were not the examples to which microfilm was expected to live up suggests that by 1958, Lane had succeeded in making the “book” synonymous with the paperback. Light enough to be carried, flexible enough to be pocketed, and cheap enough to be replaced if the hypothetical skiff capsized, his life-jacket-hued Penguins made bed, bath, and beyond the frontiers that every subsequent reading technology—should its sellers hope to earn a profit—would be challenged to conquer.
Adapted from What We Talk About When We Talk About Books: The History and Future of Reading by Leah Price. Copyright © 2019 by Leah Price. Available from Basic Books.