On “The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control”

by vinnyhaddad

Ted Striphas’s account of “everyday book culture” illustrates the ways in which “book history” offers truly illuminating perspectives on 20th-21st century American literature. Striphas analyzes the arrival of e-books, the rise of big-box bookstores (Barnes and Noble), the distribution system of Amazon.com, the confluence of media in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, and finally the piracy of Harry Potter. While each of these “everyday” intonations of contemporary book culture feel familiar enough that we might take the existence of the book itself, the ‘sacred object,’ completely for granted, the process that puts the book in our hands is anything but simple. Distribution channels, copyright and anti-piracy laws, and labor practices have undergone such systemic changes in the business of books over the last hundred years, it is truly a disservice to analyze how readers interact with texts, books’ political efficacy or affective spontaneity without understanding to a large degree the labor that has been abstracted (the simple case study of the implementation of ISBN numbers was fascinating) and selectively inflected (the extended study of Harry Potter emphasizes that “scarcity takes work to produce”). But, what I perhaps most appreciate about this text is the surprising and persuasive conclusions that Striphas develops out of these “everyday” book practices that many of us have developed conjectures about with partial facts and fragmented histories.

I strongly recommend the sections on the Amazon.com distribution system, as well as the analysis of copyright laws associated with the rise of e-books and the boom of Harry Potter piracy, but for the purposes of this response I will offer an example that perhaps can be summarized and responded to in a small space. One such example of this is Striphas’s analysis of Oprah’s Book Club. After narrativizing his research into how the Book Club mapped and acted upon the specific practices of everyday life of many women, Striphas comes to an interesting and fresh conclusion on an event that I still find myself talking about thirteen years later, Oprah’s rescinding her invitation of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Striphas first develops and traces out a dialectic of Oprah’s Book Club and its preoccupation with the connection between books and real life, or what many us associate with it: sentimentality.[1]

On the one hand, the material facticity of the books themselves has provided at least some participants with much-needed time and space away from their daily obligations as partners, mothers, and professionals. On the other hand, the club has marshaled the content of the books to serve a seemingly contrary purpose, namely, that of facilitating a more intense, introspective engagement with women’s everyday realities vis-à-vis the main characters and events of selections…The club demonstrates how women can carve out a safe harbor of sorts for themselves, one adjacent to but ultimately distinct from everyday life’s repetitive routines. Through books they find the necessary perspective to reflect on how their needs correspond with others’ expectations of them, perhaps even to invent new possibilities for repeating everyday life differently. (128).

Striphas then juxtaposes the two “scandals” that have been associated with Oprah’s Book Club: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and James Frey’s Million Little Pieces. I have often been so preoccupied by thinking about Franzen’s discomfort over his selection (the explicit emphasis the book club places on biography over literary invention, the club’s effect on the delicate balance between high and low art and its overwhelmingly gendered intonations [he discussed in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air his fears of losing male readers], the effect of the additional presence of the Oprah brand on his authorial rights of the text, and, last but not least, the presence of that annoying Oprah’s Book Club image on the cover). This event was fascinating for literary critics, authors and readers because of the opportunities to read into it, among other things, sexism, racism, and elitism.[2]  But, what Striphas brings to this discussion, is how utterly insignificant the Franzen debacle was to the actual book club, particularly in comparison to the scandal of James Frey’s Million Little Pieces. In the case of Frey, viewers, and Winfrey herself, exhibited actual distress and anger:

The book club could ignore Franzen precisely because the trope around which so much of the controversy had turned—the distinction between high and low culture—was more or less irrelevant to the book club’s worldview and ways of  operating. Responding at length would have been tantamount to validating what are, in effect, exogenous categories. Indeed, this would explain why Winfrey, when asked about the controversy four years later, responded by saying that Franzen was ‘not even a blip on the radar screen of my life.’ In Frey’s case, however, his fabrications contravened what is probably the core value of Oprah’s Book Club: the grounding of books in actual events. Rather than reinforcing the intimat connection between literature and life, as almost all previous book club selections had been made to, A Million Little Pieces embodied the possibility of a disconnect. It thus cast doubt on a fundamental principle according to which the club has inspired legions of people to engage with books both meaningfully and practically. (136-137).

James Frey was not a blip on the radar screen of my life, but as Striphas dug into the ways in which Oprah’s Book Club contributed to a specific feeling for books and in fact structured daily practices of women based on that feeling, on that dialectic, he illustrates the ways in which Frey’s controversy impacted that relationship more deeply and irreparably than Franzen’s perceived curmudgeon-ness. This is just one example of how careful analysis of extratextual factors effect the culture of books, and culture more broadly.

Striphas takes away from this study his concept of “controlled consumption” in the “late age of print,” each term needing some nuanced explanation. Striphas extrapolates the concept of “controlled consumption” from Henri Lefebvre’s Everyday Life in the Modern World: “A society of controlled consumption both operates and attempts to organize social life pursuant to general logic of control…, which is actuated in four specific ways…1.) a critical infrastructure consisting not only of enormous industrial capacity but, equally important, of cybernetic systems that manage key aspects of commodity production, distribution, exchange, and consumption…2.)  attempts to minimize—and, ideally, to eliminate—whatever freedom of choice may still exist in the realm of consumer culture [what he calls ‘programming’]…” 3.) planned obsolescence where the products stop working, as in the case of e-books that are time-limited or disappear after a limited number of views, “whose programming undermines whatever permanence the notion of ownership might have implied,” and 4.) “by troubling, acting on, and reorganizing specific practices of everyday life,” like, for example the installation of bookshelves in new homes in the 1920s and 30s or the stigmatization of new books versus borrowed books (180-182). Striphas adopts this as his favored terminology over “neoliberal governmentality.”

We’re promised unprecedented levels of freedom, interactivity, and customization—which is to say a heightened degree of control over the disposition of our reality—yet the critics of neoliberal governmentality say in reality this sense of control is an illusion. It masks the extent to which we’re surveilled mined for fata, and compelled to act in ways contrary to our own interests…Instead of being in control, these critics suggest, our daily lives are increasingly controlled by the agents of capitalist accumulation. There’s certainly a strong measure of truth to this claim. Consequently, its easy enough to see the affinities between a society of controlled consumption and the techniques of neoliberal governmentality. I nevertheless hesitate to embrace the latter paradigm since it seems to view control as a given rather than as a major point of contestation in the late age of print…What’s also clear is that…the industry’s desire for control is attenuated by a restless public that refuses to be impressed by the industry’s tough talk or to defer in every instance to its technological innovations. Indeed, the phrase ‘control is an illusion’ cuts both ways…Neoliberal governmentality…smoothes over the complex historicity of contemporary social formations, which consist of dominant residual, and emergent elements. Its exponents want to tell a story about control so unique that they risk underestimating the degree to which consumer capitalism and cultural politics persist in the present—and not as a mere residuum. (185).

Indeed, this distinction is what contributes to the appropriateness of Striphas’s takeaway label, “the late age of print,” which indexes, not a break from an earlier period or the start of a new period, but a time of on the ‘verge’ or in transition between periods. This does not mean that “the possibilities for politics are diminishing, it would be more accurate to say they’re being transformed—or maybe even multiplying” (186). The positive side of the politics, for Striphas, exists in this “being on the verge:” “Transition implies that the future has yet to be settled once and for all, and that politics, however (re)defined, remains a possibility. Boooks and book culture can reveal emergent trends and tendencies that may be antidemocratic, but they also should remind us that life may repeat itself differently—and, with any luck, for the better—every day” (189). I am partial to this positive side of the politics of book history, and the challenge Striphas lays out for further study in book history in the 20th century. Because of this, I am interested in blurring the lines between the materiality that Striphas accounts for so well, and the ‘sacredness’ that we associate with “the book,” at least certain transcendent books in particular. This magical quality that has been packaged and re-packaged as a rhetorical provocation, as “reasons to read,” facilitate many of the processes of abstraction of labor practices and distribution channels. Yet they remain, in such fascinating ways, magical. Both sides require such careful and balanced attention because neither succeeds without the other. We become attuned to particular affects that allow the magical quality of literature to be encountered in all its force, but only because this intricate machinery that, as Striphas explains, trains in us, situating us in our time and place.

[1] Timothy Aubry has an interesting take on this in his book Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Readers. The value we ascribe to reading, one which Oprah’s Book Club capitalizes on and percolates, is its ability to help us feel like we understand our own life better, through sympathy and identification among other mechanisms.