IN THE PAST MONTH, I’ve spilled saag paneer on a critical study of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss; admired prior annotations in a secondhand copy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam; and been tricked, by a false cover, into buying a bootleg copy of Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random.
These are not the things English academics usually talk about when they talk about books. They analyze Eliot’s tidal imagery, demonstrate how Tennyson mourns through cyclic rhyme, and ponder why Smollett’s blend of realism and romance lost favor in the literary canon. While wearing her “literary critic” hat, Leah Price can do all those things: parse language, scan meter, and theorize genre. But in What We Talk About When We Talk About Books, she invites us to share her other hat, that of the “book historian.” That scholar turns to the book as a material object. She might track down the printer for the bootleg Smollett; note the annotations stop halfway through Tennyson’s poem; sniff, then wonder why I’d pair Eliot with saag paneer.
Price has spent a career assembling centuries’ worth of these data points, and they’ve given her a bone to pick with alarmists who declare the 21st-century death of books. Those pundits, she argues, fixate on far too narrow a time frame. They miss how Kindles and Twitter novels are but the latest species in the longue durée evolution of reading technologies.
By retracing that history, Price guides us to question a series of myths. There’s the “myth of exceptionalism,” which tells us we live in an unprecedented era of technological change. There’s the “myth of the ideal reader,” which imagines pre-internet youths reading rapturously, immersively, for hours on end. And finally there’s the “myth of the self-made reader,” which casts that immersive experience as a form of unmediated access to the author’s brain. “Each of these myths credits long-form print with producing a certain kind of individual,” Price writes. “A longer view, though, makes books’ effects look less predictable.” The debunking gets rolling here through anaphora, a series of sentences that begin with “well before,” “instead of,” and “long before.” Collectively, those modifiers drive home the thesis: we have always been distracted multitaskers — and deeply anxious about that fact.
Though the argument proceeds primarily through myth negation, Price also offers a counter-proposal. Reading practices, she argues, shift not because of technologies but rather because of the infrastructures and human interactions that shape our views on those technologies. Collectively, those forces inspire our “sense of occasion”: the feeling that the object at hand merits our undivided attention. The trick with “occasions,” however, is that once we posit them, we focus and fulfill their prophecies — so they’re liable to be shaped by social norms. Victorians might have assigned occasion to Grecian epic; today, we attribute it to airplane mode, to Amtrak’s library atmosphere, to simply picking up a physical book. Because we believe in the myth of the ideal reader, we’re more likely to approach that ideal when we sit down to read. Printed Proust becomes a literary placebo.
Price is wary of placebos, however, particularly when it comes to Proust. The book’s carefully neutral tone shifts, strikingly, in the chapter on “Prescribed Reading.” As Price surveys the recent trend to offer literature as a palliative for body and soul, she voices two concerns: first that we may read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life rather than Proust; second that “panting to find out what happens next, seeing the world through a character’s eyes, wallowing in the play of language — all become means to medical ends.”
This is the literary critic speaking, hat perched with its characteristic skepticism. For if the book historian remains agnostic on a book’s ends, the literary critic locates them firmly in linguistic play. The former worries about the myth of the self-made reader, the latter the myth of the writer without a self. If we recast À la Recherche as a nexus of infrastructures, interactions, and occasions that improve our mental well-being, can’t we replace Marcel’s madeleine with any pâtisserie under the sun?
In this case, the skeptic finds support by turning to history — in noting that the very books that have become “means to medical ends” were once seen as pathogens. Price cites physician testimonies alongside cases like Don Quixote’s romance-triggered insanity and the copycat suicides linked to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of a Young Werther. “Well into the nineteenth century,” she declares, “experts were likelier to think that fiction reading caused madness than cured it.”
Some critics might quibble with that chronology. Certainly, the 19th century saw the passage of key obscenity laws, the trials of the likes of Gustave Flaubert and Henry Vizetelly, and its share of polemics against what Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve called “industrial literature.” But it also marked a new era in the status of the book, as a buttress to both personal and national identity.
In his 1869 essay collection Culture and Anarchy, Matthew Arnold argued that culture — deemed “the best which has been thought and said” — could offer an antidote to High Victorian political turmoil. His language was lofty, and patronizing, but in his 35 years as a Public School Inspector, Arnold showed a deep commitment to educational reform. Books, for him, were one concrete way to bring “sweetness and light,” or truth and beauty, to the “Philistine” masses.
Oscar Wilde served a rather different flavor of honeyed bibliophilia in his 1889 short story “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.” Long before the internet proliferated queer fan-fiction, the tale explored the hypothesis that Shakespeare dedicated his Sonnets to a male actor. For Wilde’s narrator, the Bard’s volumes become a space for actualization: “How curiously it had all been revealed to me! A book of Sonnets, published nearly three hundred years ago, written by a dead hand and in honor of a dead youth, had suddenly explained to me the whole story of my soul’s romance.” Few sentences better embody the myth of the self-made reader, a legend Wilde would both pastiche and practice. He had a “poisonous” French novel corrupt Dorian Gray but called Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance his “golden book.”
Yet those are addenda for a different tome — the scholarly monographs that Price has written before and will write again. What We Talk About is a trade book — an academic’s gamble to curtail the jargon, abridge the methods, and efficiently translate the discoveries for a broad readership. In those respects, Price’s work is a stunning success. Its line of argument is so clean and its prose so seamlessly driven by its embodied “I” that we forget the ghost of the archives hiding in the footnotes.
I might have skimmed over that fact — taking facts themselves for granted — if it weren’t for a foil: Outrages by Naomi Wolf. This spring, Wolf’s trade book about John Addington Symonds and state-created homophobia made headlines in the wake of a bracing BBC interview. On air, Matthew Sweet informed Wolf that she had misinterpreted the term “death recorded” in the Old Bailey records, an error that invalidated Outrages’s central argument. Victorianists had a brief field day, taking shots at how Wolf equated “sodomy” with “homosexuality,” ignored the period’s religious context, and self-aggrandized by falsely claiming Symonds’s unexpurgated memoirs were untouched between 1949 and 2017. My own contribution was slim, but sufficient to get a line in at the dinner table: I’d noticed Outrages misattributed Wilde’s initial burial place to Père Lachaise, when he was first entombed in the Cimetière de Bagneux.
I draw this comparison because in form, Wolf and Price are doing something oddly similar. Both link present-day objects of concern with their knotty pasts, untangling when and why we began to talk about sexuality and books, respectively, in the ways we do. Both use personal narrative to beckon the reader in, giving rise to nigh-identical descriptions of the smells and textures of manuscript pages. Both point us to the mediators — the censors, collectors, and booksellers — who make possible that affective archive. Having come to What We Talk About after Outrages, I was taken aback by this stylistic similarity, on edge that Price’s emotive, embodied narrator might sacrifice scholarly rigor for the art of its story.
Nothing could be further from the case. What We Talk About may open with a scene on Amtrak, but it’s replete with sourced data and illustrative passages on railroad reading. It may gently state the difference between a “book” and a “text,” but it still includes the moment I like to call the “scholarly drop” — when a writer maps the academic terrain, summarizing the half-dozen books that promote the myths to be challenged. In doing so, What We Talk About makes an implicit, and important, bid for one value an English academic brings to the public sphere: to tell the history of literature.
Those bids matter, both for the discipline of book history and the forever self-justifying vocation of the academic. Consider, in contrast, the proposal made by Michael Clune this August — first in Critical Inquiry, then in The Chronicle of Higher Education — that the value of a humanities professor lies in their judgment. Academics adjudicate, he argued, on whether we should spend our time reading Henry James or watching The Apprentice, and they teach us the skills to access and relish the superiority of the former. By his account, when professors remain content-neutral, they are not widening the canon; they are narrowing it by allowing the market to swoop in and feed us an all-Netflix diet. “If you tell me my preference for young adult fiction or reality TV shows is neither better nor worse than a preference for Emily Brontë or Ralph Ellison,” Clune wrote, “you are robbing me of the opportunity to enrich my life.”
Those words didn’t quite spawn an outrage, but they were expectedly controversial. The Chronicle soon published a counterbid chastising Clune for his aesthetic conservatism and his unwillingness to engage in more reflexive thinking. The writers proposed, instead, that the English professor should pursue a second-order interrogation, asking their classroom why we tend to attribute value to Brontë or Ellison. Doing so, they argued, opens a space for “aesthetic empathy”: mutual growth between student and teacher, in which the former might just show the latter there’s something to be learned from reality TV. Clune’s counter to the counter? He accused his opponents of bootstrapping the rights of a professor — from making literary judgment to “moral and metacognitive judgment.”
The coronet of the literary critic can shine garishly in these debates. Antes and emotions rise, as each side bellows that its brand of aesthetic education brings the proper form of public good. In the wake of Outrages, the scrupulous historicism of What We Talk About tempers those disputes by suggesting another hat. When wearing it, we might discuss how James negotiated contracts with his transatlantic publishers, or note that The Ambassadors’s first American edition swapped Chapters 28 and 29. We could call myth on Clune’s binary between reality TV and Emily Brontë by citing a review — “In spite of the disgusting coarseness of much of the dialogue, and the improbabilities of much of the plot, we are spellbound” — and asking whether it refers to Wuthering Heights or The Bachelor. Price never makes such an explicit bid, but her headgear raises a paddle. It reminds us that when a sterling English professor talks about books, she may offer something different from judgment: truth.