Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Late Age of Print.

By Ted Striphas.

New York: Columbia University Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0231148146, $27.50. 272 pages.

Review by Vicky Gilpin, Millikin University, Illinois

An exploration of the lauded power of Oprah’s Book Club, the intricately planned scarcity of the Harry Potter series, and the concept of controlled consumption might appear to be disparate topics for a single book. Even some bibliophiles might pause when confronted with a book concerning the recent history of the book industry and book culture’s relationship with consumer capitalism. However, Ted Striphas’ compact The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control elegantly presents concepts of potential interest to most readers. He uses the evolution of book culture as a lens through which he examines readers as consumers and the power behind book-based capitalism. Neither nostalgic nor pedantic, Striphas documents how books became everyday objects, the industry behind publishing, and the transformation of consumerism.

The book examines and sometimes challenges commonly-touted beliefs, such as whether or not big-box bookstores truly have an impact on independent book sellers and whether Oprah’s Book Club has revolutionized the way people read. The work also includes a behind-the-scenes perspective of the exact process of ordering a book from as well as the security involved in the transportation of the final volume of the Harry Potter series. The combination of historical elements, scholarly analyses of cultural mores in regard to books, and interesting snippets of information create a tone of accessibility throughout the book.

The sources used to explore and promote the concepts of the work range from the seminal to the trendy. Striphas delves into a variety of source styles, from juried journal articles to television excerpts to policy contracts, in order to examine the nature and power of book culture. The work takes an almost phenomenological approach, as no source is lauded as being of higher worth or with more importance to the discussion than another, and all resources serve to further the book’s exploration. The meld of sources from popular culture with works of scholarly inquiry sets an inviting and accessible tone that does not devolve into unfocused pabulum.

Striphas presents concepts that lend themselves to future research in the form of questions within the chapters. The work serves as a succinct introduction to consumerism’s evolution as viewed through the lens of the book industry, but it also provides a persuasive goad for continued research on multiple topics. Potential research includes concepts of global cooperation in industry and in regard to intellectual property, the ebb and flow of the use of e-books, and increased research into the effects of big-box bookstores on independent bookstores. Another area for further exploration includes what literature classes could learn about understanding of readers and potential readers from the canny methods of Oprah’s Book Club. Finally, also relevant to the concepts in The Late Age of Print would be an analysis of what Stephenie Meyers’ choice to expose her partially-finished fifth book in the Twilight series online after a leak indicates about the relationship among created scarcity, authors, and readers.

Although the potential pedantry of the topic might be off-putting for some readers, the chapter introductions and summaries maintain a tight focus to ease a wide variety of stakeholders into the discussion. Readers adept at maneuvering through cerebral non-fiction, journal articles, and other scholarly works might find the repetition of focus within the chapters an unnecessary reliance on a traditional presentational style and redolent of academic submission formats. However, the repetition constantly hones the topic to provide a tighter emphasis on the topic while maintaining readability for a wide audience. Campus librarians, literature instructors, and recreational readers may find the work as beneficial as those readers involved in multiple facets of the book industry or researchers of popular culture, industrial trends, and the effects of cultural shifts on consumerism. The concise accessibility of the language invites readers to ponder the questions posited within the chapters as well as enjoy what might have become bland historical details in a lesser work; for example, the depiction of the development of the ISBN is fascinating.

The Late Age of Print allows readers to join Striphas in his examination of book culture, the transformation of modern consumption, and the desire among corporations for increased methods of awareness of book buyers as consumers.

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