Ted, Great post! I fully agree that mass-culture warrants historicization and find the case-study in your book a particularly intriguing one. However, as your test case succeeds in exposing the particularities of mass culture through a lens of localization, I wonder whether you also think it might be possible to expose particularities of mass-cultural institutions by comparing them with each other? I’m thinking, of course, of the recent price war that took place between Amazon, Walmart, and Target. In this instance, do you think comparing these superstores with bookselling chains like Barnes & Noble or Borders might result in another way of humanizing (and therefore historicizing) the latter group?
Thanks Hollis and Kathryn for your insights. I’m particularly interested in the idea that ebooks might enable a type of inconspicuous consumption, allowing consumers to continue to participate in the "more is better" philosophy of contemporary (American) life, while also preventing the literal burden of their consumption from weighing them down. Kathryn, you’re of course right that just purchasing thousands of books or ebooks has nothing to do with the time it takes to read and digest them, which I think plays into a central irony to the "you can have it right now" discourse of Kindle publicity. Having something immediately and having the time to read it immediately are, obviously, two very different things. I think all of this is connected to Hollis’ point that value (as a multivalent term) is what is primarily at stake here. The trick for those of us who study these things is to identify what types of value people derive from both books and ebooks. I interviewed a book collector last week who reads almost exclusively on his Kindle, yet has a library of over 3000 volumes. Nor do I think he’s an anomalous example. There are a surprising number of readers who see no contradiction in their desire to buy and own books and their desire to read on screens. The trick for scholars is to pay attention to these distinctions, because I think it will help us to better highlight the potential significance of new formats.
Hi, Lisa. Thanks very much for your comment. As an an admirer of your work, I was particularly excited to hear from you.
I suppose I’d respond to your question in two ways. First, while I use the term "mass culture" frequently in my own work, I’m not sure that "mass culture" is as homogeneous as people tend to give it credit for. The subtext here is my interest in the work of Gilles Deleuze, and specifically his book, Difference and Repetition. There he notes that much of what we would describe as "repetitious" is in fact rife with difference, and that certain epistemological conditions encourage us to overlook the singularity — even the minor variations — of every repeated thing.
Second, and in a less philosophical vein, I believe that history allows us to tell more complex and interesting stories about mass culture, compared to those that are commonly in circulation. Do big-box bookstores homogenize the world of letters? Probably to some degree, though I think it is fair to say that they expand it in others. But what really interests me is how mass cultural institutions are made to fit into the locales in which they’re located, and how they in turn inflect that sense of place politically and economically. Chapter 2 of Late Age explores this dialectic through the case study of a Barnes & Noble in Durham, NC, where the store is involved — almost despite itself — in redressing longstanding racial and economic disparities in the area. Ultimately, I’m looking to history as a means by which to stretch the familiar stories of mass culture to their limit so that a significantly greater degree of specificity might emerge.
P.S. I’m an ice coffee guy (with plenty of sugar and soy milk) myself.
Hi Ted. Thanks for this. I’m a fan of your book, but I guess I have a question about your final points here. While I appreciate that the contrasts between independents and big box booksellers may at times be overdrawn (part of a romantic ideology that chronically disavows books as commodities …), how can you use "history" to counter the impersonal and homogeneous qualities of commodity capitalism? Sure, my local big box bookseller is "my" local, and the folks at my Starbucks make me feel as if I had invented "my own" drink — for the record: the short double skim latte — but that makes neither store more personal or more human. Does it?
Thank you Elizabeth for your insightful posts. The questions about the value of printed material has me thinking of the way Kindle markets the value of the screen. The Kindle seems to balance on the one hand a desire to consume, but on the other a desire of pseudo-asceticism. Kindle allows one to consume (I mean through the act of buying titles, and not necessarily the act of reading of reading them) voraciously, but not bear the burden of their weight. While this might seem counterintuitive to those of us who love our bookshelves, there is some practicality to it. How does the push for an increasingly nomadic relationship to work play into the conditions of possibility for the Kindle to exist? With increasingly globalization that often requires temporary travel and sometimes geographic relocation for those who are in the financial position to own something like the Kindle, for $259 someone can feel that they are bringing a wealth of knowledge with them with little effort.
By selling the possibility of downloading whole books in under a minute, the Kindle also represents the craving to have our wants instantly satisfied. The irony is that reading is very rarely an instantaneous pleasure. It is instead often laborious. The download may be instant, but the process of reading is still a slow and drawn out one. I wonder if the emphasis Kindle has placed in marketing the instant gratification of consumption is meant to mask the labor one will inevitably have to exert in order to read the book itself? I have been wondering about the Kindle’s relationship to commodity fetishism. Rather than just masking the labor that went into the production of the Kindle (not to mention the labor that went into the production of the books that have been separated for their designed medium), is the Kindle also masking the labor one will have to put into the use of the product itself? I find it a bit heartening to think that though someone may feel that information is just a button and successful credit card transaction away, the digestion of words on the screen/page will continue to be only available at the pace of one’s ability, desires, and motivation to read.
Great post, Elizabeth, and a provocative set of questions in the thread. I think that questions of value are central here — as in what’s the "value" of the printed form? How does this value change across platforms? I think it helps to think of "value" as a multivalent thing — as in, it’s not a question of simply mourning the loss of the dog-eared paperback (though it can include that — I do!), but a question that’s bound up in issues of use and exchange in each instance, at a given moment.
The Kindle signifies a whole bunch of things right now — a tech-y orientation, a fair amount of disposable income, etc. — but I like materiality as an object of study here. Should e-books take off as a viable, widespread format — which is not at all a given — what will that do to people’s bookcases? The industry that makes them? Etc, etc. It’s an interesting set of questions to raise here….
Quickly: Ted, I 100% agree that form matters greatly in the ways that readers derive value from texts as well as signal that value to others (I’m actually writing my dissertation on how book collectors value material books, which is an arena where form trumps content more often than not). However, in part because of my research subjects, I’m constantly forced to confront how form has always been important to the reading experience. Peter Stallybrass is particularly good at historicizing this point, reminding of us of the residual use of scrolls and manuscripts long after print proliferated. In more contemporary times, readers select specific editions of texts to engage with, and certainly reading Great Expectations in a gilt-edged copy connotes a different value than a pocket paperback. The question I am more prone to grapple with is whether the ebook is just the latest in a long string of devices used to convey words to readers, or whether there is something entirely different about its form that demands we ask different questions about value and impact (and a whole host of other issues).
Your last point is particularly intriguing, Elizabeth, especially in light of the growing prevalence of recommendation features such as those you find on Amazon.com. The displacement of juman judgment into algorithmic form raises all sorts of questions about taste aggregation — questions with which scholars in the humanities (you notwithstanding) have only begun to grapple.
One thing that occurred to me in rereading your post was the Kindle artifact itself, and how much that $259+ piece of equipment conveys about the cultural and economic positionality of its bearer. Perhaps what’s at stake value-wise is not just the content of reading anymore, but also the forms in which one does so.
An intriguing post, Elizabeth, though I don’t share the perspective that copyright is a strictly reader-centric concern. In any case, I do wonder if, ultimately, the trajectory of e-readers is in the direction of cultural leveling, and if that is indeed a good thing. Is it desirable for people to make snap-judgments about others on the basis of the books they read? I guess I’d be curious to hear more about the end-game of your thoughts on e-readers and cultural value.
Thanks for your comments, Ted, as well as pointing toward the fact I was potentially implying copyright may only be a reader’s concern. (As I hope my hyperlink demonstrated, I was thinking, in particular, of the controversy regarding Orwell’s texts being removed from Kindles this past summer, and the reader-oriented discussion regarding ownership that followed). As for your more involved questions, I’m going to have to waffle a bit. I don’t necessarily think it is desirable for people to make snap judgments regarding readers based on the books they hold, but it is inevitable. Further, as my clip shows, the ways that books function to this end are not wholly oriented toward the receiver. Rather, books allow their readers to display or deny particular personality traits, suggesting that the role books play as markers or makers of taste and judgment is not a one-way street. Ironically, I think the current cultural value of ebooks lends to similar judgment. Right now, it is fairly safe to assume that the majority of Kindle owners 1.) value reading as a pastime, 2.) have enough disposable income to invest in an expensive gadget, and 3.) are tech-savvy enough to navigate their device. But, operating on the hypothetical assumption that ebooks will continue to gain popularity and eventually be owned by a larger percentage of the public, I do think the consequences this may hold for culture are significant. Beyond enabling trite conclusions about others’ tastes, the presence of books (specifically) and print (more generally) serves the general populace by providing (at least) superficial exposure to cultural products that would otherwise go unnoticed. If I cannot stumble upon an interesting looking book by encountering it in a brick-and-mortar store, then what are the chances I’ll ever know it exists? In this way, I tend to agree with the scholarship that suggests one of the consequences of digital media is to allow consumers to only access content with which they agree. At its most extreme, I think the consequence of such behavior is polarizing (which, in my mind, is the opposite of democratizing).