Nash on Books as a Commodity


“We tend to view history in terms of one age succeeding another, the greater vanquishing the lesser, or the tawdry always winning out over the elevated.

“The reality, Striphas demonstrates, is that we’re a populist capitalist democracy, a world where people are trying to get ahead, and the information contained in books, and the social status books have occasionally offered, are tools for getting ahead.

“Books not only are part and parcel of consumer capitalism; they virtually began it, they are part of the fuel that drives it, and they are key for understanding ways in which consumer capitalism is changing and evolving, in some respects into a whole other beast.

That is book culture. Books are not apart from commerce.”

Richard Nash, from the beginning of a comprehensive review of Ted Striphas’s monograph The Late Age of Print, a very significant study that examines the ways in which books have functioned as a commodity throughout the 20th century, and the many ways in which bookselling actually pioneered mass consumer culture.

For example, bookstores were the first retail establishments to allow browsing of their products on open shelves; grocery stores subsequently copied the idea from booksellers.

Nash’s review hits all of Striphas’s main points and neatly summarizes the study’s strengths and weaknesses. “It is rare to say of a university press hardcover that it is a ‘must-read,'” Nash writes near the end, “but for those interested in the confluence of culture and economics as it relates to books, that is what The Late Age of Print is: a key text advancing our knowledge.” Check out the full piece here.

Incidentally, I was originally induced to read The Late Age of Print months ago by the Quarterly Conversation review and that magazine’s interview with Ted Striphas.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →