The past and future of book accessibility

An interesting book review in a recent New Yorker, Turning the Page: How Women Became Readers (sorry, the full article is pay-walled), a review of “The Woman Reader,” by Belinda Jack.

I haven’t read the book, but Joan Acacella’s summary of it in the New Yorker strikes me as not just a summary of the history of women reader’s, but a summary of the history of the accessibilty of reading in general — and books in particular, which were the technological aspect of reading’s accessibility.

The story told is one where the recorded word was not only very expensive (and thus only accessible only to the elite) but where literacy and reading were socially forbidden and/or discouraged from the majority of (at least, European/Euro-American) society. Not only women, but peasants and the working class in general were, for large parts of history (again, at least the European history summarized in the review) outright forbidden from reading or literacy.

This changed socially at the same time reading technology — books — became cheaper and more accessible. Acacella, writing the review in the New Yorker, draws an interesting parallel from the transitionary period into the current period of accessibility.

By this time [1848], actually, people could obtain books at almost no cost, thanks to commercial lending libraries. The most important was Mudie’s, the Netflix of the nineteenth century. Founded in London in the middle of the century, and eventually opening branches in other English cities, the company charged subscribers a guinea a year to borrow one book at a time. Until the popularization of of public lending libraries late in the century, Mudie’s offices were thronged.

I wonder if the 20th century will actually be seen as the high point of the accessibility of books, with near universal literacy in wealthy countries, public libraries, and cheap books. Literacy doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, but I can all too easily imagine a dystopian future history of book accessibility, written maybe only 50 years from now:

  • Believe it or not, people used to be able to buy a book for a very cheap price, and keep it forever, and even pass it on to their children — or loan it or give it away to a friend. All with no permission or extra charge from Amazon or Apple, and yes this was actually completely legal and above board, you didn’t have to resort to the encrypted offshore pirate networks!
  • As a result, there was such a thing as a “used book store”, where paperback books could often be purchased for less than the cost of a fast food meal a piece.  Again, this was not a criminal offense, believe it or not!
  • (Even thrift stores often had cheap paperback books. “paperback” refers to the binding; oh yes they called things printed on paper ‘books’ back then, and you could read them unmediated without any particular technology, just by holding the physical object in your hands. Yes, they took up a lot more space this way, but consider, this meant once you owned it, there was no way for Amazon or Apple to delete it from your device for not paying your fees! Nor could you lose it because of a virus or crash.)
  • As well as this thing called a “public library”, which were allowed by law (believe it or not!) to buy a book once, and then loan it out to as many people as wanted it (they could actually read these borrowed books in their own homes). Which allowed these “public libraries” to buy literally millions of titles, which all citizens had access to, regardless of ability to pay.

A rather scary dystopian future history of (e)books which I am thinking looks all too likely. But contradictorily, if  books as such are ever less accessible — literacy does not seem (?) to be going anywhere, the internet in fact may today mean that people read more and more on their screens.    So it’s not quite a story of a climactic high point of literacy and reading… but just of ‘books’ as such.   Meaning, I guess, complete, edited, reviewed, lengthy works, as opposed to facebook status updates and blog posts which are for everyone? That story doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, it seems contradictory. So maybe there’s hope yet.  Only a temporary blip in a history of a general trend of more and more accessibility to books and recorded human knowledge and literature? We can hope so, but at this vantage point things don’t look good.


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