Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture
by Jim Collins
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2010
312 pp., illus. 28 b/w. Trade, $79.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4588-6; ISBN: 978-0-8223-4606-7.
Reviewed by Jan Baetens
One of the most wide-spread cultural stereotypes of our postmodern times is undoubtedly the supposed incompatibility of books and electronic media. Just as video killed the radio star (but did it, really?), Internet, the e-book and Kindle are killing the book, hardback or paperback. The countless official reports on the erosion of reading habits and the alarming shrinking of time spent with a book in our hands are all based on that same hypothesis: as soon as other media pop up (yesterday film and television, today games and other digital media), the position of the book is in clear danger, certainly in the case of these groups of readers who are insufficiently educated or lack of cultural capital to resist the temptations of the non-book forces.
The starting point of Jim Collins’ timely book (also available as e-book, I imagine) is that this opposition is not what can be observed when we look around. On the contrary: books are now everywhere, including in places where they had been completely absent until now (small town America, for instance, and this thanks to the spread of chain stores such as Barnes and Noble or Borders), they are heavily promoted (as sexy, seductive objects), and they are also massively sold and marketed (mainly through the Internet, but not without the help of very ‘physical’ groupings of people such as book clubs or reading groups). In the book business, sales figures are not shrinking, even if the type of books that are sold may no longer be the same as the one academic gatekeepers have always been dreaming of.
The ambition of Collins’ study is not just to describe this phenomenon, although this is what the author is doing as well, often in very unexpected and refreshing ways, but to try to understand it, without condemning or defending the new forms of popular reading as such. In both cases, Collins manages with great acuteness and with a great sense of humor and (self-) irony to make us think differently on matters that don’t leave no reader indifferent.
For Collins the most striking features of the recent evolutions of reading in popular culture (the title of the book is an allusion to a ritual sentence that punctuates Oprah Winfreys’ Book Club shows), are more complex than it is often assumed. First of all, he underlines the fact that popular reading has dramatically changed in the last two or three decades (actually, since the emergence of the personal computer and the subsequent restructuring of social interaction). Popular reading is no longer the middle-brow attempt to catch up with something that is ‘missing’ (mainly education, as formerly dispensed by qualified institutions) and whose ‘lack’ is considered a major problem, but as a way of self-development. Second, this approach of reading as self-development is no longer governed or determined by the authoritative voice of specialists (professors, national critics, and so on), but organized by the readers themselves, not in a purely individual way (that would be the populist option of the newly discovered readers’ agency: I decide all by myself what is good or bad, and my taste is as good as yours) but via an intense dialogue with peer readers (one might call this the interactionnist model: readers refuse to rely on the traditional gatekeepers; at the same time, however, they eagerly accept to team up with others in all kind of new social networks to try to find out what is good and what is bad). For Collins this shift from ‘old’ to ‘new’ popular reading, i.e. from reading ‘guided’ by prestigious others to reading in which the readers themselves are taking the initiative, is not simply a shift from one type of reading to another. If today’s popular readers have achieved agency, it is because the traditional system has collapsed. There is now, in wide circles of non-specialized and non-professional readers, an awareness that the system has failed, mainly because an excess of theory and formalism has separated reading from life. Therefore university professors and great critics are no longer taken seriously, their advices are no longer followed, and readers turn toward books with completely different expectations and in a totally different spirit. What popular readers are interested in, is not what books mean in themselves, but what books can mean for them, what they can bring to their life. It is only this crucial shift that explains why people continue to read, and even do it more often and more passionately than before: reading has remained or become so important for non-professional readers, because they find in books something that cannot be given by other media, and this ‘something’ is socially organized and networked self-help and development of personal taste.
For taste, besides the ideology of self-help, is the second key term of contemporary popular reading, and here as well the author stresses the link between the vanishing of classic taste standards (the ones offered by a classic college education) and the appearance of new attempts to discover, through dialogue and debate with peers in new social networks, which might be the standards that should be followed. Once again: this is quite different from the populist version of mass culture, which reduces discussions on taste on individual preferences or rather, for these discussions are frequently biased, on manipulation by the mass media. The aspect of taste is decisive when it comes to book culture: if reading is so important in an age in which nobody is supposed to read any more, and certainly not in those social groups accused of being narcotized by television and other visual media, it is because of the capacity of books to play a role in the shaping and organization of one’s own life style –an issue whose importance has not to be repeated.
As Collins argues, it is perfectly possible to consider these new forms of reading, in which books may seem a pure alibi to something else, as ‘the end of civilized reading’ (as says the title of his first chapter). Yet this viewpoint is too elite, and it certainly despises the vitality of popular culture and its manifold interactions with mass media. Without Amazon, Google, Kindle, and the social interaction enabled by the new media, the new reading culture would have been unthinkable. But this reading culture does not only destroy old forms of book culture (the independent book shop or the independent publisher, as demonstrated by critical voices such as André Schiffrin, whose theses are not discarded as elite or old-fashioned by Collins), it also merges with them and changes them in totally unexpected forms (which makes for instance that a Barnes and Noble book shop is now functioning as a… library, yet a library without well-informed librarians, since the policy of the company is to only hire people with no special knowledge on books, in order to avoid any social distance between sellers and customers!). Deconstructionist interpretations of the digital revolution in literature have been prophesying for many years the progressive blurring of boundaries between reading and writing: this is clearly not what is happening in serious fiction or scholarship (dear reader, have you ever tried to modify just one single character in an essay by a major representative of French Theory and to publish it as ‘your’ text?), but it happens daily in these new forms of popular reading, where readers really can write –because what is at stake is no longer the ‘text’, but the way one absorb it in one’s own life.
Since the frontiers between texts and life tend to vanish, it is only normal that literature (in the sense of fiction) is no longer restricted to books only. Literature becomes an experience, which can and must migrate from one medium to another. It is another word for ‘something that changes’ your life, and that can therefore be perfectly found and realized through, for instance, film but also through a wide range of practices (cooking, wine connoisseurship, interior design, dating, love-making, etc.) that are covered by the notion of life-style. In this regard Collins’ book proposes crucial and field-expanding analyses of ‘cineliterature’, more specifically of the particular forms that are taken by the age-old phenomenon of filmic adaptation of literary materials. Following the defense of a more sociological approach of adaptation made by scholars such as Robert Stam, he argues very convincingly, first that adaptation has become a major force in post-classic Hollywood, and second that adaptation obeys today the same rules as the popular book culture that he analyzes here. Indeed, the books that are being adapted are those who belong to the same universe as the ‘typical’ books that circulate in the books clubs and reading groups (i.e. books that you can discuss with your community rather than books that you read, in the old, ‘civilized’ meaning of the word) and that in addition to this can be perfectly be integrated in the merger of book culture and life style culture. For Collins, the Merchant-Ivory have been paramount in this regard: furniture is the leading actor here, and discussions on good taste fill the screen. The author goes even further, his final chapter suggesting that the exchanges between film and literature cannot be limited to the reuse of literature by Hollywood. They go the other way round as well. The contemporary hype of ‘lit lit’ (a notion ironically coined after ‘chick lit’ and referring to the obsessive presence in modern fiction of writers, preferably of writers with a strong interest in life style, and reading, preferably of reading of the same kind as the one practiced by passionate book-clubbers) is for Collins one of the literary answers to the spread of the new popular book culture in which the reading of books is presented as something that can change one’s life and that one should therefore crave for at each moment of the day
Despite his visible sympathy for the phenomenon that he scrutinizes and his overall optimism concerning the future of reading, Jim Collins is far from a naïve defender of popular culture. The stances he takes in his book are not at all populist, but a honest and inspiring attempt to understand new forms of culture that may rightly horrify us (Collins is quite critical of Oprah, as he is of the Miramax adaptations that ruled Hollywood in the 90s), but that is would be a pity to discard as vulgar and stupid. Collins strikes the right chord between left-wing catastrophism of the culture industry and right-wing praise of ‘the people’s preferences’. With great clarity, he offers an important mapping and many of the questions that he raises deserve a large and critical debate.