- Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture
One of the most widespread 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?), the 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 this is the case for the groups of readers who are insufficiently educated or lack the cultural capital to resist the temptations of the non-book forces.
The starting point of Jim Collins's timely book (also available as an e-book, I imagine) is that this opposition is not what can be observed when we look around. On the contrary: Books are everywhere now, including places where they had been completely absent until now (small-town America, for instance, thanks to the spread of chain stores such as Barnes and Noble and 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 types of books that are sold may no longer be the same as the ones academic gatekeepers have always dreamed of selling.
The ambition of Collins's 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 will not leave any 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 Winfrey's 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 a 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. Rather, it is a way of self-development. Second, this reading as self-development approach is no longer governed or determined by the authoritative voice of specialists (professors, national critics and so on). Instead, it is 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 interactionist model: readers refuse to rely on the traditional gatekeepers; at the same time, however, they eagerly team up with others in all kinds 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, that is, 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...