Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Pretentious, Snobby Books

Herbie's picture


Books in Western Civilization were invention of the medieval period, out of necessity for Roman Catholic Christian scripture (Truitt). Prior to the widespread practice of Christianity, scrolls served the same function, allowing readers to start at the beginning, save their place mid-text, and read through to the end. For instance, in Judaism, practitioners read the religious text from beginning to end, and when they finished, they would start again. However, in Christianity, the services place the liturgy thematically rather than spatially, and it required a new method of storing that information so that priests could read scripture out of order. This new method, as previously stated, was the book.

However, books were rare due to prohibitively high costs. Originally, pages were made from animal skins, preferably sheep, and a single sheep could only produce one or two pages (Getty). Making a complete book often required slaughtering an entire flock, so only the wealthiest patrons in Europe could afford a single book. Owning multiple books, let alone a library, was an incredibly expensive status symbol similar to expensive jewelry or owning a large house or two. In general, only the literate owned books. As a result, these two qualifications narrowed the field of potential book-owners to such a degree that books were symbols of wealth, pretentiousness, or religious devotion until paper became a more popular page type around 1450 (Getty).

Paper pages did make books cheaper, but that did not make them more available. Until the printing press was invented in the 15th century, all books were painstakingly handwritten by scribes (Cornell). A single error could invalidate an entire page, requiring the scribe to scrape off a layer of parchment and try again. The combination of the parchment’s expense, plus the expense of feeding and housing a scribe while he copied the text, meant that a library was often only twenty books. I use the word “only,” because twenty is such a small number of books by our modern standards and to have so few in a library seems impossible and ridiculous. But that was the reality of early books, a reality far different from our own. This changed significantly when the printing press made books’ creation both faster and cheaper.


The printing press made books much more available. Within fifty years, the use of a printing press had produced more than 20 million copies of over 35,000 individual books (Jones). Libraries collected more books for less money, and scholars did not always have to travel to another country to find a single book. However, illiteracy still prevented the majority of people from accessing books. Due to the wide gap between the educated wealthy and the uneducated masses, books were still a wealthy person’s status symbol as long as libraries remained private institutions open only to paying members.


The first free library in America was founded in Philadelphia in 1894 (Free Library). Examining this time period, books were available for 900 or so years before any books were available to the public. Before the free library was open, libraries were for religious scholars or private subscribers, depending on the point in which the 900-year period a library’s visitor lived. However, the library’s founding, combined with more widespread literacy brought by public elementary education, made books free for the majority of people for the first time ever. Though not all children were required to attend elementary school until 1918, these two were closely correlated in the spread of books and reading (Thattai). These events occurred a mere 100 years ago, an incredibly short time span in the book’s life.

 Free Library

In Sven Birket’s speech “Books in the Technological Age,” he comments on the deterioration of reading in our modern culture. He posits that a

love of literature and of reading of the sort that could be called "immersive" -- as opposed to "escapist" -- is bound up with this attitude toward life which we can call, using the word as shorthand, "romantic." And I believe, further, that the romantic is very closely tied to the private, and that it is this, the private, that is threatened with eradication, not just by the myriad electronic circuits we have woven into the fabric of our lives, but also by the collective mind-state that upholds circuited interconnectedness as ultimately desirable. Birket

Birket clearly believes that modern technology is demolishing our desire and ability to read books, as if reading is an activity the majority of people have been doing for hundreds of years. He discusses reading as if there is only one way to read a work, only one way for a reader to engage with the subject. In fact, Birket’s speech seems to fall in line exactly with the book’s pretentious, only-the-wealthy-welcome history, a status he reclaims for books when he claims that “books and reading suffer a prestige drop” (Birket). Do books have to be prestigious to be relevant to society and to culture? If so, how can we justify allowing publishers to put out works that are more likely to generate money than thought-provoking and stimulating discussions?


Birket implicates that “true” reading (whatever that means to you) can only occur with a physical book, never mind that the majority of Americans have only had access to books and the ability to read them for about 80 years. He also states that “we see an even greater collective distancing from the culture of books and ideas,” as if ideas can only be recorded in and read from books (Birket). That Birket believes what he says is deeply unsettling. Why do books have to be the end-all, be-all of communication? I do love books, but not every great idea or character or storyline has to be in a book. For the same reason that audio books are still books, despite a lack of pages, why does any text written on the internet need a different title?  Given the history of the book, Birket’s presumptions and complaints serve merely to make him sound pretentious and disconnected from the rest of society. 


I agree that there are some drawbacks to distancing ourselves from books. For instance, on my flight to California for spring break, I was talking to one of the flight attendants during our layover, and she complained about how Kindles have made it more difficult for her to approach passengers to discuss their reading choices. And for the rest of us, how can we strike up a conversation about books in someone’s home if their books are no longer stored on shelves, but on their hard drive? 




But on the other hand, I like that Amazon can recommend titles to me or tell me when a book by a favored author is due to be released. Not having to rely on word-of-mouth makes it easier for me to find titles I want when I do not have hours to browse at the bookstore. I agree with Birket that the nature of reading and books is evolving away from our comfort zones, but that simply falls into the pattern of the book’s history. Literature is not static, and nor are its forms. Text originated on stone, then in a scroll, next in a book, and now on the internet.  I think what is even more important than the form our literature takes is society’s access to texts and their perception of those works. If we as a society do not want to lose reading as part of our culture, we must work harder to remove the pretentious stigma that has followed the book since its inception.


Works Cited

Cornell University. “Manuscript to Print: the Evolution of the Medieval Book.” 26 March 2010.

Free Library of Philadelphia. “History: Founding, 1889-1898.” 26 March 2010.

Getty Exhibitions. “The Making of a Medieval Book.”  26 March 2010.

Jones, Bruce. Manuscripts, Books, and Maps: the Printing Press and a Changing World. “The Development of Print Technology.” 30 Jan 1997. 26 March 2010.

Kreis, Steven. “The Printing Press.” The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History. 13 May 2004. 26 March 2010.

Thattai, Deeptha. “A History of Public Education in the United States.”  26 March 2010.

Truitt, Elly. Class Notes. History 203: The High Middle Ages, Bryn Mawr College. 2 Sept 2008, 28 Oct 2008.




Serendip Visitor's picture

Well put. Cannot be taken but

Well put. Cannot be taken but with the utmost seriousness due to the frank and intelligent writing. A weird thing to say, but I appreciate that this was written and that I have read it.

Anne Dalke's picture

Constructing a cultural commons

What you bring, to our newly discovered class-wide question of what it means to "read" in the internet age, is a wonderful historical account of the relatively recent emergence of books-as-we-know-and-love them. By placing Birkets' lament in historical perspective, you quite effectively limit its emotional punch. As you say, the history of "literature is not static, and nor are its forms .... what is even more important than the form our literature takes is society’s access to texts and their perception of those works."

I'll be recommending your essay both to TPB1988 (who laments the end of books)  and to aseidman (who is exploring alternative forms such as audiobooks and audio performances, and who has also called our "habit" of reading "elitist").

Let me also nudge you to a couple of next steps in the process you are tracing. First question: if form (and the pretensions which accompany it) matter so little, and access matters so much ... what would you say is the role of genre, or the theorizing of genre, in our thinking about the future of the book? Once form become ephemeral, is genre  nonsensical --or useless -- as a category for thinking-through-and-with? Second question: if the new forms that books are taking -- stored in Kindles or on the hard drives of our computers -- give us access as individuals to the texts, but prevent us (as your examples show) from accessing one another's reading experiences; if they, in other words, don't invite us into social conversations, then what is happening to the work that books have always done, as part of shaping not just individual subjectivity, but a shared culture?

I asked a similar question in response to your first paper, on the ways in which Bryn Mawr's Honor Code has been updated in response to internet activity, and altered to address on-line forums. I was inviting you then to think beyond what you called "our responsibility ... to our own thoughts, actions, and statements," to some sense of ourselves as members of a social group responsible for one another, and responsible -- on behalf not only of ourselves, but of the community of which we are members, and which we are working to uphold, "not only in the present, but also in the future"--for encouraging and enforcing acceptable behavior in one another. So let me ask you, again, to apply those questions to your current topic: to think about access not only in individual, but social terms. What "forms" might books take which would invite us all not only into the privitized reading experience, but into a shared sense of a cultural commons? (for starters, listen to Lewis Hyde...)