Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture

From scrolls to iPads, literature may change its form but its importance endures, says Tara Brabazon

October 7, 2010

It is energising to read a monograph that slots book history into popular culture. Too often, the book is a handmaiden for white-gloved sweetness and light and the saviour of civilisation, while television (or Lady Gaga or World of Warcraft or Facebook) is a contagion of intellectual decay. It takes courage to avoid the easy categories, labels and solutions to understand volatile social and scholarly problems. Jim Collins is leading us to this new academic landscape.

There have been many attempts to incorporate, enmesh and reconfigure popular culture in the academy. In the early 1990s, I enrolled on a fascinating course called "Popular literature and culture". It was a tortured beast. This was the academic moment of Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, Jean Baudrillard and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Everyone wore black turtlenecks and Doc Marten shoes and frowned a lot. Their attitude to simple words like truth and reality was as bitter as their espressos. There was a reason for the gum-shrivelling coffee and the proto-Botox furrowed brows: meaning, difference and consciousness were stretched, probed and attacked.

At the end of the course, it felt like my brain had been put through a spin cycle. My great teachers attempted to show how book culture and popular culture align, disconnect and dialogue. The course did not necessarily work in terms of mappable learning outcomes and generic competencies. Instead, the intellectual development for the hardy souls who taught and enrolled in that semester was the academic equivalent of a trip to Blackpool. Eating candyfloss on a roller coaster is not a convenient or clean experience. But the messiness creates anxious fun and sticky confusion.

Too often popular culture and books are separated institutionally and intellectually. Even my first-year students at Brighton wonder why the second week of their "Thinking pop" module focuses on scrolls, books, reading and writing cultures. They want iPods, iPads, big hair, strange clothes, blinking screens and dubstep. I explain that on the way to dubstep, we dance over books as a foundational platform for content. They get the idea, but it takes a semester to convince them.

My task will be much easier now that I have read the "killer app" for popular cultural studies. Jim Collins' Bring on the Books for Everybody manages two difficult topics that have inhibited the field. First, there is a desperate need for books and articles that create a continuum between old and new media, analogue and digital. Second, teachers and students require research that investigates the concept of cultural value with rigour, discipline and energy.

One of the consequences of Web 2.0 is that interrogations of cultural value have been lost in petulant and unproductive words such as "interactivity", "participation" and the coma-inducing "prosumer". We needed a book that would serve us as well as John Frow's Cultural Studies and Cultural Value (1995) and Collins has accomplished this task.

His argument is structured into three parts: the new infrastructure of reading, the literary experience in visual cultures and popular literary fiction. He maps the changes to book culture in the US during the past decade.

Importantly for academics who teach and research, Collins shows the relationship between them. The intellectual architecture for this book was built in Collins' classroom. He wanted to address "my presuming to teach my students anything about contemporary literature without taking superstores, blockbuster film adaptations and television book clubs into account, not just as symptoms of the current state of the culture industry but as the sites, delivery systems and forms of connoisseurship that form the fabric of a popular literary culture". He reveals that after the postmodern "moment", the result was not a rise of postmodern fiction but a radical reconfiguration of reading in digitised environments. This monograph was written before the release of the iPad, but Collins considers the Kindle wireless reading device along with the social impact of downloading a book. He combines literary, visual and material cultures to understand the contemporary media economy.

Screens have transformed reading, and this new context has given Collins a clear project: "how do we begin to get a handle on this robust literary culture fuelled by such a complicated mix of technology and taste, of culture and commerce?" Literary experiences are now part of popular culture, with adaptations of novels by Miramax, Sony Picture Classics, Fine Line and Focus Features creating a wave of "cine-bibliophilia". Collins probes why particular books are turned into films and how this process frames new reading cultures.

He even explains The English Patient. I cannot help but recommend any work of scholarship that shows why viewers of a certain age are devoted to the long, dull, tortuous (excuse me while I eat my own elbow in boredom) film adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's 1992 novel. And any writer who uses anthropologist Arjun Appadurai's "regimes of value" to enact that explanation gains a special award for degree of difficulty.

In addition to his exploration of this new media economy, Collins peppers the project with a key secondary argument: "the radical devaluation" of "taste brokers", which includes academics. He refers to "the discredit of the academy and empowering amateur readers" and suggests that consumerism is no longer a "sin" that undermines authentic reading experiences. Cultural authority has changed, with Amazon, Apple, the US bookstore chain Barnes & Noble and Oprah's Book Club offering alternative sources of information to the "French theory" moment.

The empowerment of the amateur reader is enabled through new delivery systems and sources of information. Remarkable and prescient studies of the "reading formation" by cultural theorist Tony Bennett have enfolded into Collins' "reading communities". The pleasures of reading are created through - rather than against - new relationships with consumerism. Book clubs matter in this story. Oprah becomes "the national librarian" and Barnes & Noble provides commercialised public education through such "services" as its Meet the Writers podcast series.

An even more subtle and productive analysis undergirds these major arguments about the media economy and the transformation of cultural value. This book discusses new forms of popular education outside schools and universities. Who to trust for guidance and advice about reading choices is now a matter of debate, caused by the mash-up of 19th-century assumptions about "individual genius" and the realities of 21st-century digital storage devices.

This is not a monograph describing old and new media (again). It investigates how talent, taste, pleasure and leisure are building new reading cultures through innovative delivery systems as authors appear on television, in web chats and are followed on Twitter.

Through all these changes, innovations and revisions, this is a book about why books matter. It is written in a way that offers a masterclass for researchers in constructing scholarly monographs that are accessible, quirky, different and defiant.

To use an Australianism, this book "issa bloody beaudy". Buy it. Borrow it. Download it. Now. It is a book that we will remember where we were when we we first read it. This is a game-changer for popular cultural studies, media studies and the new humanities.


Jim Collins is professor in the department of film, television and theatre at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a concurrent professor of English and teaches popular narrative, film, digital culture and postmodernism.

Author of Uncommon Cultures: Popular Culture and Post-Modernism and Architecture of Excess: Cultural Life in the Information Age, he edited High-Pop: Making Culture into Popular Entertainment and co-edited Film Theory Goes to the Movies.

He received the 2010 Sheedy Excellence in Teaching Award, and credits his win to his passion for drawing students into conversation. "I encourage my students to interrogate their relationship with the media-saturated world that surrounds them," he says. "When you introduce different ways of looking critically at what seems so familiar, a kind of pedagogical spontaneous combustion can occur - and it's those golden moments that are the most rewarding. I have no interest in simply downloading information."

Bring on the Books for Everybody: How Literary Culture Became Popular Culture

By Jim Collins

Duke University Press

312pp, £64.00 and £15.99

ISBN 9780822345886 and 46067

Published 17 September 2010

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