Book users

Are we users or readers? Is thinking of users too dehumanizing for the work we do? Why are words so hard?

You might have noticed that in these newsletters I rarely refer to readers, but rather to book users. It’s something I’ve done pretty consistently since I started studying bibliography and book history. Here’s the explanation for this terminology that I wrote in Studying Early Printed Books:

This focus on bibliography is also why I refer to a book’s users rather than to its readers. Books are certainly read, but there are many types of reading—browsing, memorizing, reading for pleasure, reading for work. And there are many things you can do with books other than read them—you can write in them, take them apart, display them, share them, and throw them away. All of these uses are part of how we experience books and part of what we should consider when we study them.

It’s been a useful habit of mind, for me and for my students, and I believe strongly in its utility. For the almanacs I’ve been writing about, “use” is a much better verb to use than “read.” Do you read an almanac? I mean, yes, parts of it, but that doesn’t nearly encompass the full range of things you do with an almanac. 

I think this is true even of the most recent book I’ve bought, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House. I bought the book in paper even though I do most of my pleasure reading as ebooks because I anticipated that the type of reading I wanted to do with it would be better served that way—the way the pieces are laid out on the page, my imagined desire to be able to return to it again. That’s about reading, but it’s also about use, especially because I bought it about a month ago and it’s still sitting on my dresser, waiting for me to pick it up and begin. And relevant here is that there are tons of books I buy that I don’t read and that get shelved away, sometimes pulled out, sometimes not. My decision to place In the Dream House on my dresser—not even on my bedside table!—suggests I’m getting something from having it visibly in view. Does talking about me as this book’s reader capture the full range of activities encompassed in my relationship to this unread object? Or am I instead that book’s user, someone who derives meaning from it even though I have not read it?

But recently I came across something that gave me pause.

In Robin Sloan’s most recent missive, he talks about a new book by Joanne McNeil, Lurking: How A Person Became A User:

Lurking by Joanne McNeil, out soon, is something truly new: a nonfiction book about the way it feels, and has felt, to use the internet. Its subtitle is How a Person Became a User: a quietly radical observation. There have been plenty of books about those users we all became: business books, policy books, how-to guides for digital designers. Joanne’s great contribution is to locate and celebrate the people we, the angsty wanderers in cyberspace, still remain. People finding their way to AOL message boards for the first time; people lying in their beds with their laptops open on their bellies; people migrating from one flawed platform to the next. In a memorable passage, Joanne writes:

In this book, I use the word “lurking” only in a positive context. Lurking is listening and witnessing on the internet, rather than opining and capturing the attention of others.

I know there are many lurkers receiving this newsletter. Thank you: for being people, whole people, not just “users.” Thank you for listening. Thank you for witnessing.

I actually love the idea of thinking about lurking in terms of books, but what made me pause was the opposition of users and people.

Do we lose something by thinking about people as users of books rather than readers? Is “users” in this context opposed to “people”?

McNeil’s book is focused on the internet, not the book. Although, really, since I think talking about “the book” is ridiculous since books take so many forms and have so many histories, shouldn’t I also be talking about “internets” here? Let’s try that again. 

McNeil’s book is focused on internets, not books. And as such, her eye is on how we are online and how platforms and companies have shaped and reshaped online communities. (Again, I haven’t read her book yet because it’s not actually on sale until tomorrow, February 25th, but this is my sense from reading her introduction and conversations around it.) From that point of view, there’s a clear sense that “users” might be distinct from “people.” They’re definitely distinct from “developers” and lord knows that developers don’t always fully anticipated how their products will be used, often because they haven’t fully anticipated how their imagined users are fully fledged human beings, complete with all their unruly desires and offbeat behaviors.

So although I’m tempted to say I don’t need to worry about “users” instead of “readers” in my context, this was still a wake-up call that “user” carries connotations that might not always be helpful for my purposes. I can’t really think of a better word, so I’m going to keep talking about a book’s users, but I’m also going to be more aware of how to convey that those users are people in the past and present, with lives that we know and don’t know and a messiness that is humanity.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on users and readers and the language we (or you!) use to describe who consumes books and how we do it. Substack has recently introduced discussion threads for all newsletter subscribers, so let’s take advantage of it! How do you refer to the people who interact with the books you study?

Some notes

I started thinking in terms of book use thanks to conversations with Bill Sherman and then his 2009 book, Used Books: Marking Readers in Renaissance England (Penn Press, 2009). He, in turn, credits another work that I have found invaluable in thinking about book use, Carla Mazzio and Bradin McCormack’s Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700 (U Chicago Library, 2005). Sherman’s book is easy to find; Mazzio and McCormack’s is less so, but I highly recommend it.

Robin Sloan’s infrequent newsletter is always a delight; you can sign up on his website. You might think of him primarily as the author of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and he is, but if that is your main association with him, you’re missing the wide-ranging interest he has in technologies of all sorts and just his general curiosity and kindness toward the world.

Joanne McNeil’s book, Lurking, is out from Farrar, Strauss and Girous on February 25th and I’m looking forward to reading it. You can check out her introduction, which coincidentally starts off by talking about a used book and is making me think at the moment about book history as lurking. Really. Go read it.

Finally, I’m hoping that maybe having discussion threads will create a community here where we can learn from each other. I miss the days of blog comments! But I in no way miss the ways in which discussion threads can turn into hostile places. So I reserve full rights to delete anything that isn’t on-topic, that harrasses other commenters, or that is mean-spirited or racist or sexist or transphobic or ablist. It’s my home and I’m happy to invite you in and am eager to talk with you. But I keep my home a place of love, so those are my rules.

ps—I took that picture of a pen-and-ink facsimile infill of a book I saw at the University of Glasgow a few years ago, and for the life of me, I cannot now find my notes on what it is. I have them somewhere, but just can’t be bothered. I’m sorry. But not that sorry.

Thanks and see you soon!

I really hadn’t meant for a month to slip by, but maybe that’s a sign that posts every 3 to 4 weeks is the schedule my brain wants to do. We’ll see.

In the meantime, use your books, read your books, and mind your p’s and q’s!