I have just been re-reading Pamela Schultz Nybacka’s Bookonomy: The Consumption Practice and Value of Book Reading. In it, she coins a new term, “bookonomy” as an “alternative mode of economy that belongs specifically within the area of books and reading.” As Katz-Gerro (2004) showed, the concept of cultural consumption is typically linked to theories of production, cultural acquisition, cultural policy, and cultural identity. Nybacka takes the discussion in an alternative direction, exploring the act of reading as an economic act rather than a primarily cultural one.
Through ethnographic and other critical methodologies, she explores how readers and the society they inhabit value books and their consumption (in other words: books and reading). The range of content she collects and discusses is impressive and includes (all from Sweden) 3 reading groups, 2 groups of audiobook listeners, a group of middle-aged friends who sometimes read, a group of mothers and a group of metal workers. She interviews the groups and the individuals and interestingly asks them to draw their responses to some of the questions. These drawings form an impressive part of the book, and Nybacka’s readings of these visual responses are often provocative, grounded in discussions with the participants and informed by wider discourse.
In this case, if reading when lying down entails laying the head to rest, then most important of all, reading emerges as a way of delaying (de-laying) the ‘person’ within the body. In that way, it is easy to understand the ancient Greeks’ opposition to reading, as they held subjectivation in high regard and saw reading as imposing on personal integrity (cf. Chapter VII). Again, with Klossowski, “[E]very human being can lie down, but it lies down because it is certain that it will always remain the same, and that it will be able to get back up or change position.” (Ibid. 28) In order to accept lying down to read, one must be certain that one can get up and compose oneself again. (367)
The result of the empirical work is a complex portrait of reading across a wide spectrum of readers (and non-readers), but also an intricate study of the sources of value that people find (or do not find) in books and in reading. The second-to-last chapter, “The Art and Logic of Reading Practices” brings the material together comprehensively, tying threads together to build this complex tapestry, but also leaving the loose strands to fly in the wind—resisting easy summations.
The economy of reading is redefined as a consummation, not consumption. In comparison to music, or to oral presentations,
reading is a consumption activity, but that activity could best be described as an organized practice of consummation. It makes it possible to summon up, organize and take part of that surplus which was not consumed in the first place. Moreover, script is not consumed or
used up in reading. The same words can be read or consumed many times, and by many.(376)
In this section of the book, Nybacka redefines reading and books. “When reading had fallen silent, the words were no longer just tasted upon, as in oral reading, but also ingested” (377). In this consummation economy, their value shifts dramatically, created through a multitude of practice logics which intersect in the place of the book itself. The subjects of the book, readers and non-readers alike, illustrate that to read is to forget, but it is also to engage, distribute and create. The bookonomic value is this engagement with a practice which produces and distributes as it consumes, and does so in ways other cultural practices cannot.