Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, May 1, 2017

book fetishism


Here’s a passage from an essay in the Guardian about the decline of e-books and the revival of the book’s fortunes:

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback.... “The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” [James] Daunt [of Waterstone’s] says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”

And that something interesting is likely to gain traction on #bookstagram, a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

Got that? Now look at this:

Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.

The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.

When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500.

Minujin created a similar Parthenon in Argentina in 1983 (see photo above).

As John Overholt commented on Twitter, “It's very dramatic but I'm not sure that's the most effective use of 100,000 books.”

What both stories illustrate is a curious recent movement to transform books into fetishes. They are to be touched, smelled, lovingly photographed, made into art, laden with immense and complex symbolic value. Is there anything that people don't do with them? I can think of one thing.

I wonder if we could be headed for a division — or an intensification of a division that already exists — between people who love books and people who love reading. I imagine a house filled with beautiful books, books lining walls, books displayed with apparently careless elegance on tables, in which the only actual reading is being done by a child with a beat-up discarded Kindle who has learned how to download from Project Gutenberg.

12 comments:

  • Props to anyone who knows what I'm riffing on in the last sentence of the post.

  • I think there's something to what you're saying. I also think you're reliably a bit sensitive on the topic of ebooks.

  • Freddie, I have to agree. But sensitive in the best possible way.

  • This comment has been removed by the author.
  • Book buyers and readers have made the entirely rationale decision that, by and large, printed books are better than digital ones. The fetishization of the book, which I'm not convinced is a recent movement, is largely a media sideshow. But, by conjuring up the image of a "beat-up discarded Kindle" in the hands of a child, you may have started a new trend: the fetishization of the e-reader.

  • Nick, I was hoping not to be so obvious ...

  • Of course, it's long been known that books do furnish a room.

  • This comment has been removed by the author.
  • Treasure Island through a cracked, second gen. iPad perhaps?

  • I am fairly certain you are referencing the Lewis quote about the young boy reading treasure island upstairs.

    This presents several more issues. I started buying ebooks because I couldn't afford enough physical books to keep up with my reading habit. Now since they are essentially equal: I choose physical books, because you can share them, and I want something I can pass to my children. The mass market paperback of "Gunslinger" I've read six times isn't going to make it to my daughters inheritance. There are some books I want her to have. For that to be possible I have to buy nicely bound hardcopies of those books. I am glad that there are companies willing to undertake this task, but when the book is art instead of a book, it gets even more expensive than is necessary for someone who just wants to pass a book down to his children. Digital books are impervious to dust and sunlight and worms, but I'm not entirely sure how you pass them down. This sea change in the book market is a double edged sword. We need the art-fools to keep the industry alive, and that makes it more expensive which hurts the reading-fools. It seems we're headed for a ditch, I'm just not sure which side of the road it's on.

  • The last line is the one that hit me (I didn't know what it referenced) because I've always thought that books will never disappear simply because kids love books so much. Children's books slow down the world for them and are one of the first encounters with technology in which they can gain control over a medium, at a pace that other multimedia does not offer. The art is a part of the message, and the bond between child and parent is unmatched.

  • Love the nuanced reference to C.S. Lewis' Experiment in Criticism.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]