Friday, August 13, 2010

Do Books Go To Heaven?

I usually read the Sunday New York Times with a lazy eye, dissecting the weddings and skimming the "Week in Review" before finally ending up at the Magazine. Sometimes the feature stories catch my attention, but this past week I was more intrigued by one of the magazine’s regular columns, Rob Walker's CONSUMED. His topic? Now that e-book sales are rising, and electronic readers are increasingly prevalent, we’re facing a culture in which the physical book , in its traditional context, might become obsolete. However, he says, don’t cart them to the dumpster just yet – there are many possibilities for reincarnation in other areas of life.

For me, this is a disturbing thesis, not least because I work in publishing and saying the word "e-book" is akin to uttering "Macbeth" in front of a troop of actors at rehearsal. As I've discussed on this blog before, I am very attached to my books; as tangible objects they are beautiful in their own way, but they also hold a deeper significance. Arranged on my shelves, they are anchors of memory, testaments to knowledge, milestones of my life. And so Rob Walker’s edict --"set aside any emotional attachment you may feel toward the reading of physical books; the truth is that creative uses for books that do not involve engaging with words on a page already abound" -- is deeply jarring.

However, I know that people’s feelings towards books qua books vary. In his article, Walker references Nicholson Baker’s New Yorker essay about books as physical objects (highly recommended reading), which traces their role as socio-cultural signifiers: “aspirational” people have been ordering books by the foot for centuries in order to fill their library shelves, so it’s not that much of a surprise that stacks of older books are sold as decorating accessories, their value based on what’s outside rather than in.

Though I don't agree with Walker's pronouncement that we're in a "post-book" culture (i.e., that attachment of any kind to physical books is démodé) I do think it is important to draw a distinction between the use of books as “props” – to reinforce an image – and the repurposing of them to perform some other function. Buying old books on eBay by the stack to enhance a décor theme, to impart a fabricated air of lived-in intellectualism, is not the same as taking one with a particularly beautiful cover, or with a title of specific significance, and repurposing it as a

Perhaps this is an irrational view for me to hold, but I feel the latter is a more genuine and respectful afterlife; the book is being appreciated in and of itself as a physical object, and its symbolic representation is a reflection of its owner’s values. It is a celebration of books and what they add to our existence; carrying a book clutch suggests that you are a book lover who wants to outwardly manifest your interest. On the other hand, occupying the bookcases in your new sitting room with bundles of color-cordinated books you bought on Etsy is not quite the same. It sullies them by demanding their complicity in a falsehood; rather than celebrating them, it is using them as a means to achieve your own aggrandizement.

Having said this, I would still feel uncomfortable taking a hacksaw to a book in pursuit of a purse, or a bonsai planter, or a lamp, or one of the many other things people are making out of books these days. I must confess, though, that I am tempted to take a big stack and punch an awl through them all every time I go into
McNally-Jackson and see the ceiling in their cafe. Wouldn't that just be awesome to have in your bedroom?


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