You are at a party displaying your natural wit and generally enjoying yourself. A young man/woman approaches you. They are wearing fashionably ugly glasses, a t-shirt with “I ♥ BOOKS” on it, and a shoulder bag featuring a print of a Penguin Classics cover. They exude a generally twee aura of the type you take pains to avoid; alas they have marked you for conversation.
You glance at the bottle of beer you have been drinking from and note its satisfying heft. Given the option you would gladly knock the approaching individual unconscious and quickly make a break for an exit, but sadly society deems this behaviour unacceptable. Cornered like this and given limited options by your culture in terms of courses of acceptable action to take, you begrudgingly accede to their attempts to engage you in conversation.
The chat begins and to your pleasant surprise it is not too excruciating, rattling along covering the topical issues of the day. Having covered religion and politics successfully you feel safe to enter the conversational minefield of popular culture. Your interlocutor asks which movies and music you enjoy and in turn tells you about their love of Wes Anderson. Things are beginning to go downhill. Rapidly. They list the various handsome sensitive singer song writers whom they adore and suggest you “check them out”. You inwardly vow to never do such a thing but take a mental note of all the names mentioned as forewarned is forearmed.
And then with crushing inevitability the moment arrives.Their mouth has begun to form the dreaded sentence. Suddenly you remember the weight of the bottle but it’s too late. The question has been asked, “Do you like books and reading?” Seems harmless enough? Okay let’s rephrase that: “Do you like DVDs and watching? Do you like mp3s and listening? ” Sounds a little vague and weird right? If asked this question I would assume my interlocutor was at least slightly unhinged. Why? Because a DVD or mp3 is a content delivery format. I have no particular affection for the disc itself rather the content which is on it. So if the DVD has Jaws on it I like it. If it has Jaws 2 on it I don’t. Because Jaws is a good movie and Jaws 2 is not. The content is what matters.
The same applies to books. To say I enjoy books suggest that I indiscriminately embrace them all which is just not true. There are books which reliably inform me or entertain me, which I enjoy, and there are books full of spurious nonsense or badly written prose, which I don’t, there are genres which I enjoy and genres which I avoid. Professing a love of books without discrimination seems overly inclusive to me for a medium which includes Mein Kampf and David Icke books. Not to say that the aforementioned mightn’t be read out of academic or morbid curiosity but certainly not because I “like” them. My interest in something doesn’t necessarily denote a like for the object of my interest. So do I like books? The answer would be it depends on which book. I am suspicious of anyone who says they love books without giving me the specifics.
I am also suspicious of people who inform me that they “adore the smell of old books”. Old books generally smell musty and dank. If you genuinely enjoy this type of aroma I suggest ripping the insulation out of your house and boring a few holes in your roof. That way after a few rain showers have soaked into the plasterwork your house will be filled entirely with that lovely musty old book smell.
Second hand books are great for many reasons, the primary ones for me being affordability, collectability or the feelings of intellectual superiority mixed with tenderness you get from deciphering the cack brained ramblings contained in the margins of scribbled notes of ill informed, self-important English lit and Philosophy undergraduates. I feel that questions such as “do you like books?” and the weird fetishisation of musty smelling books comes from the notion of books as pristine tomes of wisdom. In our culture, books are weirdly venerated without any distinction made between content.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand why such veneration occurs in places such as developing nations where books may be hard to get, but I am talking from a first world perspective where Amazon exists and there are at least six bookshops in walking distance from my house, and that’s not including all the charity shops which also deal in books. I guess the fetishisation of books probably stems from attitudes in place before the development of the printing press, when books were handmade labour intensive endeavours of high value written in monasteries by candlelight.
The ancient method of production not only ensured that books were worth a lot monetarily but also acted as a filter given that scribes were unlikely to spend their time laboriously crafting an illuminated manuscript containing the ancient equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey. As such publishing tended to be limited to the prestige texts of a culture containing the sum of the cultures knowledge. With the arrival of the printing press and the increase in their affordability, books gradually became more about entertainment, hence the emergence of the initially ridiculed novel.
While the book remained a format for important thoughts and ideas the floodgates opened and a multitude of genres and forms proliferated, varying wildly from each other in terms of content and quality, yet the aura of worthiness persisted, helped partly by patronising Victorian notions about the ‘improving’ effects of literature. Given that this epoch is commonly believed to have ended around 1912 it is strange that such archaic notions persist to this day.
The question is why? Personally I believe this comes down the performative aspects of human identity. The superficial understanding of books as being somehow connected to being “intellectual” makes associating oneself with these objects an announcement of one’s own intellectualism without the hard work of actually thinking. The pronouncement of loving books is sufficiently vague to allow pseuds a way of professing their “bookishness” and therefore their intelligence without the need to be specific, in other words it is a victory of form over content. Ditto for those musty book sniffers.
Please don’t infer from this rant that I don’t like books. I do but my likes are specific not general. I like books which I enjoy and dislike those I do not. Nor am I an advocate of Kindles and the like, as they don’t suit my reading purposes. I just dislike the mystification around books which results in idiotic utterances such as “do you like books and reading?”