Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When Design Trumps Worth

Oh, look what's making a comeback: the book.

 The idea of curling up with a good book has increasingly come to mean flipping on an e-reader, not flipping through the pages of a leather-bound novel in a book-lined room.  
Yet the home library is on the rise, having become something of a cerebral status symbol. Affluent homeowners are buying quality books in quantity to amass collections for private personal libraries. These rooms are as much aesthetic set pieces and public displays of intelligence as they are quiet spaces to reflect and retreat. Some people are also seeking the services of experts to help pull together notable collections or to advise on the look, feel and content of their home libraries.
The Journal also provides us with a handy table spelling out what various book holdings say about the owner:
A first-octavo set of John James Audubon's 'Birds of America' The equivalent of owning a Damien Hirst spot painting. 
Anything by Charles Dickens Says: 'I really do read books.' Extra points if displaying 'Barnaby Rudge.'' 
A Visit From the Goon Squad' by Jennifer Egan Owner is confident enough to display pop fiction, and likely reads it, too. 
'The Hunger Games' by Suzanne Collins Says: 'I am very current with what the kids are into,' for better or for worse.
Darwin's father used to work at a bookstore. Occasionally people would come in and want to buy "five feet of books" to fill an amount of shelf space. It didn't matter what was in the books, as long as they looked good.

The fetishization of personal libraries reminds me of Amy Welborn's recent decision to homeschool as a corrective to the increasingly common experience of "going to school" as an institutional experience rather than an educational one.
But, that wasn’t my point. 
My point was that I have been doing the – (deep breath)  – school supplies  - does your uniform fit? – your teacher wants what? we just bought all the school supplies – book covers? Why do we have to do bookcovers?  - welcome to our SCHOOL FAMILY –  parent/teacher meeting – beginning of the year orientation – parent/teacher conferences – giftwrap sales – please return these papers signed on Tuesdays – please return THESE papers signed on Mondays – I have to find an article for music class – but I get extra credit if you go to the PTO meeting! – make an adobe model out of sugar cubes – is your field trip shirt the green one or the blue one? – yes, I signed your planner – wait,don’t throw that away, we need the box tops – SCHOOL FAMILY – you need a check for what? – do you have hot lunch today or not? – candygrams – wait, is it a jeans day today – boosterthon? Try not to run too many laps, okay?  - please send cupcakes/cookies/goldfish but NO PEANUTS – POSTERBOARD – SCHOOL FAMILY.- thing for twenty-five (25) years.

Books, education: what is valuable about them is subjugated to the ephemera of institutionalizing them.

Lost in all this designer wonder over the decorating potential and interpretive power of the book is the reason that books exist: to disseminate knowledge. To entertain. To broaden the horizons of a reader's mind, to put him in situations that he might never encounter on his own, to confront him with choices and their consequences and make him ask, "Was this right? What would I do?" All of this can be accomplished without a custom-designed jacket, a multi-prong marketing campaign, or a personal reading room. It also can be accomplished without the book itself, as the boom of e-readers attests, but that's throwing out the baby with the bathwater. There is immense value in the book itself -- in the discernment of acquisition ("Do I need to own this, or just check it out? Is there enough room on my shelves? Would I read it more than once?"), in the act of possession, in the care required to store a physical repository of knowledge, in the tactile experience of reading. A beautiful binding can elevate this tactile experience, but it can't transform poor text into brilliant writing. A library is only worth the ideas it embodies.


The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I read that whole post in dread of finding out what the Opinionated library (homeschooling wing) said about its keepers.

Clare said...

Last year we had a really interesting lecture at my school's rare books library, on first editions of the Brontes: how bindings and display and typeface changed, and how they reflected changes in readings and opinions of the texts. You would have liked it a lot.

Lauren said...

Since I'm in the book conservation field, I've been hearing that I will soon be out of business because books are going to all be digital. I agree that people will be buying fewer books in the future. However, I think book owners will come to value those few books they own more. They will buy fewer physical books, but the books they buy will be higher quality and more expensive. This trend bodes well for my business. If someone cherishes their few special books they will be more willing for spend the money for conservation.

Foxfier said...

Bingo, Lauren.

Ebooks are kind of like having a really, really, REALLY well stocked library that's right next door. You don't feel the NEED to buy as many impulse/enjoyment/popcorn books.

Enbrethiliel said...


Home libraries as status symbols? I can totally see that! And I'm sure there are minor precedents. (A friend of mine mentioned a neighbour who belonged to a mail-order "book club" that sent her a beautifully bound classic each month . . . so she could display it on a shelf but never read it.) But why does this particular story remind me of the "deleted scene" from Fahrenheit 451 in which Montag finds out that another fireman owns a huge collection of books, which the latter allows himself to keep because he never reads them?

I've seen some shades of this in the book blogging community as well. There are weekly blog events in which people can take pictures of their new books and share them with others. And there is the unfortunately named "shelf p*rn," which shows off entire collections. But I had thought this was just greedy book bloggers going wild . . . not just a frivolous symptom of something much larger.