Friday, June 4, 2010

The writing on the wall (or maybe it'll look better on the mantlepiece...)

By Russel D McLean

I don't know - I really don't - whether to be amused or worried by this.

Yes, books as decoration.

I worry that its not just the books that are becoming decoration. I am no technophobe, but I have to wonder if the way we use the new technology lends itself so well to long, complex and attention-demmanding storytelling. Can we really read a novel length work on a device that allows us to switch within seconds to some other distraction? I'm writing this post with six windows open, all doing different things. I have research windows, story windows, email windows, and this blog... and I'm jumping between them all as I write this post. Fracturing my thoughts.

Would I be able to understand a full length novel working this way?

I don't think so. Not with the same depth of understanding, anyway.

Just as worrying in the article is this quote:

"I understand there are interior decorators who will choose books for you – you don't have to read them, look at them or even put them on the shelf."

The idea - one that always worries me - of books as status symbols, of texts that one hasn't read but has chosen to say something about the reader's personality, is horrific. And yet that is where we are heading. Because books are seen as "important" in the worst possible way, it says enough to own a book rather than to have read it. To be seen with it rather than to know it.

When people come into my house, they often ask, "have you really read all these books?"

I reply, "yes, more or less," and if I haven't, then I'm going to. Because its not having the books that's important, but its the reading them, the interacting with them, the joining in of the private conversation between text and reader that really matters to me. I have books because I love to read. And its not some fancy intellectual thing either; I love books in the same way I love movies, and even some computer games. Its about the narrative, the reaction and interaction between the entertainment itself and the person being entertained.

I sometimes think we have forgotten what books are and how to use them, how to interact with them. They are not indicators of intelligence, neccesarily. They are a means of communication. They can be entertainment.

Overhearing a parent talking to their child the other day, they said, "books are what make you smart."

No, I thought. Books are something fun. Books are a way into another world. Don't tell the child "books will make you smart" because that's not a compelling argument and its what's got us into this situation in the first place, where books can be a status symbol or mere decoration designed to make us think something about the owner that is not neccesarily true.

I love books and I buy books because they remain the ideal method of telling a certain type of story. And the idea of them being mere decoration is a mockery of the very reasons they were written in the first place.


Anonymous said...

You mean like coffee table books already? That's nothing new.

Ebooks will likely be a dominant format in the near future, but they won't be the only format.

I do see hardcovers becoming luxury items and going the way of coffee table books. But then I don't like hardcover. It's hard to transport, inconvenient to read on public transportation, and grossly overpriced.

But trade and mass market paperbacks will like fill a sizeable chunk of the book buying market, mainly because they're already convenient and somewhat disposable. (Every Stephen King novel I've bought from Half Price disintegrated before I finished it. Moral? I have The Shining on ebook and will likely by a fresh copy of The Dead Zone.)

Jerry House said...

I cringe when I see those "decorator" lamps with bases made of books with holes drilled through them.

And don't get me started on those remodeling/decluttering reality tv shows with a designer/life coach/psychopath telling the hapless homeowner they have too many books. ("If you will get rid of this wall of books, I will GIFT you a BEAUTIFUL dining room set that is so cheaply made that it will begin to fall apart after two months and the EPA will declare this room a hazardous waste site within six months!")

It's all part of what I see as the shallowing of the American soul.

See? You're not the only one who can rant.

Steve Weddle said...

Baker had a nice piece in 95 about this.

Also, wasn't there a part in Gatsby about some dude having books as decoration and he hadn't even cut the pages?

John McFetridge said...

Wasn't it popular for Victorians to buy books by the "foot" of shelf space they took up?

But I do think you're right, the experience reading on a device is different than the experience of reading a print book. Someone recently compared reading a print version of a book and reading on his iPad and the distractions were the biggest difference; check a little mail, look at a blog, get some news, watch that goal form last night's game again, back to the book, a little more email...

I see e-books and reading on a device as a whole new medium - a whole new market - that's eventually going to develop its own content different from books.

And I think books will continue pretty much as they are.

Ron Earl Phillips said...

With the way I buy books, they are practically becoming decorative. My purchases surpass my consumption. Always something new to look forward too.

I cringe too when I see books becoming art. I saw on a fellow's blog displaying art pieces made up of cut up book pages and framed. I didn't see the appeal. :\

Then again, I go to book stores and see stacks upon stacks of bargain hardbacks that will never ever get sold entirely. Eventually returned and pulped. That makes me sad too.

I need more book cases.

Scott D. Parker said...

As with everything, self-discipline comes into play when reading, no matter the medium. I can sit with a paperback in front of the TV and watch the game and read the book, looking up every 20 seconds or so to check the score. Likewise, I can read a book on my iPod Touch and check a score/news on the browser every 20 seconds or so if I wanted to. I comes down to discipline. If you want to read sans distractions, do it. Granted, reading on an electrical device connected to the internet makes it easier to go down a rabbit hole researching some word/phrase/concept in the book but you can still refrain.

I'm with Ron: most of the books on my shelf are decorative since I kept buying them at a higher rate than I was reading them. I have my Oxford Dickens collection on display but I've yet to read a one. Why? Dunno.

I'm already getting to a point where hardbacks are not my favorite medium. Give me paperbacks, trades, digital, or audio. Yes, it's about ease of use. So what? I still absorb the story.

I also agree with John: books will continue with digital media alongside, just as CDs and MP3s are now.

Erin said...

Your comment about the difficulties of reading on a device that can do many other things struck a chord with me. I've seen a number of people claiming that the Kindle, nook, etc will never be able to compete with the iPad because they can only be used for reading. I tend to reply "I don't want an iPad. I just want a device where I can carry my books and read easily."

Another trend I'm really concerned about is the tendency of people to claim that anyone who reads certain books isn't "good enough." I've seen this a lot in part because I happen to have enjoyed the Twilight series. No, I don't consider it a literary masterpiece, but that's not what I was looking for. When I read it, I was looking for something that would entertain me, and that I would enjoy. For me, it accomplished that purpose. It's not the only thing I read, by far, but it's a good "candy" read that made me happy while I read it.

The idea that the books you read have to hit a certain level of literary merit in order to avoid scrutiny from others is very disappointing, and in some ways, leads to the decrease in people reading. I read because I find it fun. I want my daughter to read because I want her to enjoy it as well. Sure, I think that reading will eventually make her smarter, but that's just not the goal.

Erin said...

Oh, and reading the article you linked to...

""Like it or not, books really do harken back to an older time," said Donata Maggipinto..."

Harken? Really?

Anonymous said...

I don't care what format people read as long as they read.
I'm a traditionalist, I like real (versus electronic) books. I like something that needs no battery, it can be dropped and still functions, and works inany country.
I like something that works in a blackout (with my trusty torch/flashlight).

Yes "books as decor" is not a new concept, but it is one worth bringing up, especially as our bookstore downsize, laying off long-term employees to be replacedwith wage-slaves who only need to work the till. And with the ever-growing threat to our libraries, less money and less books.

What's worrying me is the downturn in readers and reading. The Great Depression saw library memberships skyrocket, this depression has seen no such thing.

Books as decor/luxury/shorthand-to-personality-device doesn't worry me, lack of readers does.