Weep and read it

Books: the must-have accessory of the well-heeled set.


James Poniewozik
November 11, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

"As a matter of fact you needn't bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They're real."

"The books?"

He nodded.

"Absolutely real -- have pages and everything. I thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard ... See!" he cried triumphantly. "It's a bonafide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too -- didn't cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?"

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"

Fitzgerald, who knew a thing or two about the appearance of respectability, wasn't just characterizing Jay Gatsby when he described the Gothic library in that party scene at West Egg. That Gatsby astutely stopped at cutting his costly books to separate the pages -- indicating that they had never been read -- didn't simply show that he didn't need to read them: It showed that he knew his guests wouldn't care to crack them either.

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And 70 years later, books remain America's favorite furniture, a reliable shorthand in the post-Greed Decade media and the marketplace for prosperity enhanced by taste, for the good life in both senses of the word good: A handsome library shows not only that you have income to dispose of but that you deserve it. So books decorate shelter catalogs, populate the fantasy worlds of Myst and Riven -- and now, like cigars, even have their own mass-market glossy. The premiere issue of Book: The Magazine for the Reading Life (October-November) carefully positions itself about two notches on the sexiness dial past Publishers Weekly, offering features, by veterans of high-profile magazines, on book-group dynamics, Hollywood book adaptations and cover stars such as Tom Wolfe and book-club patron saint Wally Lamb.

But maybe the most interesting thing about the new magazine is its well-chosen title. For while it may never be easy to make reading itself sexy, books as objects have been one of consumer culture's steamiest fetishes for years. Starbucks serves them up with the cinnamon and half-and-half; hipsters pose with them in MasterCard commercials; talk show hosts plug them for respectability; Coca-Cola plans to package novel excerpts in boxes of Diet Coke; and when ABC wanted us to love Ellen DeGeneres, in her sitcom's early, heterosexual days as a "Friends" homage, it put her in that '90s ur-setting, a bookstore-cafe.

This commercial vogue, though, draws on an old literary tradition of totemizing the book. There are people who love reading and then there are the Book People, and while they certainly overlap -- and I say this as a squinty-eyed ex-English major with volumes littering my floor -- the latter group has given the rest of us cause to run screaming out of quaint, intimate bookstores for eons. I'm talking here not about publishers or authors or antiquarians per se but about that particular subset of reader and writer that annually pollutes the Arts and Leisure pages around New York Is Book Country fair time with swollen gas bubbles about rainy days and madeleines; about "mustiness" and "heft" and sitting cross-legged in overstuffed chairs; about some dotty, inspirational aunt and her wondrous, tome-laden attic.

This appropriation of books as props for one's Merchant-Ivorized reveries ultimately does the image of reading little good, tending as it does to tar literacy as a sure sign that one is going to will the house to the cats. And Book the magazine occasionally indulges itself in such purple flights of bibliophilia, as in a feature on the Seattle store Elliott Bay Book Co.: "The soft, diffuse light, the creaky wood floors ... You don't come to Elliott Bay to browse: You come to lose yourself in the kingdom of books." But if the approach is regrettable, it's certainly understandable, given that it should appeal best to those most willing to shell out at the book chains where the magazine is nationally distributed.

America's revitalized bibliophilia has fueled a subgenre of books about reading, from Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life" to the influx of how-to guides for reading groups. Appropriately, Book chooses for one of its first interview subjects Anna Quindlen, who in her new Library of Contemporary Thought minibook, "How Reading Changed My Life" (Ballantine), puts the overemoted prose that she honed in her New York Times "Public and Private" column into the service of giving literacy a bad name.

From Quindlen's E. B. Browning epigraph ("Books, books, books!") to her opening childhood reminiscence -- complete with big comfy club chair, with mother grousing that "it's a beautiful day" out and, yes, a neighbor woman with a basement full of old books with "that ... sweet dusty smell" -- we know that we are trapped in the library of horrors with a true Book Person.

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When Quindlen manages to shake off the high of old-book scent, she gets off some insights into the schizophrenic American attitude toward reading and offers an interesting defense of reading less-than-great books. But Quindlen ends up, her title notwithstanding, not so much praising reading as sentimentalizing books, which she does with gushy gusto in a closing section on that reliable bugaboo, the computer. Quindlen sniffs that the dissemination of a Danish children's book for free on the Internet "exemplified the greatest fears of those who love children's literature." But why, exactly? The Web posting, after all, meant that a book that would otherwise have been snuffed entirely was published -- a point that Quindlen later notes in passing. The "fear" she identifies is really not for literature at all but for her self-identified "clan of the book," the comfy chair and her childhood memories.

Quindlen makes her case with a desperation ("It is not possible that the book is over") and gushiness ("A laptop is portable, but not companionable") out of all proportion to the real lack of urgency. As almost anyone not shilling an e-book IPO will readily admit, there's little chance of our kissing off the book anytime soon. We've invested too much in its sentimental iconography. For politicians, books are a new, improved baby to kiss at election time, universally loved and spittle-free. New Yorkers have watched Rudy Giuliani grimly read "Winnie-the-Pooh" to tots in an effort to humanize himself, and one of the most quote-worthy planks in President Clinton's bridge to the 21st century was the promise that "every 8-year-old (could) point to a book and say, 'I can read it myself.'" Note the foreshadowing precision of that turn of phrase: He only said they'd be able to say they could read the book!

Consider the twin hallmarks of 1990s American consumer culture: the coffee cup and the book. One, the rich, fragrant horsewhip with which cubicle Clydesdales flog themselves at two bucks a crack, the other, a hallowed symbol of a leisure we have collectively rejected. While bourgeois America has executed a third world revenge fantasy on itself by clocking maquiladora hours in the service of its own prosperity (see, for example, last week's New York Times feature on white-collar workers negotiating "part-time" schedules of 40 hours a week), these two symbols have been weirdly conjoined in the opium dens of the book chains, which offer a pricey giveaway -- a place to rest -- in exchange for fealty. (Though this shotgun marriage may be headed for counseling; in my local Barnes and Noble a cranky sign now reminds would-be literary freeloaders that "cafe seating is for cafe customers only.")

Beneath this all is a nostalgic appeal to class that Quindlen acknowledges inadvertently, remembering her neighbor with the basement of books: "There was always a vague whiff of money in my mind about (her) imagined history, or perhaps it was not money but gentility, a certain sort of Henry Jamesian world that I associated, not only with owning books, but with having whole walls of them." A nervous publishing industry wishes we all felt this way, and perhaps it explains the Edwardian overtones of the 1990s book palace, selling customers title by title little keepsakes of a leisure they can't afford. Quindlen, like so many other well-meaning Book People, has picked the wrong technology to fight. Books, as she affirms at the end of her essay, should easily survive much longer, but the assault against reading itself comes from an entirely different machine, ubiquitous and implacable, portable and even wearable. They call it the clock.

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James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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