Why do people cleave so strongly to one side or another of this bibliographical culture war?by James Waddell / February 19, 2020 / Leave a comment
In 1570, the English poet Thomas Tusser invited readers to cut up his latest book. In his snappily-titled A hundreth good pointes of husbandry, lately married unto a hundreth good poynts of huswifery, Tusser included short verses that the reader was invited to extract and display on the walls of their house: “Posies for the hall;” “Posies for the Parler;” and “Posies for thine own bed Chamber.” According to the book historian Adam Smyth, such cutting was normal and “should not be seen as necessarily scandalous or destructive but rather as a potentially quotidian mode of textual consumption.” Snipping out pages was just one more way to manage the “vast Chaos and confusion of bookes” complained of by Robert Burton in his early 17th century tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy (itself a 900-page behemoth).
Smyth’s suggestion that we should temper our instinctual outrage at amateur book surgery would have made welcome reading for Alex Christofi, the novelist who recently invoked viral online fury by tweeting an image of some of his own weighty paperbacks, with the likes of Middlesex and Infinite Jest bisected and shoddily taped up to make improvised two-volume editions. Some dubbed him a “book murderer,” others defended him against those they saw as pearl-clutching print fetishists.
The terms of this debate are familiar by now, after similar strife over the interior designer who recommended that books should be shelved spine-inward to maintain aesthetic tranquillity, and over (since debunked) rumours that cleaning guru Marie Kondo wanted us to chuck out all but 30 of them. On one side are the book-worshippers who regard every copy as a special kind of object; an artefact which demands respect. On the other are the studiously dispassionate audiobook-listeners and Kindle-readers who claim a pure, brain-to-word connection with the text. The book, if it physically exists at all, is a disposable vector.
Why do people cleave so strongly to one side or another of this bibliographical culture war? And why are they so keen to advertise their position? The answer, as any book historian will tell you, is the long history of using reading practices as a proxy for intellect, morality, and—at bottom—social class.
The textual purists—Christofi and his ilk—lay claim to a neutral way of reading, uninflected by posturing. In an article for the Guardian, Christofi breezily protested that “I really only wanted to get the words into my skull.” Besides, in a bizarrely elevated Cartesian analogy, he asserted that the “codex is just a mortal husk – the soul of a book is the story.” This dualistic model, which imagines a separable physical book and transcendent text in binary opposition, dates back to the 19th century. As hand-operated printing presses were replaced by more reliable machines, books became less chaotically idiosyncratic, and more like the coherent, complete, autonomous volumes that are familiar today. As material books became less individually distinctive, they began to fade into the background. In 1849, George Eliot eulogised those moments of reading when books dissolve, when it seems that we “no longer hold heavily in our hands an octavo of some hundred pages,” and that the author is “transfusing himself into our souls.”
As the book historian Leah Price has written in How To Do Things With Books in Victorian England, the division of text and book, with the former always superior to the latter, was deeply intertwined with class and gender boundaries. In the Victorian archetype, the immaterial text was coded as male and refined, the material book as frivolously feminine or grubby. For the refined reader, a volume might seem to melt away as they read by the fire, but a street hawker might eye up those same pages to assess their suitability for sale as pie-dish lining. Similarly, aristocratic gentlemen-scholars were authorised to engage in debate over the ideas of the immaterial text, while the materialistic wives of arriviste industrialists were mocked for splashing out on books to match their tawdry décor.
170 years later, Christofi’s article jibes at books “bought in bulk to give a pop of colour to someone’s interior design,” on the grounds that “the real tragedy is that these books are not being read.” Fair enough—but, one might observe, when his volumes of Dostoevsky and David Foster Wallace were arranged in a pile to be photographed and posted on Twitter, they weren’t being read then either. Perhaps Christofi, too, is using books for something more than just page-to-skull transmission.
None of this is to suggest that the book-worshippers have the historical high ground. The idea that books shouldn’t be disassembled, marked, or binned is also a 19th-century invention, one that developed with the growth of public borrowing libraries. Before that point, as Adam Smyth explains in Material Texts in Early Modern England, many books were either repurposed or simply read to destruction. This, he continues, has resulted in “the paradoxical consequence that archival absence in the twenty-first century might be a marker of extensive early modern presence.” In other words, the more popular the text, the greater the chance that it would be read until it fell to pieces.
Nevertheless, twee though it may be, being scandalised about book destruction now signals a kind of enlightened literary civility. Obviously, some books are preserved on grounds other than a sense of Victorian propriety: those that are rare, or that tell us something important about history. Reaching for the scissors is not among the many valid critical responses to a book like, say, the recently identified copy of Milton’s annotated First Folio. But, if a book tells us nothing more than thousands of other copies could just as well, then perhaps wincing at a torn-out page is nothing more than sanctimony.
So why the perennial fondness for proclaiming one’s thoughts on material books, reverent or iconoclastic? The argument has much in common with several other Twitter debate chestnuts—routes into journalism, Oxbridge admissions, the merits of Love Island—in that it purports to be about a given subject, but is actually an opportunity to discuss by proxy everyone’s real favourite topics: social class and intellectual status. So, chop up your (non-rare) books, or scribble in them, or give them all away, or display them pristinely on your shelf. But equally, recognise that none of these moves is neutral, and all of them are evidence for the cultural significance of the material book—not against.