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…