Books as Objects and Essays

The Physical Book Will Surely Endure: But Will It Endure for the Right Reason?

By posted at 6:00 am on January 24, 2017 8

1.
Stefan Zweig — the renowned Viennese writer who, in the 1930s, chose exile over Adolf Hitler — adored his books. As he moved globally among temporary residences, the collection followed, providing an anchor of stability in a world gone adrift. “They are there,” he wrote of his volumes, “waiting and silent.” It was left to him, the avid reader, to grab them, feel them, and make them speak some measure of sense to his unhinged experience.

coverBooks offered Zweig, in part, a predictable form of comfort. “They neither urge, nor press their claims,” he observed. “Mutely they are ranged along the wall…If you direct your glances their way or move your hands over them, they do not call out to you in supplication.” In his thoughtful and often riveting book, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, George Prochnik quotes the author describing how it felt to approach a full bookcase: “A hundred names meet your searching glance silently and patiently…humbly awaiting the call and yet blissful to be chosen, to be enjoyed.” No matter where he lived — New York, London, Rio — Zweig maintained access to this form of bibliophilic bliss to the end.

2.
Anyone who relates to such an attraction will understand it as an intellectually unique, often aesthetically sublime, experience. And now, according to two Italian economists, it might also be financially beneficial. As reported by one of the weirder studies undertaken last year (focused only on men between 60 and 96), growing up around books — simply existing in their physical presence — corresponded to higher income over time. “Those [kids 10 or older] with many books,” the authors write, “enjoyed substantially higher returns to their additional education.” The media, as you might imagine, feasted on the news. Headlines went from “Books You Should Read to Get Rich” to “Boys Who Grow Up Around Books Earn Significantly More Money.” Who cares if Bill Bill Gates reads 50 books a year?  Now all you needed to do — according to the new research — was to put on display at least 10 of them. Ka-ching.

covercovercoverZweig grew up around books — more than 10 — and, incidentally, he became rich. His novels — Amok, Confusion, The Royal Game, to name a few — and biographies — on Marie Antoinette and Erasmus most notably — flew from the shelves. He was the most translated German-language writer before World War II. His 1941 autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was recently translated into English and continues to sell at a brisk pace (not everyone is happy is about that). That’s good for Zweig, his legacy, and his fans.

coverBut there’s a distinction to draw here. The economists who conducted the “books make you wealthier” study were merely confirming the point that cultural capital corresponds to book ownership. It’s a point so obvious it’s almost meaningless. Any family who owns books, and considers books to be even symbolically significant enough to display them, is a family that nurtures the educational ethos required to make money. But none of that concerned Zweig. Zweig courted (and carted) his books not for the cultural capital they represented; he did so for their imaginative fertility, their ready source of escapism, the touchstone they offered to an inner reality. Speaking about a room full of books, he once said, “How good it is there to create and be alone.” Their decorative presence took a back seat to their seminal emotional power. It’s what they did for him — his imagination, his sense of self, his rampant curiosity — that mattered most to Stefan Zweig. The wealth was incidental.

3.
Zweig’s love of books, considered against their supposed wealth-generating capability, presents a compelling dichotomy that’s quite relevant today: Books as remunerative symbols of educational attainment versus books as objects that allow us to drop out and delve inwards. This dichotomy is relevant because, for one, it fundamentally alters the big question everyone keeps asking about the book as a physical object. No longer is it “will the book endure?”  Instead, it’s “why will the book endure?”

Yes the book will endure. Of course the book will endure.  You’ve likely heard a million people rhapsodize about the alluring physicality of books. They’re correct to do so. You’ve also likely heard the news that independent bookstores are making a comeback. This is also as it should be. As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations. And while it’s true that Socrates expressed grave concern that the written word would erode memory and storytelling, his distinguished descendant, Cicero, had it exactly right when he said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”

coverOf course, a room stuffed to the rafters with books can also be as soulless as a tin can. These days, if our Italian economists are right, books are often nothing more than decoration for social strivers. The fact that cultural capital can evidently be correlated with actual capital is another way of saying that a wall of books has nothing necessarily to do with the literary ambitions of the resident reader. Consider the “books by the foot” trend — that is, the option of purchasing random books in bulk for the singular purpose of showing them off rather than reading them. This commercial genre is exceedingly popular with interior decorators, so much so that, as if to stay a step ahead of the skepticism, bulk book suppliers have specialized by tailoring books for the client’s purported general interests (to make it really seem like this is a library reflecting the owner’s personal literary tastes), while still color-coordinating book covers to match the pillow slips.  In this respect, the purchase and display of books becomes a conspicuous example of what the late French literary critic René Girard, in Mimesis and Theory, calls “external mediation” — the process whereby a person’s displayed tastes and desires influence those of others — resulting in the cheapest and least meaningful form of imitation.

4.
covercoverIf this is how we’re going to save the book — decorative mimicry — well then, forget it. True believers know that a room with books should accomplish something altogether more subversive and selfishly edifying — that it should foster radical internal mediation rather than decorative inspiration. Books should conspicuously confirm the persistence, in the face of so many competing (and lesser) forms of distraction, of a fierce dedication to promiscuous reading, the kind that requires — a la Zweig — that walls of literature be constantly approached, scanned, and chosen from. And then — the part that we rarely talk about when we talk about books — a roomful of books must be allowed to exact a cost. The thing about a room full of books is that conquering it, living within it as a real reader, treating it as it should be treated, means making sacrifices that deeply effect other human beings — and not always in a good way. The refraction of personal experience, when pursued through a physical book, is ours alone. As Emma in Madame Bovary knew very well, reading was a venue for the most satisfying selfishness. The “reality of experience,” as it’s noted at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is forged in the smithy of a single soul. When we read we become our own wistful Emma, our own self-absorbed Dedalus. You are with you. That’s it. And people might get annoyed by that.

5.
coverI had to laugh when I read that being around books makes you more money. At the beginning of 2015, I started a well-paying freelance research gig. On paper, it was ideal: I worked from home, I made my own hours, I kept my day job teaching undergraduates, and the topic was interesting enough. The problem was that my home office, where I was to do my research, contains nearly 2,000 books. Many of them I have yet to read. Just as many I want to read again. After a day and half of working in my office, sitting amid these book-lined walls, I was broken by environment. Their visual allure and the promise of what they contained was too much to ignore as I did my official job. My letter of resignation followed. I remember that when my (dumbfounded) employer responded (he said I was “impetuous” and “foolish”) I was reading Middlemarch. A lot of people around me have paid a price for my choice. But Zweig, I am sure, would have approved.

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8 Responses to “The Physical Book Will Surely Endure: But Will It Endure for the Right Reason?”

  1. Heather Curran
    at 10:37 am on January 24, 2017

    Yes, yes, yes. My greatest memory is my mother taking me to the library to get a library card. The joy. The smell of books! Spent my adolescence on a branch in our backyard apple tree, so comfy, reading, reading, reading.

  2. J R
    at 2:46 am on January 25, 2017

    So you purged your own business because you had a lot of books?
    This site is weird sometimes.

  3. Leah Rachel
    at 11:01 am on January 25, 2017

    Agreed! While the headline is a bit misleading (there’s no /right/ reason to prefer physical books), the smell of books, the joy that being surrounded by bookshelves achieves… I also find it difficult to read around books I haven’t read, and when I used to go to the school library to work or write a paper, I would leave my pleasure reading at home and sit far away from the fiction section. I can’t imagine trying to actually work remotely from home.

    When I moved into my studio apartment, the first “adult” apartment I had, I saved up all my money in advance and bought myself two Real bookshelves. We brought in chairs, a bed, and more, but the moment when I realized that this was It, this was the first place where I lived that was a real Home, was when I had those bookshelves standing there with all my tons of books in them. A wall of books should evoke a sense of comfort, ease, and adventure.

  4. Sean H
    at 5:15 pm on January 25, 2017

    I’m betting on the wrong reasons. Independent bookstores are making a comeback because hipsters and millennials want something to decorate their domiciles. These are fetishists. They rarely actually read the books they own. These are privileged trust-funders who live in a few major cities. They drink six dollar cups of coffee on daddy’s dime and write fantasy genre screenplays on their laptops in public.
    McWilliams is absolutely right that it is about cultural capital. These are bourgeois breeders who want their kids to get into the right private schools. It’s straight up Freakonomics. Growing up in a house full of books corresponds to success(it’s like a big sign that says “I’m not poor, my kid will never work at a McDonald’s), actually reading to your kids has no effect on them. If these neo-yuppies actually bought Zweig’s books they’d read a chapter of them, or maybe just part of the preface or introduction, then go back to binge watching Netflix. And if they actually do ever read they’re maybe flipping through the Hunger Games or Harry Potter books to see how they compare to the movies.

  5. ben
    at 12:56 am on January 26, 2017

    ya it’s straight up freakonomics

  6. JOHN T SHEA
    at 2:41 am on January 26, 2017

    There is no wrong reason to buy a book. Surveys suggest people buy many books they don’t fully read, but how many books are read by people who did not buy them?

  7. Heather Curran
    at 9:29 pm on January 30, 2017

    Sean H. For real? You think book lovers are fetishists? That people with book shelves are bragging? My books are in MY library, for ME. I am SO done with this website and its idiotic comments. I know, I know…don’t read the comments but fuck. This is a website about books, being commented on by people who mock books. Enough. Ugh.

  8. aamir
    at 1:29 pm on February 2, 2017

    Absolutely right! reading a ‘physical book’ gives much more comfy than reading on soft copy. I am from Punjab, Pakistan; I still cherish those pleasant summer evenings of my childhood, when kids use to sit in the gatherings of elders, and listen recitation from a book of folk poetry. Libraries used to allure us; and buying a book by parents used to be a great gift.

    This digital age has altered our life style in many ways. We are now more socialized with machines than with human beings. Gone are the days when people used to write letters, now its all texting and tweeting.

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