I’m with Milton

header booksRecently, I visited a café in south county Dublin and noticed that the walls were decorated with shelves chock-full of books. The shelves were set at such a height as to discourage casual browsing but by craning my neck I could see they were all hardbacks of a certain era – 1940s/50s ─ minus their dust-jackets.  Their underclothes – green and roseate cardboard covers – were on show. I wondered how they had been chosen. Was it for their content? Unlikely. Or was it for the pretty faded covers, their forlorn vintage chic, a perfect complement to the café’s lime-washed New England décor?

I took note of the titles – The Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche was one. De la Roche was a Canadian writer, who penned a 16-novel family saga over a 30-year span from the 1930s to 1960s about the eponymous Whiteoak family. They were common currency in my convent school library in the 1970s. We discussed their plots with the enthusiasm now reserved for selfies and You Tube clips.

The Jalna novels were what you might call polite bodice-rippers. Lots of heaving bosoms and unrequited love but the bedroom door invariably closed at the opportune time. Georgette Heyer was another staple of our school library. These were solid, middle-brow novels, well-researched and historically accurate with doughty female heroines. Heyer was probably one of the authors that prompted my journey into writing historical fiction, but she was  reduced to  visual tat in this café too. So too were several Reader’s Digest compendiums of abridged books that seemed to cluster in holiday chalets of my childhood. Seaside reads, in other words. But, here’s the difference; we actually read those books when the rain came down and there was nothing else to do but stay indoors.

I’ve revisited this café several times and I’ve never seen anyone take down one of these books. That’s not the deal. They’re for decoration. They’re literally part of the wallpaper. They are job lots of books chosen on a “never-mind-the quality-feel-the-width” basis, displayed for the sole purpose of projecting a brand – we’re bookish, we’re hipster, we’re cool.

A friend instanced another example of book objectification in a pub in Dubai. The interior had the look of a book-lined study but on closer inspection, the books – yes, real genuine books – had been chopped in half vertically so that they would fit on the narrow shelves assigned to them in the pub’s design.

In the hey-day of the reconstituted “Irish pub” – when such establishments sprouted in Beijing, Boston and Baden-Baden – ye olde family photographs were used in the same way, bought in bulk by pub outfitters to give the dewy-eyed exile or the unwary tourist the impression he/she was walking into Granny Grunt’s kitchen from the mists of time. The trouble with colonizing these artefacts is that for someone somewhere they are genuine mementos representing real human relationships. Like the books they have authorship.

Home décor websites are a hotbed of this kind of objectification of books. One such site offers  37 different ways to decorate your home with books. Cut a hole in the middle of a thick volume, put earth inside and plant something in it! Why not pile your books up and make a bedside table of them? Tear out the pages and make a fabulous collage!

But before the interior decorators got their hands on the book, its value among so-called book-lovers was already declining. Some years ago I was a judge on a major literary competition and ended up with over 100 contemporary novels, many of them hardbacks, which I couldn’t accommodate on my shelves. They were span-new publications, hot off the presses, in mint condition, yet I had real difficulty finding a home for them. My first port of call was my local second-hand bookstores.  I felt sure of a welcome there with my handsome, almost new, library. These people were my own kind, weren’t they?  But they turned out to be annoyingly finicky. Some wouldn’t touch hardbacks; others cherry-picked the big names from my crates and rejected the rest. I even tried the local library. The librarian on duty looked at me askance as if I were trying to peddle drugs when I offered them four boxes of brand new books. Where would we put them, she demanded in an almost aggrieved tone. I stopped myself from suggesting the obvious. In the end most of the books ended up in a charity shop, the only place that would accept them no questions asked. Oh, apart from the dump, that is.

But I couldn’t contemplate that. Even though these books represented imposed reading rather than titles I had chosen myself, I had never considered simply throwing them out. But maybe I should have. Isn’t pulping and recycling a more honourable end for the unwanted book than being transformed into a cute planter or deconstructed into a fabulous collage? And there’s always the possibility of a reprieve at the dump. Another acquaintance of mine goes to the dump for all his reading material. He climbs into the large bin reserved for unwanted books and scavenges merrily. I imagine him like a vineyard keeper trampling on grapes at harvest time, high on the literature fumes.

The downgrading of the physical book is inevitably twinned with the digitising of reading. Amazon has been blamed for devaluing the book by merely pricing it down to the cost of a sandwich. Independent publisher Dennis Johnson, proprietor of Melville Books, declared in an interview in the New Yorker last year, that Amazon had “successfully fostered the idea that the book is a thing of minimal value – it’s a widget”.

Time on the physical book was called when e-books first came on the scene. But rumours of tis demise have proved premature. E-book sales have settled at around 30% of the market, so that means that 70% of us are still buying the physical object.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite. I have a Kindle and do a lot of reading on it. But when I like a book, really like it, I go out and buy it in a bookshop because I don’t feel I own it when it’s trapped, incorporeal, in an electronic device. I need to see it on a shelf where I can put my hand on it. That’s probably an indication of my age. The Kindle is efficient, convenient and portable, but for me, even at its slick and well-lit best, it lacks the objecthood and temporality of the physical book. I’m a sucker for the texture of a leather-bound hardback, for the luxury of marbled end papers or the crinkly freshness of a volume with uncut pages. I could go on. . . but I won’t. It sounds too much like breathless porn.

But there’s a difference between my kind of bibliophilic fetish, and an interior decorator pimping out books as deconstructed decorative objets. For me, the cover and binding is only part of the relationship with the book, not the be all and end all. As Milton observed in Areopagitica, his impassioned argument against censorship way back in 1644, books are “not absolutely dead things”. They contain the “potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them”.

Hands off, I want to say to those café owners, interior decorators and pub designers keen to fill up empty visual spaces with literary props, books are for reading.

A version of this post appeared in Headstuff.org

One thought on “I’m with Milton

  1. I agree whole-heartedly with you.
    I too was in a pub in Limerick just last week, where lots and lots of books were used as decor, just the same why you described.

    And I do feel exactly the same you do about physical books: I own a Kobo, I use it al lot, but I used it on books I just want to ‘try’. Stories I might not like and be free to just delate, because – in essence – they don’t really exist for me. I’m always weary of throwing a real book away, even if I didn’t like it.

    But I wonder, would this be the same for our nephews? Milton’s statement do apply to ebook as well, because the life of a book is in its immaterial form, it’s in the story it tells, not the form it takes.
    At the moment, I think physical books will live on alongside ebooks… but who knows? Things may change…

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