In Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady, a hapless suitor named Ned Rosier courts the innocent Pansy Osmond. Rosier is best known as a lifelong collector of tiny books and trinkets called bibelots. After Pansy ejects him, Rosier liquidates his collection of bibelots, hoping to become rich enough to impress her father. This move backfires immediately: those close to Pansy tell Rosier that he would have been better off to keep his “pretty things,” and that his collection of knickknacks and books was “the best thing about him.”
Here as elsewhere in Portrait, a novel by a writer who believed above all else in the enriching power of literature, we see books made into objects of novelty, vanity and status. Isabel Archer, the book’s protagonist, never picks up a book for more than a few minutes before becoming sleepy or distracted; the journalist Henrietta Stackpole, meanwhile, serves primarily as comic relief, writing all her friends and acquaintances into her articles. This literary materialism certainly does not reflect James’s own attitude—he would rather his characters have just read the books rather than collect them—but it is also not particular to the cast of Portrait, or to aristocrats like Rosier.
Delight in book collecting, and in showing off one’s book collection, is common, if not universal, among readers and would-be-readers. The biggest reason we spend money on books is because we want to read them (eventually), but that isn’t the only reason: we also like to look at them, and to look at other people looking at them. While moving into my new apartment this month I found myself casting long, admiring glances at my full bookshelves, straightening out folded pages and making sure the spines were perfectly lined up. I have devoted most of my moving time to arranging these shelves; books accounted for probably 90 percent of the weight I had to lift up three flights of stairs into my apartment. When I move out in two years, I will have to do it all again. Why do I—why do we—devote so much time, energy, space and money to these $15 hunks of paper? Why do I risk compressed discs every time I move into a new apartment? Or, to put it another way: Why don’t I just buy a Kindle?
Because I love books—or so I tell myself. But what exactly am I talking about when I talk about “books”? When I say I love Tao Lin’s Taipei, for example, am I talking about the enriching experience of reading that novel? Or am I talking about my physical copy of Taipei, whose glittery spine looks especially dazzling sandwiched between Primo Levi and David Lipsky? In order to distinguish my hobby of collecting books from, say, my mother’s hobby of collecting ceramic iguanas, I have to claim that it is distinguished by the experience of the reading itself. I have to claim that in collecting and reading all these books I am doing something productive, constructive, worthwhile. This, at least, has been the argument made by the various defenders of literature that have been mounted of late in, to give a far from exhaustive list, Slate, Time, the New York Times, the Atlantic, Popular Science, and the New Republic. These articles have either championed or criticized recent scientific research that supposedly proves that reading literature makes one a more empathetic person. I tend to agree with Leo Robson in feeling that this scientific research is probably bullshit, but even Robson comes around to the idea that reading literature does something positive for the reader, even if that thing may have little to do with morality.
But if all this reading has improved me somehow, you wouldn’t know it from the way I behave around my books. In fact, when I spend hours arranging my bookshelves and buying books I won’t read any time soon, I’m acting like the only thing I want to get out of reading Taipei is the chance to show off its shiny cover on my bookshelf. The way I treat my books shows that no matter how important they are to me as things to read, they also exist as decorative objects and status symbols.
Luckily for me (and all other similarly afflicted book lovers), recent technological advances have provided something like an alternative to this “literary materialism” in the form of e-books. If collecting physical books distracts me from a humbler and less self-centered reading experience, then eliminating the physical component of the books seems like it would help to eliminate the vanity that comes with them. I could free up a lot of shelf space, make a fair amount of money at used bookstores and clean my environmental conscience, all while getting the same edification that I have always gotten from novels and essays. The only downside is that nobody would be able to tell from visiting my apartment that books are my body and soul. (This was always possible, thanks to the library, but it is much easier now. All you need to do is tuck your Kindle under your pillow and you appear just as much a non-reader as the heathen down the hall.)
At the height of the e-book frenzy it seemed like I wouldn’t have a choice but to convert. Ken Auletta’s sprawling 2010 New Yorker feature, “Publish or Perish,” remains the scariest picture of how the “digital revolution,” led by that great gorgon Jeff Bezos, had positioned itself to upend the publishing industry, bulldoze the world’s indie bookstores and bring authors over to Amazon’s dark side. It looked like it was all over: print books had had their day. Only a mass e-book exodus could save our publishing industry from insolvency and collapse. For a moment it seemed like if we wanted to continue reading, we would have to give up our physical books, which, in turn, would have meant giving up the vanity that came with those physical books. Would it have been such a stretch to argue that this exodus might have saved us from certain materialistic temptations?
I was in the tenth grade when Auletta’s article came out and all the major news outlets and literary organs began writing eulogies for book publishing. At the time I remember being terrified about the future of print—I had just started a book collection of my own and was discovering the temptation of the bookstore for the first time. That year I befriended a boy named Jason who always told me about the books of philosophy he had been reading. We often spent our lunches together in the school library, a place whose old and laminate-bound copies of Plato and Nietzsche Jason looked upon with disdain. When I finally got to see Jason’s book collection in person, I found that all of the glorious books I had been renting one by one from the library were present on his shelves with the barcodes ripped off their back covers. They were beautiful books, far better at attracting the attention and admiration of our plebeian peers than my Dover Thrift Editions were, and when Jason put his hand in the right spot while reading, you couldn’t even see the torn part of the cover. Eventually Jason convinced me that it was worth it to steal the “right” editions from Barnes & Noble, for the sake of my enrichment—I did it once, only once, with a big blue Collected Fiction of Borges, which I unpacked and shelved recently with some distaste.
Any number of the authors I was reading at the time could and would have told me that my infatuation with physical books was a sign of superficiality. This is not to say that reading and book buying are engaged in a horse-pulling of my moral being, but it is to suggest that the materialistic pleasure I get from owning and showing off my books is difficult to reconcile with the vivifying pleasure I get from actually reading them. In fact, indulging such secondary pleasures may even be inimical to developing oneself as a reader. One remembers that familiar refrain often heard at parties: “No, I haven’t read that yet, but it’s on my shelf.” At the very least, I have observed this vanity in my own behavior. It rears its head when I sit in my living room and stare at my shelves while moving into my apartment, or in my weaker emotional moments, like when I text my ex-girlfriends to ask if I can pick up my long-lent copies of White Girls or Narcissus and Goldmund. (Honestly, I hated Narcissus and Goldmund, but I still want it back. Not so I can read it again, but just so I can have it.)
So was I right to stick to my high school’s library, reading battered copies of the classics and returning them as soon as I was done? Could it have been this spartan reading practice that made me better equipped than Jason to understand The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which we read together in junior year? In that case, there would be a reason for serious readers, on top of the ones found by non-serious ones, to be clinging to their Kindles.
But serious readers aren’t flocking to e-books, and neither are non-serious readers. Just four years after Auletta sounded the death knell, the web went abuzz over U.K. publisher Tim Waterstone’s claim that it was digital books that were dying out. It was true: Despite the fact that e-books promised profit improvements on industry-saving scales, and indeed at one time seemed to be the only thing that could keep the publishing industry afloat, they have never made up even one-third of overall book sales, even in their heyday. Recent Amazon gambits, such as a new font designed “exclusively for e-books” and a pricing model whereby authors are paid per pages read, are unlikely to help e-books expand their slim share of the market. Nobody seems able to say exactly why this is happening, but, tellingly, a Guardian response to Waterstone’s piece opined that digital books won’t win because, in a word, they’re no fun to look at: “Until the technology becomes as satisfying to the physical senses as the text is to the cognitive self, there’s still a need for shiny, gorgeous, satisfying books.”
But the pleasure we get from physical books isn’t even just about these “shiny” covers or the “satisfying” feel of the paper. It’s also about the collection of objects, the ability to see the supposed growth of our intellect advertised in terms of shelf space. Even if my entire library can fit in my pocket—which was the whole pitch of the Kindle in the first place—I don’t think I want it to. The pleasure of owning beautiful objects like books is, after all, not just a private pleasure. It’s also a shared pleasure, which means that my book collection doesn’t only have to inspire pride in me and envy in others. It can also inspire meaningful conversation.
This past week, after unpacking the last of my boxes, I had my friend Jack over for dinner in my new apartment. We ate in the living room, where I have filled two huge bookshelves with the books I have bought at new bookstores, used bookstores, and garage sales over the past eight or so years. Standing in front of the A–M bookshelf, Jack pulled out my Routledge edition of Foucault’s revised and expanded History of Madness—one of the most beautiful books I own. (I haven’t finished it yet.)
“This is really nice,” he said, holding it up. “Can I borrow it?”
“Yeah,” I said, “sure.” Jack is a fast reader: he would be through the book in no time, and then I would finally have someone to talk about it with. But then I felt a strain: the huge red book looked so good from where I was sitting, and its absence would mean I would have to rearrange that shelf and the three beneath it. “Wait,” I said. “I don’t know. It’s just—”
Jack looked at me for a moment.
“I’ll let you sleep on it,” he said, putting the book back. I let the exchange end there, but the next time Jack comes over, I’m going to make sure he doesn’t leave without taking that beautiful red book with him.