Judging a Book By Its Cover

Advertisers sell us on the bookworm image, but what are we buying into?

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If you've spent any time browsing through secondhand bookstores and raiding the discount tables, you know what it's like to look up at shelves crammed with books you'll never read. They lend a den or study a musty, learned aura, but one that's a bit of a bourgeois fantasy as well.

Writing in The New Yorker (June 17, 1995) novelist Nicholson Baker suggests that the 'rare' leather bound books (or at least old, obscure, tattered ones) used as props in upscale clothing and home decorating catalogs are nothing more than empty signifiers of intellectual sophistication. Five minutes with the Pottery Barn catalog leads Baker to the realization that for time immemorial books have served the home decorator 'better than other collectibles, because they represent a different order of plenitude...the camel caravans of thought-bearing time required to read through them.' Instead of promoting literacy or learning, these catalogs sell the consumer on 'furnishing alternative lives for themselves,' complete with a new couch, fancy armoire, and the high brow essence of Culture.

And what about the fate of books whose aura isn't enough to attract anyone but professional bibliophiles (read: academics)? Charlotte Allen, in her Lingua Franca (May 1995) article 'Indecent Disposal', describes every author's worst nightmare: 'Suddenly, far sooner than you expected, your book is being subjected to a slow, excruciating, publicly humiliating execution.'

According to Allen, it's not that her Thomas Hobbes: The Unity of Scientific and Moral Wisdom wasn't a work of significant scholarly merit. It's just that no one wanted to buy it. Even a book canonized by the academy into the realm of the sacred is a commodity, subject to the same profane market forces as piece of fruit at the grocer's. Picked over and forgotten, the erudite book is just taking up shelf space and needs to be disposed of. If it's lucky, it might end up in a Tweeds catalog fifty years later.

As the transition from print to electronic media marches forward, we can foresee a time when our libraries exist as on-line depositories like Project Gutenberg, which is devoted to the free distribution of books for people everywhere -- or at least those with access to the Net. Once physical ownership vanishes, so does the aura catalog designers trade on -- and perhaps the entire concept of ownership along with it. Maybe then our empty bookshelves will signify a more profound connection to the ideas books hold, as opposed to the ideas advertisers wish us to have of ourselves.



Original to Utne Reader Online, July 1995.

Nicholson Baker, 'Books as Furniture,' THE NEW YORKER (June 12, 1995). Subscriptions: $36.00/year (50 issues) available from The New Yorker Magazine, 20 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.