Judging a Book By Its Cover

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.

Charlotte Allen, ‘Indecent Disposal,’ LINGUA FRANCA (May
1995). Subscriptions: $24.95 (6 issues) available from Box 3000,
Denville, NJ 07834.

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