My first contribution to a Kickstarter campaign was to an emerging publishing company, priding itself on its selection of paper, its cover and case production, its singular font choices. Its first production would be the fairly obscure Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. I simply had to have it. And I do: its sublime, a beautifully rendered edition (to accompany my six other differing editions of the same title). I’ve never read it.
Just glorious, this.
Photograph by me, of course. It’s mine.
The notion of the fetish is at once spiritual and problematic. While a psychological devotion or faith to an idea may well be a balm of sorts, the word “fetish” is also abnormal, irrational, obsessive. It is a warping of the object to an idea beyond its reality or its signification. But it is also a fanatic notion shared by millions, as exemplified by #booktok, #bookstagram, and #shelfies, by a maelstrom of book-lifestyle (not reading lifestyle) accessories, and popular terms (uttered with little to no shame, even pride) like “library porn.” The sexual parallel to the #bookfetish is brazenly attached.
Yes, the paper bound book carries meaning far beyond that of its printed content, far beyond even its mechanical publication histories. It thrives not because of its content, but often apart from it, even in spite of it. Some comics are sold in sealed hard plastic (aka “slabbing”), their pages suffocated and hidden. Some are mere facades of covers, designed for the pseudo-wealthy to “fill” their false libraries (the actual rich simply buy real books and hire a monthly duster). Others, also rarely read, become objects of hate and identity politics in censorship wars, and–incredibly and not unbelievably–we have seen book burnings emerge in communities again. Collectors prize the ownership of books noted by their nostalgia, rarity, or age, but above all by their condition (where the less read, the better).
“#bookfetish is absolutely a psychological stew of nostalgia, of intellectual or class status, of the impulse to art, of political identity, of community or coterie, of lifestyle….”
It should not surprise anyone, then, that the manufacture of the printed book sometimes passes from a readable object that is rarely read to an object which is absolutely unreadable. Artist Marta Minujin has twice now erected a Parthenon of Books, a colossus built of censored texts entombed in walls of plastic. And quite recently, artist Ilan Manouach has produced a 21,450 page single volume of Eiichiro Oda’s manga, “ONEPIECE.” The book is physically impossible to read. Therefore, reasons Manouach, there is no copyright or intellectual property violation. The work’s achievement is that it is an unreadable text.
I won’t spend time at this point talking about how we all (we book readers) have dozens if not hundreds of titles in our personal libraries which we will also never read. (Stop your protestations. You know that those copies of Proust and Tolstoy and David Foster Wallace were purchased with both the vaguest of intentions and their appeal to your lifestyle status.) The #bookfetish is absolutely a psychological stew of nostalgia, of intellectual or class status, of the impulse to art, of political identity, of community or coterie, of lifestyle–but it is, also, you know, on the side, by the way, possibly, when-there’s-more-time-of-course, something we might read.
Ilan Manouach’s ONEPIECE. Note that the author of the manga is not credited (nor was he consulted about the project). Only 1900€. (above)
Marta Minujin and 2017’s The Parthenon of Books. (below)
Object as Lifestyle Purchase
It’s not entirely our fault, of course. Our obsession is fueled by another force quite well known: commodification for profit. The valuing of the book–we’ll kindly call it two: the love of the object and the love of its reading–favors the former and denigrates the latter. When eBooks first emerged, we all cried out that the paper book was doomed, that the nearly free production of electronic texts would far outdistance the manufacturing-heavy and expensive physical production. But, somehow, this seems not to be the case, and the physical book is seeing a genuine upswing in sales against eBooks. And, mysteriously, if the paper book was lamentably so expensive to print, why have e-texts grown in cost nearly to match them? One likely reason is to better cultivate our #bookfetishes.
I can’t pose my books amongst flowers and apply that perfect Lark filter for Instagram, I can’t insulate my walls with floor to ceiling shelves of books (before which I strategically place my laptop for those Zoom calls), I can’t sigh longingly at my 45-year-old childhood copy of Hop on Pop, and I cannot cradle Jane Eyre with my hoodie blanket and “Bookmarks Are For Quitters” coffee mug in quite the same way with an eBook. eBooks do not a lifestyle choice make. After all, can you imagine if my Kindle were full of 8500 oft-read books but my apartment was devoid of them? That would make–hmm–readerly sense!
The Book Lover and The Lover of Reading
There is a danger, I think, in the division between those who love books and those who love reading. But there is also a danger of incuriosity in those who claim to love both. Our unhealthy #bookfetishes are in large part fed by a too-healthy capitalist motivation to profit from our censorship battles, our completionist/collectable impulses, our altars to reputation, our (re)produced nostalgias. And it works.
No recourse, really, is afforded us, save one. That in this culture of commodification, we actually read. I’m not anti-book per se, and I’m certainly not against bookstores (I cannot claim dry eyes at a recent showing of the indie film Hello, Bookstore), but this non-enmity is a far stretch from fetish and from being pro-reading. I won’t spend time here elucidating how the printed book also carries inherent exclusivity and class function, that it fails to reach those most in need of literacy and those who most desire it, an obstacle more easily overcome by electronic media. Personally, I await eBooks which can better accommodate my personal eccentricities in annotating. In the meantime, I read and I read* and I annotate and consume the printed book with my own ink and sometimes aggressive bends of binding. There is little sentiment about it.
Well, you know. Except for my Instagram feed. My TikTok reviews. The new built-in bookshelves for my basement library. My framed Haruki Murakami book art. My T. S. Eliot coffee mug. And, unapologetically, my never-will-be-read Kickstarter edition of Flatland, A Romance of Many Dimensions.
*I don’t care if I use my eyes to read a printed book, or use my eyes to read a digital one (or one with media and web links), or use my ears to listen to one. Why must our eyes be the only sense employed in what we consider the act of reading? We certainly don’t object when the visually-impaired read via touch.