I think I hate book culture.
I was having coffee with a friend the other day, like you do, when our talk turned to magazines; what we’re reading, which ones we’d like to read, why that one goddamn glossy from the UK costs $15, etc. At some point, I absentmindedly wiped my chocolate-scone smeared hand on the copy of San Francisco Arts Quarterly that lay on the table between us. Sacrilege, I know, but I had a few backup copies under my arm. Since SFAQ is free, I usually pick up several at a time to give away. Ditto with Pork, the other free quarterly I had stuffed into my bag. At the vintage boutique next door, lying next to a neat stack of the shop’s in-house magazine were copies of Partisan, yet another quarterly published by Partisan Gallery that includes a CD of original music. I paid $20 for it.
Supposedly it’s been a long time coming. But if print is dead, where did all these fucking magazines come from?
A corollary that I hear most often is “print isn’t dead, it’s been fetishized” and I like the sound of that. I can attest to a love of print that borders on...it’s not like I frisson with pleasure at the thought of cutting my lip with a sheet of personalized Smythson, but I did have an ex-boyfriend think it completely acceptable to give me a sheaf of crimson paper for Valentines Day, and he was right. I was totally thrilled, even though he worked at Kinko’s and probably swiped it moments before meeting me. Either way, fetishization certainly plays its part in this watershed moment in print; and if it’s true, the way in which it happens is at the heart why independent magazines are experiencing something of a renaissance and books are still making their way slowly off this mortal coil.
There’s an aesthetic to book culture that has emerged completely separate from the thing itself. It’s not about the people who actually make up book culture (I can’t profess to have any idea what those people are like), it’s about self-professed book-lovers seeming content with creating an online culture around a romanticized aesthetic of what it means to be well-read, rather than contemplating real solutions for the dying industry they so adore.
“Bookshelf porn” is a recent addition to the long list of “______ porn” memes that tend to center on food, crafts, clothes, or anything else you’d rather look at extensively in lieu of making yourself. I recently encountered a photograph of five hardcover books that had been carved (ahem, destroyed) so that they made up the letters B-O-O-K-S. It was a true work of art, if only because the form and subject matter formed a tautology of existential ouroboros that could undo the necktie on a vintage blouse from across the room.
The online community that aims to celebrate books is actually—in an oblique way—doing them a disservice. Books are in danger because they have become victims of their own dusty, gold-leaf, suede elbow-patched fetishization. I know because I’ve gone from a self-professed bibliophile to simply Someone Who Reads. There’s something about the way books are aestheticized in popular and social media that I now find precious and alienating and twee and having very little to do with what makes the rest of the world pick up a book.
I was never more well-read than I was the summer after high school. I had few classmates as friends, so nothing seemed very different once they were gone, only that I had a lot of free time. As I waited to begin what would become a very short tenure at a local college, this little seed of anxiety, the realization that I had given gravely little thought to what I actually wanted to do with myself grew, and books were a tool I used to keep it at bay. I always loved reading, and tried to keep myself in the habit of reading for pleasure, but this was different; a get-rich-quick scheme of self actualization. Being well-read became my short-term plan for feeling better than others. It was me and the few other townies in a mad race to see who could consume the most cigarettes, black coffee and books. We maintained a pose of intellectual languor by putting in hours at the local coffee shop to discuss our findings and keep an eye on one another’s progress into the depths of insufferable jerkdom. The coffee shop was called McClain’s, and they served coffee in styrofoam cups, had a stack of board games from the 1970s with many pieces missing, and featured rotating local artwork on the walls that skewed perpetually toward critiques of capitalism. Every week the purple velvet couches were re-arranged to accommodate white-blues performances from a seemingly endless supply of undergrads in ringer tees.
It was pretty sad. But worse, the reading itself was eventually replaced by the black coffee, the cigarettes, the witticisms, and the mere trappings of reading, of which there are legion. So commodified are the external signs of being well-read, they’re capable of making a pretty convincing substitute for being well-read.
Magazines have the luxury of a form that is elastic to their content, of having no patron saints. It’s more complicated than the difference between timelessness and timeliness.
John Waters said “We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have any books, don’t fuck them.” This is all true, but fucking the bookshelf isn’t very cool, either.
Being well-read will continue to be a positive virtue, an asset. Sometimes the ways in which words on paper are presented to us can get in the way.
Books are beautiful. Reading is sexy. But magazines are the porn, and the porn is in the pudding.
(Image on top right: Brian Kennon, Get In, 2011, Archival Inkjet Print, 12.5 x 19 inches, Unique print; Courtesy the artist and ltd, Los Angeles)