Why own books?
A WORKING DRAFT — Lately I’ve been wishing to write essays: short, refined attempts at exploring the ideas that otherwise fester unproductively in the back of my head. But it’s difficult to find the focus and the resolve to write anything approaching elegant and coherent prose1. In the meantime, I thought it might be constructive to start by collecting my disjointed, meandering thoughts, just to keep them alive and make a first attempt at articulating myself.
Last fall, Emily and I attended a lecture by an independent art book designer and publisher based out of Switzerland. At one point during the talk, he began an anecdote about exhibiting books at different art book fairs. He often asks a question, he said, to people who bought the books: “why are you buying this?”. The New Yorkers (insufferable snobs that we are) answer with a list of cultural references explaining our familiarity with the author, the artist, the designer…etc. But Los Angelenos, on the other hand, seem confused ore even offended by the question: “What do you mean? I just like it!” When he spoke of the latter, I thought I could sense a kind of reverence in his tone (maybe even jealousy?) for these uninitiated souls who could experience the books and their contents entirely formally, as self-contained objects rather than cultural touchpoints2.
The anecdote rings true to my anecdotal experiences of California and New York — it was funny. But I was also captivated by the question itself; what would my answer to it be? Why do I purchase the books that I purchase?
Sure, I can offer a nice-sounding justification for why I bought this or that book3. But I think the question spoke to me on a deeper level that the publisher didn’t really intend, and his interlocutors didn’t properly answer: why do we (or I) seek to own books at all? It feels like there’s an underlying assumption here that amassing a book collection is a virtuous practice, but it’s not clear to me that I can rationalize that.
The truth I want to confront, and the reason why I think this question is confounding: I don’t read or look closely at most of the books that I own on a regular basis. My bookshelf has so much material that it outpaces what I could reasonably read and concentrate on for many years to come4, especially given all the other ways I spend my time and the fact that I am a slow and fickle reader. And I suspect that I’m not alone in this — is it irresponsible?
more to come (one hopes)...