Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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725 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

The Death of the Book Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Chauncey Mabe

Here I’ve worried myself sick over the inevitable end of printed books, and the rich literary culture that goes with them, as electronic books ride forth like the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. But good news! Books will survive—as an element of interior design.

Sitting on my couch opposite the wall of books in my living room, or contemplating the other wall of books in my bedroom, along with random bookcases scattered here and there throughout my apartment, I sometimes imagine myself a secondary character in sci-fi story, a geezer outcast, clinging to his antiquated analogue technology as society races into a digital future.

I eventually befriend a fatherless child and introduce him or her to the joys of the printed page, and slow immersive reading, until I am eventually arrested for child abuse and carted off to a Disposal Center for Useless and Harmful Citizens. It’s only when the power grid goes down, felled by terrorists, or some eco-catastrophe accordions civilization into a dusty new Stone Age that my protege strides forth, armed with all that book-learning.

This cozy little fantasy is popped like a Sunday afternoon soap bubble by a story in the Telegraph that predicts books will survive well into the future if only because interior designers can’t imagine life without them. After all, you can’t really decorate with a Kindle.

“[B]oth the music industry and the print media have felt the heat of virtual competition,” writes the Telegraph’s Alice-Azania Jarvis (what an excellent name!). “But in the meantime, there’s every indication that, while we might do most our reading on-screen, the living room tradition of displaying our (non-digital) books is alive and well.”

Jarvis’s well-reported piece goes into things I’m only going to mention in passing here, like the shallow history of widespread book collecting—before the advent of the paperback in the 1930s, most people could not afford to stock a personal library. Once books were within the reach of average readers, however, they quickly became expressions of their owners’ personalities.

“You can tell a lot about someone by their choice of books—and how many they’ve got,” says Doug Jeffers, owner of the My Back Pages bookstore in Balham, south London.

As regular visitors to this blog will have guessed, I take little solace in all this. For one thing, interior designers make part of their living by constructing libraries to project a specific image. Visit a wealthy person’s home and the books on the shelves may tell you nothing more than what you already know—you’re in a wealthy person’s home.

“I’ve created whole libraries before. Recently, I did the house of a client who wanted to look like he read a lot. I stocked a library which stretched over two floors,” says interior designer Laura McCree.

Besides, a personal library can give a misleading impression. A quick survey of my own shelves might give a new friend a distorted view of my reading habits, if not to say my personality: A smattering of classics. A shelf on religion, spirituality and folklore. Many history and science books. You would not likely perceive my devotion to fiction.

Recently idly surveying myselves—it’s time for a periodic culling—I was a bit taken aback by the relative absence of novels. I realized that the novels I’ve most loved over the years have been lent or given to family and friends. A great book is best shared.

A true reader cares nothing at all about what other people may think about his or her personal library. I don’t collect books because I want you to take me as a brainy guy. I collect because my passion for reading gave me an almost irrational hunger to surround myself with books when I was a young man, and it has not lessened with the passage of time.

So when McCree terms books an “interactive display tool,” my blood runs cold. “Books define a space,” reflects Abigail Hall, described as a “household stylist.” “If you have some books and a comfy chair, you have immediately created an area.”

But if you don’t pull a book from the shelf, seat yourself in that comfy chair and start reading, then the space you’ve defined is an empty image, form separated from function. What you’re left with is a kind of design porn.

—From Open Page (20 June 2011)

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury