Blog Post

On Books as Objects of Worship

This post is tangential to my work on fan writing--just something I've been musing on.
For the past few years I have been trying, with mixed success, to get beyond the idea of the sanctity of books.
Allow me to explain.
Growing up, books were often my best or only friends. I read them voraciously, loved them unabashedly; the biweekly trip to the library always yielded an entire backpacksfull. One of my mother's preferred methods of punishment was simply to confiscate random volumes from my shelves.
Beyond the powerful educational and artistic merits of reading, books possess a wonderfully sensual appeal. The smell of paper, the way it yellows delicately between rereadings, the fit of a novel in the crease of my left hand—can anything compare? Is there anything better than brushing a finger down the softened corner of a beloved book, feeling the pages riffle until you find the exact passage you want from sense memory alone?
Burning books is a terrible crime, one I shudder to imagine happening anywhere near me. I tear up thinking about the rare and singular texts lost in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Words are so very, very precious. (I say this regardless of Socrates' contention in the Phaedrus that books are a crap new technology that will ruin the youngsters' memories and make them all shallow for lack of understanding or dialogue.)
A little while back, I was in my local used book store, relishing the chance to poke through the Classics and Mysteries and Sci-Fi/Fantasy. While I was there, another customer engaged the clerk in a loud, uninvited conversation about how Amazon and Ereaders are The Devil, leading to the downfall of Real Books, and it's so awful, isn't it, that so few people read anymore? I was ready to check out but hid in the stacks, because I didn't want to get sucked into his orbit.
Because, well, I do read books. I love books. But I've been doing serious amounts of meaningful reading by electronic means for at least 16 years, and I think that's valuable too.
The paper I presented at the 2014 Film & History Conference touches on this—fans were early adopters of paperless reading, and the whole reading environment changes when you don't have to worry about the massive costs of printing, binding, and shipping your work. These factors made the zine era fascinating, but also restrictive and surprisingly market-driven despite not being profit oriented. Fan writers can distribute their work so much more easily now that entirely new subgenres have become common.
Furthermore, yes, I read commercial ebooks. I like my Kindle. It's brought me access to writers whose work I never would have found on the shelf of a bookstore. My current favorite just launched her most recent this morning. (I wasted about an hour on the first couple of chapters before working on this post.)
Yet, at the same time, I wouldn't trade my lovely 7+ bookshelves full of printed matter for an all-electronic storage medium. Books have, and don't, a solidity that cannot be denied. Sometimes pixels vanish (“lost” fanworks are a chronic problem for fans, and who can forget the Kindle 1984 deletion scandal?). I'm not a fan of buying a license instead of a copy. At the same time, the storage and transportation allowed by electronic copies makes them far safer from fire or rain than a pulp paper construct.
And going back to Socrates' crotchety grumbling, there is much more possibility for author-reader interaction in electronic environments than in traditional publishing.
The thing is, many people seem to confuse respect with worship, book-as-object with book-as- work. Pondering this, I made a few of these in 2012: 
Apparently, when a professor in my department described this thing to one of her students, the student said she'd like to hit me.
Hit me. For making that. Some of you probably feel similarly, but consider this: 
I preserved the text. It is still intact and readable, if essentially softcover now. Bookstores do worse to unsold volumes every day. The books used in this project are not a rare resource; the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series have been printed and reprinted in this exact format for decades. They're sold in boxed sets at liquidators, piled up in used book stores, sold from library shelves due to crowding. I have in no way impacted the existence of this text on our planet.
So perhaps this deliberate violation of the text shows the fragility of the book, or the resilience, or perhaps it means that I want to disguise my shameful ereading habits with a veneer of traditional books. Maybe it doesn't really say anything at all, and I'm just grasping.
What do you think?
[While my thoughts here are my own, I thought I should mention that last semester I was in a class with fellow HASTAC member Ibrahim Er, who wrote a term paper on libraries and the perversion and fetishisation of the physical book.]

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