Do you remember that time a bunch of white girls on Twitter reacted to Marie Kondo’s gentle suggestion that people only keep books around that mean something to them with an absurdly over the top kind of performative outrage? Yeah. That to me is an extension of the same kind of books-for-aesthetic, turning-one’s-nose-down-at-e-books, stupid-phrases-on-mugs-and-bags-about-books-and-tea nonsense that makes me frustrated about how so many readers don’t seem to actually care about the stories in books as they do the books themselves. It’s a weird snobbery that doesn’t actually make sense.
I have always loved reading. I used to go to the library as often as possible, get large stacks of books, blow through all of them within the next day to a week. And I’d read everything. I didn’t have a preferred genre. I’d read everything from Stephen King to Gordon Korman to Shakespeare, Nancy Drew to Of Mice And Men to Harry Potter. But there was a period – late elementary school through to high school, if I could guess – where I’d shifted away from reading whatever, so long as I enjoyed it, to reading for the sake of impressing others.
When I was in elementary school, I was known for reading. It’s what I did. I always had a book on hand, I read ahead in every book we were assigned for class, I participated in discussions, I always had a book of my own on hand. So I became known as one of the “smart” people. Which is fine. But at some point, I had started internalizing the idea that that was what made me smart or unique. That I was a reader had become a cornerstone of my identity. That, I think we can all agree, was really, really stupid. And it started to manifest in other dumb ways – like the recognizable characteristics of white girl book culture. Whenever I had to annotate something for class, I used sticky notes rather than writing in the book itself (this one I probably would have always done). I pearl-clutched at the thought of ever cutting up a book to use it for an art project or using e-books because it’s not the same! I’d always preferred books to television, and I started to think that demonstrated intellectual superiority. It became a point of pride that any of the classics we had to read were things I’d already read. All these things combined to make reading a lot less enjoyable for me. It was only once I started to push back against them that I started to actually love reading instead of doing it out of habit again.
A friend of mine got me a copy of Good Omens several years ago. But there was something about that edition and the size of the pages that meant I could not get through it. I tried. I’d been told it was great by lots of people, and even if I hadn’t been, it’s a little quirk of mine that if someone buys me a book, I have to read it. But I had to restart more times than I can remember because I just couldn’t process it. It wasn’t until I set aside the hard copy and tried the e-book that I could actually finish and enjoy it. This is reflective of a broader pattern in how I’ve begun to interact with books.
When I was younger, I could read anything quickly and process it immediately. I was one of those people who, when a popular theory or idea was floating around about a series, could say, no, that can’t be because of this thing that was mentioned in passing in book 2 after reading a series once. I’d remember every plot point and character name for years after the fact. One hundred percent not the case anymore. Now I often get halfway through a book – not even a long one – and have to stop myself and think, wait a minute…who is Alice again and how is she related to the main character Bob? For whatever reason, that’s less frequently the case when it comes to e-books. So lately, I’ve been reading a lot more ebooks and a lot fewer hard copies. It does nothing to promote reading to behave as if what matters is the physical book. If I still bought into that, then I’d be reading a lot less than I do, not more.
Books – as in the physical paper and ink – are not sacred objects. They’re not magic. They’re just a container for a story. Are those wonderful? Sure. I do enjoy holding a physical book and the feeling of turning the pages. But books are meant to be read, not sit on shelves to impress people – even when that person is yourself. They’re not a symbol of intellectualism and having more of them lying around doesn’t make you more of a reader than someone else. What matters is the stories inside these objects and that they’re consumed, and e-books help that. Removing books from your shelf that you are never going to actually read or reread to make room for books you will help that.
The idea that the physical books are someone special extends to the holier-than-thou disapproving of people using books for art and the suggestion that doing so is destroying it. But this isn’t the Cultural Revolution or Fahrenheit 451. It’s not censorship. These aren’t books being rendered unreadable so that no one can read them. These books aren’t being destroyed. These are mass produced and widely available. Someone using their copy for something else does nothing to make that book less available for someone else. And sometimes a physical book has to be destroyed! If books don’t sell, they get recycled, and then new books can be made from their remains! Would you rather deforestation progress even faster for the sake of never destroying a book? Five hundred years ago, if a book was destroyed, the world was deprived of that knowledge. That is not even remotely the case anymore. A book being discarded or repurposed into an art project does not mean you’ll never be able to read it. So maybe some people should mind their own business instead of fixating on what other people do. This obsessive attitude about what other people do with stacks of paper, ink, and glue does not make you more of a reader or book lover than anyone else, because books are meant to be enjoyed, not sit on shelves to impress people and/or gather dust.
None of this is to say that I don’t appreciate books as a physical object. Even aside from novels, I have a possibly embarrassing number comics around, including some repeats with different covers. Sometimes it’s because I love the art and want a hard copy of it. Other times, it’s because I absolutely love the specific story. And it took me a long time to get to a state where I was okay giving away my copy of a “classic” book I didn’t like without feeling guilty about it. So I’m certainly not one to judge people for keeping books around. I get it. But I think it’s important to self reflect on why you’re doing it. If you don’t enjoy a book or you never finished…doesn’t it show more respect for that book and its contents to pass it onto someone that might actually enjoy it?
I think it’s tied to the obsession over ~classic literature or the meaningless category that is literary fiction. In a lot of cases, it’s not actually about the book itself but the idea of it. While many of these books are very good and have had a lasting influence on their genres, there are a number of others that are heavy handed, sexist, racist, no longer relevant to today’s society, just plain boring, or all of the above at once. There are books published far more recently that are just as well crafted and thematically meaningful, if not more so, while also being more engaging and interesting that are dismissed for their genre or the fact that they were written in the twenty first century. That’s silly. Books should be enjoyable. There are books today that have just as much value as books from two hundred years ago. There are books with less. There are a lot of books out there, written over the centuries in countless languages, and each one deserves the same chance as others do to be read and loved. By extension, that means that each book can be hated and discarded. It’s a book and an individual’s feelings towards it. People have different feelings about different books. That’s perfectly fine. Stories are subjective, and there is no right answer about what is good and what is bad.
Books are great. And stories are wonderful things, whether that story be in a book or an e-book or a movie. I just really, really wish the focus was more often on the actual story, rather than the form in which it’s consumed or the object containing it. Books aren’t a sign of how smart we are, so maybe we could just enjoy them instead of dictating how others do or preaching the virtues of something to someone that hated it? Pretty please?