Loving Books in a Digital Age’ (essay)


The cartoonist Roz Chast once captured a certain kind of ambient guilt or embarrassment in a single, wordless image on the cover of The New Yorker. It shows a man in an overstuffed chair. Behind him looms an enormous set of built-in bookshelves, crowded floor to ceiling with 200 or 300 volumes. The spine of each book has facial features, and they wear expressions of alarm, confusion, anger, horror, indignation and contempt. (A few look amused.) The man sits — as you’ve probably guessed by now — staring at his laptop while wearing a pair of headphones.

Looking up the image online, I see that it is from an issue of the magazine published in October 2010. The following month, The New York Times announced that after spending “two years creating a system that tracks and verifies e-book sales,” it would be listing the fiction and nonfiction best sellers starting in the new year.

With the benefit of a decade’s hindsight, it was clearly a definitive moment in the emergence of the cultural ecosystem Jessica Pressman describes in Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age (Columbia University Press). Not that concern about an “impending or incipient decline of reading” was anything new; television already had a long run as the menacing factor, well before the World Wide Web appeared. Pressman, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University, treats “the death of the book” as “a distinct (and reoccurring) discursive genre,” usually performed in a melancholy key.

Bookishness is not a requiem, however. And while the author is clearly a bookish person in the usual sense, her title refers to a 21st-century cultural tendency rather than to a personal quality. Books on the old model (a codex of printed pages) have not disappeared, nor is there much reason to think they will, in spite of a decline in brick-and-mortar storefronts as the standard venue for distributing them. Developing alongside the proliferation of devices and applications for reading texts digitally, Pressman identifies an array of creative practices focused on the traditional book: sculptures, films, knickknacks, design elements in digital publishing and so forth. As a literary critic, she pays especially close attention to fictional narratives that experiment with the conventions of printed text.

These manifestations of bookishness do not repudiate or even defy the rise of digital culture but co-exist with and comment on it in various ways. “The changes the digital era has wrought in our lived experience — our habits, our schedules, our temporalities — shape how we feel about books,” the author says, “so looking at those feelings and their bookish emblems and practices shows us the contours of life in the digital age.”

Some of it amounts to sentimentality, even — to use a loaded word — kitsch. Toward the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown, I purchased a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of a painting called The Cat Library by the late Charles Wysocki, of Franklin Mint fame, which depicts a wall of shelves into which a variety of felines have lodged themselves wherever a gap appears between the deluxe editions. While not one of Pressman’s examples of bookishness, it could be:

“Much like the Great Books of the Western World series or the hardbound encyclopedia sets that filled the bookshelves of mid-20th-century bourgeois American living rooms,” she writes, “bookishness is about class and consumerism. It is about constructing and projecting identity through the possession and presentation of books. The difference here is that unlike the shelf of leather-bound but never-opened canonical texts, books no longer need to be owned or physically displayed in order to do the work of self-construction.”

In the case of The Cat Library, the image serves to conveys an extreme of homey nostalgia, with books as a sort of luxurious furniture. It falls in or near the category of what Pressman calls “bookish fakery,” examples of which she finds displayed across the internet: photographs “of cakes and candles made to look like books, wallpaper and curtains printed with book covers, Christmas trees created by stacking books with green covers into a tall triangle.” More labor-intensive are the short films using stop-motion animation to portray books living their own secret lives when readers are not around. The most elaborate example is probably Mourir auprès de toi (“To Die by Your Side”) from 2011, available here.

Also on the spectrum of bookishness is the incorporation of the traditional book’s elements into digital media: “From webpages that imitate the format of the printed page to e-readers that incorporate the dimensions of a handheld codex to the visual cue of a page corner primed for turning-as-swiping on a digital tablet and to the iconography of a bookshelf or a file folder to organize data, the visual rhetoric and vocabulary of books serve as an important orientation device for digital culture.”

The exchange of features goes in both directions, as in the case of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, one of the novels Pressman says “allegorize[s] fears of the invisible and viral ways that digital information moves by presenting, through formal innovation on the page, the book as the means for illuminating and responding to these threats.” I have not read the other fiction she refers to, but her assessment of the spooky labyrinth of House of Leaves is spot-on. Bookish fiction of this sort “position[s] the book medium — that discrete, stable, and self-contained object — as a kind of weapon against disembodied data and ‘flickering signifiers.’”

The world is already overstocked with concepts that have “post-” in their names — but perhaps the most interesting suggestion framing Pressman’s cultural critique is the idea that we have entered a period best called “post-digital.” She attributes the term to Florian Cramer, who writes that “‘digital’ has become a meaningless attribute because almost all media [now] are electronic and based on digital information processing.”

The bookish phenomena Pressman identifies and analyzes express “cultural ennui toward the digital and nostalgia for older methods.” (Stop-motion animation in the short videos she discusses would be a cinematic equivalent of bookishness.) At the same time, bookishness is not just a remembrance of things past. That New Yorker cover showing the distress of a private library at the loss of a potential reader (to YouTube, probably) is from an era in which the divide between print and digital media was sharp and deep. Now the distinctions are more fluid, and the most ardent of readers prone to drift across the old boundary lines.

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