Are books sacred or fetishised?

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Or, does the idea that books are sacred imply that they are fetishised objects? I got to thinking about the ‘sanctity’ of books through a couple of completely divergent experiences.  The first time I ever seriously considered the why and wherefore of the sanctity of books in our culture, I felt ashamed at the accusation, by my boyfriend at the time, that my habit of writing in the margins of novels and textbooks was akin to book burning. Then, about two years later, I felt the same sort of humiliation when a different boyfriend concurred that if I was going to annotate my books, I might as well salute the Führer and throw my reading material on a pyre. Well, he might not have used those exact words, but I did sense that he was appalled at my blithe underlining of the passages I most adore in my favourite novels, done with the same spirit of selfish disregard as Maude Flanders, who infamously underlined her favourite bits in Ned’s bible.

More recently, I’ve been reading The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and one of the central themes seems to be the iconoclastic book burnings that occurred throughout Nazi Germany. I have to admit that I haven’t yet finished the novel; in fact, I’m only about a quarter of the way through. And no, I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, but rest assured that it’s next on my reading list. Nevertheless, book burning has always resonated with me as a tragedy: I consider it the most violent and destructive form of censorship, perpetrated by terrifying people and horrific regimes, like the Nazis.

Honestly though, I don’t think it’s fair to claim that the act of scribbling on the pages of your favourite novel is the same as ritualistically burning it in public (or anywhere for that matter). Let me be clear: the books that I own are among my most valued possessions, and admittedly, there are some books that I have kept since childhood and will never part with. I can understand not wanting to ruin a book by rendering it unreadable, and I agree that book burning is wrong. But the whole idea that books should be kept pristine, that it’s disrespectful to write in them, tear them, batter them, put creases in their spines or even cover them with Contact, irks me to no end.

In this context, I have come to the conclusion that books are indeed fetishised, and I’m of the opinion that this is bizarre and unhelpful to anyone who actually enjoys reading. I like to carry novels around with me and naturally, they get a little battered and creased even if I try hard to keep them ‘nice’. I refuse to feel bad about this, because books are designed to be handled. I love second-hand and library books for this very reason: it’s almost as if they have been ‘worn in’ for you. Although, it is annoying when a book is so well-thumbed that it automatically falls open at a page that reveals a crucial part of the mystery too early. Nevertheless, books do not need to be handled with kid gloves* and I believe the idea that they are to be looked at and kept nice has spawned such unpleasant phenomena as the ‘coffee table book’ and suchlike. Indeed, I’ve just been skimming an interesting article by Matt Erlin about the history of the commodification of literature in eighteenth century Germany. It makes for very interesting reading, not least this bit:

“Literary works…not only served as an important medium for the dissemination of knowledge about and attitudes towards commodities in Germany; they were themselves understood as commodities, and the rapid production, circulation, and consumption of books generated a great deal of anxiety among German elites” (p. 356).

Which I guess brings me back to book burning in Nazi Germany. The Nazis also had anxieties about the consumption of books – what was being consumed and who was consuming it – but this must be distinguished from strange ideals that elevate books to a status that means people like me feel bad about engaging with – interacting with – texts in ways that helps us to better understand, critique, admire and emulate what an author might be saying and how they are saying it. I get the feeling that classist attitudes underly peoples’ reverence for the printed word, almost as if the physical act of reading indicates middle-class refinement and taste, and anyone who doesn’t know how to read ‘properly’ shouldn’t be allowed to read at all.

So to conclude, allow me to indulge my hyperbolic imagination: to claim that books should be read and not written on brings to mind images of Victorian schoolmasters wrapping the knukles of children who feel more comfortable writing with their left hand. Just because YOU don’t like to write on your books doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or that I’m a bad person because I do. Just like those poor little Victorian lefties, I should be allowed to do what feels most comfortable. And I’m comfortable making notes on the pages of my books. Fair enough, right?

Unless, I guess, if you’re borrowing the same high-use book that I’ve just had checked out for the last 2 hours.

*I concede that some books do, in fact, require handling with kid gloves. Examples can be found here and here.

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7 Responses to “Are books sacred or fetishised?”

  1. Nick Says:

    Those are some pretty strange experiences you’ve had. Most people are now familiar (whether they know it or not) with the medium neutrality of information. A book has little value as a physical token (ink on paper), just as a CD has none as a polycarbonate disc. Their worth comes from the transmission and storage of information. It doesn’t matter how you get it, so long as you get it.

    So here’s my speculative two cents. The people who think there’s some precious and ineffable about books are also more likely than average to believe in mental qualia and an immortal soul that can’t be reduced to its physical constituents.

  2. christinachurl Says:

    Perhaps. But I think if you were to ask someone their opinion on which has higher quality/value or was a more reliable/authentic source of information, then presented them with two textually identical volumes, one digital (on a CD) and one printed (in book form), they’d be more likely to choose the printed version. Maybe I’m weird, but I’ll admit that I’m more likely to accept news that has been printed in a newspaper than that which has been published on its affiliated website (see “How hard can you possibly fail?”)

  3. christinachurl Says:

    Dammit! *rapping

  4. christinachurl Says:

    and also: *knuckles

  5. kathi Says:

    I can’t believe that anyone would equate writing in a book to book burning, but clearly they have.
    I confess that I get squirly on occasion about writing in books, but I do draw distinctions between books you are studying and books read for pleasure. (Also, books you own and books you’ve borrowed.) I have made notes and highlighted and underlined in most of my textbooks and also in my bible (yes, I’m a bible-reader, so sue me), but it bugs me when I borrow a book from the library only to be distracted by someone else’s thoughts and reactions to the story I’m reading.
    Despite being mildly annoyed by it, however, I do not see how it can be considered a grave misdemeanour and it is definitely not on a par with the violent censorship of book burning.

  6. Kate Says:

    I’m with Kathi – I often find myself scribbling in my text books. I would never consider it in a library book because it’s not my property to put my thoughts into, and books I read for enjoyment I don’t need to make notes. A worn book looks well read and loved and that is a wonderful thing. Why else would second hand book shops be so popular?

    However I am guilty of folding the corners of pages to mark my place in a book. I know how much people hate ‘dog earring’ books but I’m just too hopeless with book marks!

  7. christinachurl Says:

    Grrr. *Underlie.

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