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Books As Signifiers
Commonplace Newsletter #63
It’s quite unnerving when you run the numbers. See, I’m 35 years old, near enough, and assuming that I both manage to read a book a week on average (at times I’ve had spells where I’ve surpassed this number but at the moment I am falling short) and also live for another half a century (which is by no means guaranteed) that means that I have time to read 2600 or so books before I die. And this does not account for all of the rereads or old favourites that will surely eat up some of that quota.
It makes you think. Even assuming that I were to put most other ambitions and activities aside and devote my life to reading I doubt I would be able to crack the 5000 book barrier. There simply isn’t time.
And so, given this narrowing of options, I think it’s worth pondering the nature of reading on a more meta level. Not- what should I read next- but more- what is the point of reading at all? Judging by the general discourse surrounding this topic I don’t think people truly give much thought to if reading as a continual pursuit is worth the commitment.
Which is why I have chosen to do that today, however uncomfortable it may prove to be.
‘Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live.’
Like so many other quotations, the above gem from Flaubert reads as if it once had considerable power and rhetorical heft. I can imagine it stirring the soul of the 19th century bookworm who, upon encountering it, may have shook a triumphant fist and said ‘Yeah!’. Or whatever the Victorian equivalent of that noise and gesture were. But given the passage of time and the commodification of literature I can now only imagine that quote embossed on a bookmark or a canvas tote bag or stitched onto a sofa cushion besides others that say ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ or ‘Good Vibes Only’ or other such exhortations that are the decorative equivalent of plugging your ears to the screams of your own despair.
But I digress. The message behind Flaubert’s quote, then and now, is that most people read wrong- for lack of a better term- and for the wrong reasons. I suspect this is true. In fact, things have declined further so that the childish idea of reading for amusement strikes us as a fairly highbrow, wholesome and worthwhile things to do. Questions of taste aside, how many people read for fun anymore? Just for the hell of it, guilt free, without any further motive or desire to craft a self-image other than that of someone reading a fun book and having a good time? I suspect it’s fewer than you think.
See, with Flaubert’s quote the focus is on getting away from the instrumental and towards what you might call the existential. Don’t read for X or Y reason, read for intrinsic reasons. Well, we’ve fallen away from that gold standard, by and large. Now not only do we read for the wrong reasons, but we don’t even read at all. We pretend to read for even worse reasons. Books have become this totemic signifier of a certain prestige. Rather than being repositories of ideas and stories passed on through the ages, books are pins to be worn on a lapel or membership badges that you flash to get in to the club. Signifiers. In a way books themselves are now no different than those sofa cushions, just a shorthand way of signifying that you are positive or caring or deep or that you value science or tough guy philosophy or whatever the case may be.
Actually reading these books is entirely optional and unnecessary to achieving this signalling goal. You don’t read the collected minutes of Nike shareholder meetings before you decide to craft your wardrobe around vintage Air Jordan’s. The signal is enough and the collectively agreed upon nature of such signals is easy to grasp. No hard reading is necessary.
When The Fun Stops, Stops
So books have become signifiers like Air Jordans or a certain haircut or what you order at the bar. (My favourite drink is a double bourbon because I like the taste, so I tell myself, it has nothing to do with the mixture of masculinity, sophistication without pretentiousness and strong, silent, old school charm that such a drink supposedly conveys to the audience that is the world. I just like the taste. Honest.). And so the need to actually read them has vanished. You just need to know enough about them to maintain the chosen facade.
Even when mediated by screens and several thousand miles of seabed cables I can tell that most people who tell me that there favourite novel is Crime and Punishment haven’t actually read it. They just want to be the kind of person who has read it- which is presumably someone who is worldly, serious, intellectual, prizes the great works and the great thoughts of a supposedly dying or at least largely forgotten Western world. The impression trumps the commitment needed to slog through that difficult prose. I know this because driven by similar desires I slogged through that book when I was sixteen and to be honest I can recall hardly any of it. The experience was too challenging for my adolescent brain, for my uncultured self. I understand why people don’t bother, just as I understand why people wouldn’t want to criticise such a canonical work as being a difficult slog. The fault must not be in our totems, but in ourselves.
So given this, I believe that this explains is why the books that we actually do read are those that fall under what Flaubert calls the books for the ambitious. Instructional books, easy, breezy non-fiction fare that has chapter summaries and bullet points and lists of action points that we can follow to make ourselves fitter, happier, more productive. Or at least that’s what the dust jacket tells us, and so this is what we in turn tell ourselves. Of course this becomes signalling too. I read self-improvement books because I am a go-getter, a striver, someone who is on the journey to riches and success and influence. The fact that you only signal and strive for what you inherently lack is the elephant in the room, the thing who’s name we must never speak.
It’s all enough to make you give up on this business of reading. If everything is a status game and a mimetic question of trying to manufacture the chosen image for how you want the world to see you then the sane option seems to be to somehow opt out and give in, as impossible as that might be. But then anti-signal signalling is a signal too and so the whole thing becomes a maddening trap.
Which is where Flaubert’s children come in, and this is where I believe Flaubert’s quote goes wrong. Don’t read for amusement like children… but read in order to live. Well, I believe those two things are the same. To live well is to be amused by life and the folly of humans, especially the specific human body and brain which we find ourselves saddled with. The kids have got it right. Life should focus on the serious matter of play and fun and reading can facilitate this in the way that few other things can. Great books- ones that speak to you as you are, not some fanciful projection of who you think you would like to be some day- can be a great source of amusement, pleasure and consolation. But you have to find them for yourself. They do not necessarily correspond to ‘The Greatest Books of All Time’ and I also highly doubt they correspond to any given Bestsellers list.
Reading is a question of what speaks to you, in whatever quantity is suitable for you. It’s all about discovery, idiosyncrasy, serendipity and individuation.
Reading- or pretending to read- is sold to us as a process of becoming someone else through striving and effort. Whereas true reading is an effortless and fun process of becoming ourselves. And perhaps this is what it means when Flaubert says that we should read in order to live.
Until next time,
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