Yesterday over at the New Yorker, Rachel Aron looked at “Internet Book Fetishists Versus Anti-Fetishists” in literary culture. She analyzed different facets of the book-loving movement, including the new “altered-book art” movement. But reverencing books as objects, according to the New York Times’ James Gleick, “is sentimentalism, and even fetishization.” The physical book “is like the coffin at a funeral,” he wrote in an op-ed. “It deserves to be honored, but the soul has moved on.”
In The Atlantic, Ivan Kandler took up a related fetish: typography. Kander interviewed designer Ben Barrett-Forrest on his fascinating video, “The History of Typography,” and writes that fonts and typefaces have become a “mainstream obsession,” largely due to the rise of font-making software like Type Lab.
Barrett-Forrest also speaks of tactile and sensory addictions within the typography movement: his video was designed to help people “experience typography on a tactile, unrefined level. My hand-cut style brings the faces off of the computer screen and onto a more physical level that can be pushed around, manipulated, and imbued with extra personality.”
He speaks of a popular trend towards “hand-drawn looking typefaces,” designed to look fun or artistic. As a typography lover myself, I have noticed and appreciated this trend. Some typography designers’ ornate, delicately drawn letters seem tantamount to art.
Both articles point out the depth of feeling derived from interaction with the medium. Like art, the piece’s very “canvas” and “brush strokes” draw us in and help us experience reality in a new way.
Perhaps book “fetishists” are addicted, as Arons writes, to “the feel of the pages, the heft of the object, the smell of the paper.” I can’t deny that the crackle of old pages and thump of closing hardback covers bring back nostalgic memories of childhood. Nor can I deny that the musty smell of library books or used bookstores have a special charm.
But book lovers are devoted to more than mere sensory reminiscence. These experiences, I would argue, are moments of artistic inspiration: we are “experiencing” words in new and exciting ways, opening up our minds to new and beautiful elements of reality.
When art enthusiasts enter an art gallery and survey freshly painted works, their first reaction is sensory. The canvases still bear the musty smell of pigments and glisten with wetness. In that moment, the spectator feels close to the painter. While an art aficionado can access Picasso’s paintings online, no one could argue such viewing is equivalent to firsthand observation. When Picasso devotees walk into a gallery, they are solely fixed on the artist and his reality.
Similarly, physical books limit readers and force them to ignore distractions. They enter the world of the author, and are obliged to forget or ignore the world outside. An e-reader allows easy shifts from reading to Facebook or a game app. But for the physical book reader, one must enter another universe.
There is a reason online interactions are called “virtual”: such activity is expedient, and approximates reality, but is not entirely “real.” Our “virtual” bookshelves on Goodreads and Google Books are useful, but they do not actually exist. To me, the “reality” of reading is somewhat lost online. The words belong to a virtual world of pixels. Reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden online cannot equal holding it in my hands, jotting notes in the margins, and underlining favorite passages. As William S. Lind noted in a 2003 TAC article,
“Is watching a Mass on television the same as going to Mass? No. Is knowing that it is a fine day in Ouagadougou the same as enjoying a fine day in the park? Again, no. Is watching people on a video screen the same as knowing actual people? No, indeed. But in more and more lives, the virtual is replacing the real. And the image is substituting itself for the Word, the Logos.”
Some books are easiest procured online. Textbooks, for example: my college biology textbook was online, containing various search tools, interactive diagrams, practice tests; it was a fantastic study tool. Viewing famous artwork online can serve as a useful educational resource. But seeing a pixelated version of Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal cannot equal viewing it with my own eyes. Such reading or viewing practices falls short of a religious, philosophical, or artistic experience.
I don’t mind if people choose to read pulp fiction, paperbacks, or textbooks online. So perhaps I am not a die-hard fetishist. But books should always remain available in print. The physical book isn’t a “coffin at a funeral” – we haven’t abandoned art just yet.