March 22, 2012

Booksy: exit through the Penguin India souvenir shop

I completely agree with Raghu Karnad’s assessment that in the viral youtube video ‘The Joy of Books’, the books themselves are entirely incidental, and it has nothing to do with books, or reading or the joys of books or reading. In ‘Fake Bibliophilia’, his articulation of being ‘Booksy’, i.e. concentrating on the cosmetic aspects of books - “over-scrutiny of cover design, the fetishization of typefaces, the reading of writing about reading and writing, and the purchase of Penguin India souvenirs” is an interesting idea to think about.

If he recognises that “in our new digital lives, we’re deluged by text..the textures and objects that once filled our lives have been replaced by the bald touch screen.. the Internet generates a billion virtual simulations.”, then he would agree that we are deluged by a veritable avalanche of images as well. The expression and representation of life through media has undergone dramatic paradigm shifts in a short span of time, and possibilities through technology are still expanding rapidly. The over arching experience though, is one of how visual all expression has become. We’re bombarded by images constantly – through advertising, televisions, public spaces, political life, social life, and over the internet which encapsulates all of this. In a sense, we process the world in an image format. There is a go-to image for everything; love (hand-in-hand, sunset on a beach), sex (model in lingerie with cherry in mouth on plush bed), happiness (diamond ring), youth (perfect toothpaste smile, to get you kissed and laid) leisure (casually lounging on a beach chair), power (a revving motorbike). These are of course, impositions from corporations that want to sell you products, but equally influence and are influenced by the trend of consumption and manner of living. If one is part of this “market” then by default, we process, live, and format our own lives and experiences to the co-ordinates of this superimposed imagery available (either as aspirational, or as a point of departure). Given this, I would instinctively imagine that booksing is a part of this paradigm, and a part of channelling the reading experience into something visual.

Karnad's suggestion that Booksing leads us to read less, because of this visualisation, that “booksing: a palliative appreciation of books as things, which muddles up the nostalgia for a more tactile world with our anxiety about just not reading enough” can be debated. Rather than not reading enough, I feel that booksing could be the tail end of the reading experience. People who do engage in this fetishisation of the image of books, will be overwhelmingly readers (and a small number of non readers). Within the readers, the bandwidth of their ability and reading might vary, and it might be entirely possible, that the person who reads the least, is the person who engages in this fetish the most. This is beside the point. Like coming home from a holiday, viewing your images, selecting the ones to frame, uploading them on facebook etc., booksing too, is not a replacement for the experience (holiday/ reading) itself, but an expression of the experience, which due to the dictates of the zeitgeist, happens to be image heavy. The images from the holiday will obviously not fully capture the exact amount of fun you had, or how much more enriched you are by the experience, but can be a rough indicator. The same applies to the image of a book. It is extremely reductive, but anodyne. Within this framework of engaging though images in the first, outer circle of your digitalised life and personality, an image of books can trigger deeper connections, conversations and inroads into the more immediate circles, and a more “real experience” of reading and sharing books.

Look at it like this, if three minute piece of music, can inspire sale so much merchandise, than is it not part of the same process, that a dense, rich, evocative book, span an equal expression of appreciation? Books, though they’re compact, trigger a multitude of feelings, ideas and connections. So while books themselves resist being one dimensional and fitting into this image paradigm, indulging in booksing can be thought of at par with making a fan video for G Unit, or putting up a Family Guy poster in your room, or framing antique whiskey labels to hang over your bar. It is an expression of connect (with the book itself, and with reading in general).

Karnad also goes on to say that the “one thing I find that helps me to read these days is the appeal of a specific book—never the idea of books which dance around like hopeful fireflies.” Speaking for myself, I find strong commune and resonance with both the activity of reading and readers as a group. Reading, like writing is solitary, but both sustain and root themselves, very much in engagement with the world. I feel an immediate connect with a reader, regardless of the specific books read, and assume familiarity in knowing the delight they too must have felt in charting a delirious trail, from one author to another, from one book to a trilogy, from a poem to a collection; mapping their own bibliographic evolution.

In his final punch, Mr. Karnad says that “it leaves me feeling suspicious and sad and mad, because it looks like a worthless welfare cheque from a healthy creative form to one that’s thought to be moribund. If reading is indeed about to die, then booksing is a good sign of its dropping pulse. If we stopped booksing instead, we’d have one less distraction.” I don’t think booksing is a distraction away from reading, and it certainly doesn’t inspire any sadness, suspicion or anger in me. If someone has a loved a book, and wants to have coffee out of a mug with its title, there are graver things to lament about. I’m not going to suggest that Booksing adds to your reading experience, but it definitely doesn't take away from it. You can choose to not buy that penguin poster of a bookshelf, and continue to process the books you read like you have before, without a single image of them on display.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm. Much in agreement and appreciation of your points. To me, Kamad's anxiety about the fetishisation of physicality of books/merchandising came off as having undertones of the whole internet generation-very low attention span-everything electronic so no appreciation etc. Much as The Joy of Books video could be about grocery store objects, I'd say bookshelfporn can easily be equivalents of glossy interior decoration magazines or coffeetable books for that matter. People like looking at pretty things, what can you say to that.

    Also, the nature of reading has also changed I'd say, it's immersive in a different way, linked to the point you make about visual/image consumption becoming dominant now. (Tumblr's text-unfriendly by virtue of being so geared to image circulation interface is an excellent example of this.) Popular literature like Harry Potter, Twilight and Hunger Games were all massive, and that's what led to their movie tie-ins, which is a kind of merchandising in its own way, no? And perhaps the actual stuff surrounding these media (t-shirts type memorabilia, conventions and cosplay) is just nerdery manifesting itself for books, whereas perhaps it was confined to comics and sci-fi tv shows/movies before. (Not to mention memes of course.) It's to be expected that this kind of merchandising will manifest for... to put it crudely, literature that holds snob-value as well. Publishing houses also have to grow with market trends non?

    And I expect bookstores will also be coming up with fancy events or something "gimmicky" as well, to compete with the meteoric success of online book delivering services. I can just see the slogan already "There's nothing like the FEEL of a bookshop!"

    For my part, I would like to be one of those nerds who dresses up or puts up posters, but unfortunately for whatever reasons I am not. I'd love to own one of those penguin "A Suitable Bag" bags just to express my own fannish appreciation of A Suitable Boy. I don't think that says anything anxiety-provoking about my reading habits.

    And unrelatedly, his point about the Oscar-winning movie could be read another way. In context of how it's been said that 'The Artist' was awarded all these Oscars in a very 'lets celebrate movies and the history of moviemaking!' way. I can't guess as to why this happened, but perhaps there's a larger trend of, to use his word, fetishising of nostalgia/media that's been happening?