The French gastronome Brillat-Savarin began “The Physiology of Taste” (1825) by declaring, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” You are also what you read — or, perhaps, what you own.
So Leah Price writes in an article in the Times. You are what you own: ah yes, books — notice your book-reading identity relies not so much on consuming books by reading them as it does on by doing so with your money — and what they show about your personality. Checking out someone’s bookshelf for a peak into their fealties, political beliefs, taste, and, of course, spending habits, seems so self-evident that it is a strange realization that it wasn’t always something that people did.
Bookshelves, and the requisite package of cultural assumptions that allows them to shed light onto our souls — the codes and mores that make Prices’ sentence “To expose a bookshelf is to compose a self” meaningful — became a part of the middle-class life in the early twentieth century. Ted Striphas gives a good overview of this broadening cultural understanding of bookshelves in the second chapter of The Late Age of Print. Central to it is the broad consumption of books as commodities (which, for better or worse, bibliophile friends, modern books have always been). At the onset of the Great Depression, several large publishing interests contracted Edward Bernays to help them keep products moving during the economic downturn. Bernays reasoned that “Where there are bookshelves, there will be books.” About the same time (serendipitously?), home builders began installing built-in shelves in middle-class homes and consumer magazines began to run articles on how to properly curate them, for appearances sake.
The perception that book consumption was in some way less crass than other forms of conspicuous consumption probably could only have been developed hand in hand with the mass production of books. Then, suddenly, not only the wealthiest could afford a home library; we all — I mean, all we of middling means — could. The answer to Price’s rhetorical question, “Why display fakes when you can buy real books you have no intention of reading?” is that in the past, before the paperback revolution and the wonders of modern offset printing, setting book blocks was a highly labor-intensive process, and books themselves were more expensive than cardboard fronted with fake spines.
Books became unremarkable as objects gradually, as a direct result of the increasingly unremarkable cost of their manufacture. Then, what was more impressive than a custom-bound library, in the eyes of middle-class consumers, were the reading habits that a shelf of well-worn books suggested: those of a literate person, a person who thought and returned to certain passages often, who literally displayed their learning and tastes. Perhaps the person was shrewd or sensitive or whatever. In any case, he or she embodied the values that were at the core of an economy that was shifting from the production of goods to, more and more, the production of texts and images.
Anxiety over how to best present oneself in this new, self-consciously literate milieu comes through the joke service Price highlights at the end of her essay: customers (of a certain means but lacking in time or inclination) could fake the appearance of having read the books on their shelves by paying a fee and having a certain number of passages underlined and pages dog-eared; those willing to pay a higher cost could even have clever, revealing receipts used as a bookmark, etc. That this joke was funny indicates its audience’s anxiety about what owning books means, and the seemingness of intellectual consumption.
Bookshelves are becoming quaint, passé. They’ll eventually be only stages of self-presentation, the bulk of practical reading having passed onto screens. When that happens, what we see on shelves will be mostly performance, and not indicative if we’re actually interested in someone’s reading habits; better to look at their RSS reader. And I assume that services similar to the joke Price pointed out exist for people’s Twitter feeds and Facebook pages; if not, I should start one.