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29 January 2020

I can’t stand the earnest worship of books as objects – it’s literary posturing of the first degree

 The “magic” of books isn’t in their physical form, but in their words. I have no problem using a Kindle instead of breaking a paperback’s spine.

By Amelia Tait

The crime scene: an oak desk. The murders: triplicate. On 21 January the novelist and editor Alex Christofi posted a picture of a gruesome massacre on his Twitter timeline. Next to the image was a confession. “I cut long books in half to make them more portable,” he wrote, above the photo of halved copies of Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. “Does anyone else do this? Is it just me?”

Judging by the immediate and vocal uproar Christofi’s tweet received, no, no one else does this, it is just him. Twitter users flocked to jokingly call the reader a monster and murderer, with many more earnestly begging him to stop and buy a Kindle. The tweet trended on the site and earned over 65,000 “likes”, inspiring articles everywhere from the Daily Mail and the Washington Post to the Guardian and Vice. But here’s the thing – phrased as kindly and gently as I can possibly manage – everyone who cares is an idiot.

Christofi committed no crime: he rather sensibly ensured that he’d actually read long, critically acclaimed books on his commute rather than leave them at home (and let’s be real, he and his scissors would’ve been saved a job if a decent editor had cut at least one of those books in half 20 years ago). The posturing and pearl-clutching around his ingenuity is a symptom of a wider culture of bullshit around books.

Last year, it was the Japanese decluttering expert Marie Kondo who became the enemy of the bookish. Again, quite sensibly, Kondo suggested that anyone looking to make room in their home should get rid of books they know they aren’t going to reread, and “ideally” keep just 30 books that are personally significant to them. Judging by the outcry, she might as well have been rapping her knuckles on doors and demanding paperbacks were brought out for the pyre. “I just don’t trust someone who doesn’t understand the magic of books,” was one (typical) response online.

Kondo didn’t say “don’t read” or “never read anything again”, so to me this criticism doesn’t make sense. The “magic” of books isn’t in their physical form, but in their words. I can’t stand the earnest worship of books as objects. Like almost anyone who writes, I am a big reader, but I am a lover of stories, not books. This is perhaps why I have no problem using a Kindle instead of breaking a paperback’s spine, and why I have just one bookcase (one shelf of which holds video games!) in my home. I can’t understand the point of keeping books you’ll never reread (or perhaps have never read). I dislike seeing a picture of a pile of books shared on Instagram without any mention of the content within, or a book placed at a jaunty angle on a coffee table to indicate the table owner is Very Very Smart.

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Since I first heard “The Emperor’s New Clothes” at primary school, while sat cross-legged on a tattered classroom rug, I have been unhealthily obsessed with the story, and the idea that people can so easily be tricked into seeing something splendid that simply does not exist.

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Every time I watch an acclaimed film featuring one too many lingering shots of puddles, I am compelled to argue that it is all style and no substance. When I can only get halfway through a book critics have praised as groundbreaking, I immediately become suspicious that the gold thread I’ve been promised isn’t really there. I want to be like the precocious young peasant who has noticed the emperor is naked.

Pointing at the emperor’s butt cheeks is easier for me, psychologically, than admitting that I’m the one who’s naked. If I don’t understand or agree with something, it’s more comfortable to declare, “Actually, it is everyone else who is an idiot” than admit that perhaps I don’t have the capacity to understand a certain book, poem, film or song. I know that about myself, and I wrestle with it, and too often I give in to temptation. Sometimes I even play dumb, with eyelash-batting questions like, “Can anyone explain what this passage means?” in an attempt to catch others out and break a spell that I’m only imagining exists.

But still, the one upside of this obsession is that I’m never, ever going to show you my finest gold clothes (or, as is more common among today’s exhibitionists, tweet my A-level results from ten years ago under the guise of helping teenagers). I hate posturing, and using words longer than eight letters, and waving books around as a way to seem smart. The reaction to Christofi exposes those who think of books as status symbols, rather than simply things to read. If any of the people commenting truly cared about encouraging reading, they would have commended the author for getting through physically cumbersome works.

“I used to think I didn’t like long books,” he wrote in the Guardian after the backlash. “But then I realised that I just didn’t like carrying them around or holding them open with one tired thumb, squashed into someone’s armpit on the Tube in rush hour.”

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think we should all cut our books in half. But I saw no one criticise Christofi for turning his books into single-use items – instead he was condemned for desecrating something perceived as holy. Surely people should have instead been outraged that Christofi can no longer give his books to someone else to enjoy? But what should I expect from people who would rather hoard dusty books in their homes than pass them on to charity shops?

Perhaps that’s too harsh – ultimately my philosophy is, to each their own. But this was part of the problem with the reaction to Christofi: people tried to take something they saw as personally bad and make it Universally Bad, despite no harm being caused. No good can ever come out of policing the way people choose to read. 


This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out