Robert Gray: Will 'Booksing' Lead to the Bibliocalypse?
"In our new digital lives, we're deluged by text but evermore removed
from proper reading. The textures and objects that once filled our lives
have been replaced by the bald touch screen, though for every physical
thing left behind, the Internet generates a billion virtual simulations.
One result is 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."
I came upon Raghu Karnad's article
last week in Mint, an Indian business daily that has a content
partnership with the Wall Street Journal. Provocative writing haunts
readers long after their eyes leave the page, and this piece certainly
did so for me. Even the headline is a challenge, if not an outright
scold: "Fake bibliophilia: Our irritating new tendency to fetishize the
physical book is actually an excuse not to read."
What intrigues me about Karnad's damnation of fake bibliophilia is his
assumption that the roles of reader and "bookser" are mutually
exclusive; that booksing is an inevitable sign of the bibliocalypse. As
an old reader and bookser, I must disagree.
A booksing high is best when shared. As Karnad notes, "If you use
Facebook or Twitter, you may have noticed the recent popularity of
'booksing,' which is very different from reading. Booksing tends to show
up as a gushy, shared celebration of the idea of books, rather than of
the experience of reading any given one."
I do use Facebook and Twitter, but I've also noticed that the same
people getting a little "gushy" about "the idea of books" are just as
often evangelizing for works and authors they have read and loved. I'm
blessed by the fact that a majority of the people I know are readers.
(This was not the case for much of my early life, so I appreciate my
bookish clan.) And here's a little secret: Most of them are, as far as I
can tell, fully addicted "booksers" as well. Hmm... I wonder if
surrounding yourself with people who love books and reading as much as
you do is just another deadly strain of booksing.
Karnad contends that booksing "often celebrates books through their most
cosmetic aspects." He criticizes, among many things, "the over-scrutiny
of cover design, the fetishization of typefaces, the reading of writing
about reading and writing." He warns of "an epidemic of Tumblr pages
that you can broadly call 'Hemingway, Typewriter,' in which famous
authors are seen doing things." He scolds us for the "veneration of the
collection, the shelf, the bargain bin, the discount haul, and other
forms of textual abundance (or, as we know too well, unread
Well, I'm part of that problem, too. Every day I scout the Web
wilderness for items that might be included in our Book Candy section of
Shelf Awareness for Readers
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz12977840. As unofficial
Booksing Editor, I find stuff like amazing book spaces
unusual book products
surgically carved book sculptures
And if booksing is really a bad drug for a terminal malady, then beware
the recent escalation of Pinterest
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz12977844, which is essentially a
booksing doctor writing prescriptions on demand.
Karnad seems particularly miffed about The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr.
Morris Lessmore http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz12977845, which
recently won an Oscar in the best animated short category. He observed
that you can leave it "feeling that both the film and the Academy's
tribute are hollow and, all the more for their loveliness,
self-defeating. I'd call them 'booksy.' " The Joy of Books
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz12977846 video, which currently has
three million views on YouTube, is also cited as symptomatic of the
decline and fall.
"The joy of reading is harder to access than The Joy of Reading video,"
Karnad wrote. "I'm as vulnerable to this as anybody. Yet when booksiness
gets a big plug from the Academy Awards, it leaves me feeling suspicious
and sad and mad, because it looks like a worthless welfare check 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."
Stop booksing? Never! In fact, I just saw a photo of this amazing
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz12977847" I want to
share with you. And now I'll go back to reading my new favorite
book--Geoff Dyer's Zona, an intriguing exploration of Andrei Tarkovsky's
film Stalker, which ends with a striking shot of a girl reading in a
room filled with books. Wait a second. Is that too booksy as
Amazon is making even more inroads in Seattle...it's the Godzilla of Booksellers!
Calling the 3.3 million-square-foot project "the largest development
ever proposed downtown
the Seattle Times reported that Amazon's proposed three-block high-rise
project could take eight years to complete, according to the architects,
who met with the city's Downtown Design Review Board Tuesday night.
Even though most of the attention thus far has been focused on the
37-story office tower that will be the centerpiece of the project, each
block will also "have shorter buildings--up to six stories--that would
be linked to the tower on that block by one or two skybridges. On the
block likely to be developed first, a small bridge would link the tower
to a 40,000-square-foot auditorium-like building seating 2,000 that
Amazon plans to build along Lenora Street," the Seattle Times wrote.
All Things Digital called the plans "fairly shocking
given the company's rapid growth over the past few years. Clearly, the
company's leader Jeff Bezos has a lot more surprises in store that may
push the company beyond its core online retail and digital businesses,
including the Kindle."
I really want to read this book, as it's about my home state of Iowa, plus it has gotten lots of good ink in the press recently:
By the Iowa Sea: A Memoir by Joe Blair (Scribner, $24, 9781451636055).
"This is a perfectly written book about a very complicated family under
extraordinary circumstances. A troubled couple, Joe and his wife, along
with their four kids, live in Coralville, Iowa, at nightmarish flood
tide. Blair knows how families work and knows the sorrow of families
working poorly. He also learns the way tragedy can pull things together.
His struggles with his wife and learning-disabled son are particularly
moving. No one can teach someone to write with Blair's level of honesty
and love." --Paul Ingram, Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City, Iowa
Another wonderful column from Robert Gray, and I totally agree with him on this front, too, as some books are meant to be read slowly, and enjoyed sentence by sentence, though I prefer reading Steinbeck and Patricia McKillip that way, rather than Ondajate:
Robert Gray: I'm Reading as Fast as I Can!
Maura Kelly sparked a flurry of online commenting, sharing and
retweeting this week with her "Slow-Books Manifesto
piece for the Atlantic. "In our leisure moments, whenever we have down
time, we should turn to literature--to works that took some time to
write and will take some time to read, but will also stay with us longer
than anything else," she wrote.
The enthusiastic and "real-time" electronic call and response struck me
as deliciously ironic, given her censure of the "Fast" entertainment we
are subjected to on "the screens that blare in every corner of America
(at the airport, at the gym, in the elevator, in our hands)."
And yet, by nature and temperament, I have always been a slow reader and
tend to agree with her manifesto, even if I harbor considerable
reservations about the dismissal of "non-literary books" and "emphasis
Before shattering my readerly innocence by accepting a bookseller's job
in the early 1990s, I was a lingerer over pages, paragraphs and
sentences of the books I loved. I underlined and committed excessive
marginalia. I read passages aloud to people I liked, saying, "Listen to
I could have been a poster child for the Slow Book Movement
http://www.shelf-awareness.com/ct/uz3642037Biz13048148 before there was one, though
as Malcolm Jones
pointed out a couple of years ago, the "phrase 'slow reading' goes back
at least as far as the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1887
described himself as a 'teacher of slow reading.' The way he phrased it,
you know he thought he was bucking the tide. That makes sense, because
the modern world, i.e., a world built upon the concept that fast is good
and faster is better, was just getting up a full head of steam."
In Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, Hana receives this advice:
"Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch
carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses.
He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I
believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most
writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he
did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of
his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is
During my slow reading years, I was habitually monogamous, spending a
month with a book, three months with an author's works. Most of those
habits became seriously compromised, however, when I entered "the trade"
and quickly adopted their bookishly promiscuous ways along with a
professional need for reading speed.
For a long time now, I have juggled several books at once--good books
and bad books; print books, e-books and audiobooks--while ever casting a
covetous gaze toward other tempting titles within reach on shelves and
online. There have been far too many one-night-reads, when I scanned 50
pages and bailed.
Despite these ongoing betrayals of my slow reading heritage, I've tried
to remain faithful to the ancestral tomes as well (currently slow
re-reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens). It may not be enough.
A booklover's life is a complicated affair. As a professional
reader--which is what booksellers and editors become--I don't have a
vested interest in the titles that land on my desk incessantly, though I
begin each with hope and the desire for love. Page one is always
Books are, in fact, irresistible to me. Always have been. Can I read
them all? No. But within the considerable limitations of my ability,
time and attention span, I'm reading as fast as I can. Except, of
course, when I'm reading... slowly.
As I said, it's complicated. What does that mean?
Not this: "The average person reads between 200 to 400 words per minute.
By at least tripling your reading speed you would possess a much wider
and more flexible range of reading rates and experience for the first
time the thrill of DYNAMIC COMPREHENSION. It is like watching
movie."--Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics
This: Reading is journey. On any trip, sometimes I go fast and sometimes
slow. The key lies in not choosing one speed over another permanently
(you'll hit a tree), but learning how to shift gears. Yesterday, I was
reading and writing at high speed in upstate New York. Today I downshift
to Our Mutual Friend and will spend an afternoon in 19th century London.
I can even see the road sign coming into view. Caution: Slow Reader