Women’s Bookshelves and Clutter

A while back Electric Lit ran an article by Hannah McGregor called “Liking Books is Not a Personality.”  It addressed a minor controversy in the book blogosphere over lifestyle guru Marie Kondo.

I don’t have strong feelings about Marie Kondo and her theories of decluttering. I know a number of people who have found her “does this object spark joy” way of relating to stuff to be meaningful and if feeling overwhelmed by too many possessions is an issue for you then it might be just what the doctor ordered. I have no problem with Kondo giving this advice, take it or leave it. (My brother, who edits the journal of the Society of American Archivists, tells me that Kondo comes up frequently in a light, humorous way when discussing the management of collections. “Should we keep this manuscript?” “Does it spark joy?”)

I did, however, have some opinions on the Electric Lit article defending Kondo and decrying “bookishness.” The background is that in an episode of Kondo’s TV series she suggested that people get rid of books that do not “spark joy” and book lovers began to write think pieces about whether or not books are clutter. Some people had strong feelings on the subject.

As it was usually framed, it was one of those ridiculous either/or arguments that are essentially meaningless. No one actually values all books. Each of us have books that we treasure and books that just take up space. If you feel as though you have too much stuff, then you might want to cull your books and you probably already do. But if you value your library above anything else you might get a bit miffed at the idea of someone else viewing your books as things that take up too much space.

When the question is framed in terms of the value of books as an abstract concept and whether they, as a category, are “clutter” then a lot of people (including me) will come down on the side of the argument that a book is more than just another material object. I agree with McGregor that the strong reactions to this idea amount to a feeling of offense at “the demotion of these objects from sacred to banal.”

My main objection to the Electric Lit article is that it is framed with the type of commentary that we have far too much of these days. Rather than address the argument itself, McGregor repeatedly talks about the type of person she believes holds the point of view, and critiques them. In this case, the type of person is the educated white woman. (You can picture the privileged suburban woman sipping white wine with her book group in a well-appointed living room.) The whiteness and femininity of people making pro-book collecting arguments is referenced repeatedly in the article. And a few examples of specific white women making ad hominem attacks on Kondo become symbolic of the feelings of the entire group.  Here is the article’s summation.

Let’s end by bringing this full circle, back to the outrage so many (white) people directed toward Marie Kondo’s suggestion that books might be things like any others. The intensity with which self-identified book lovers love books is far from “natural”: it is instead the culmination of a complex set of cultural and economic transformations over the past 300 years that anthropomorphized books while simultaneously valorizing their consumption, that made book-loving into a consumer identity so well-defined that it has birthed a thousand cross stitch patterns. So well-defined that when threatened with a competing cultural understanding of what kinds of things books are, and how you might want to relate to them, many “bookish” folks completely lost their shit.

The article gives a rather interesting history of the commercialization of book publishing– a field in which the author is an expert– in support of the premise that books are, indeed, commercial objects rather than sacred ones.

One aspect of commercial book publishing that McGregor does not explicitly address is the huge market for commercially produced Bibles. It is a highly competitive, and profitable, business. But as Timothy Beal pointed out in The Rise and Fall of the Bible, while half of all Americans agreed with the statement that “the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teaching” 28 percent of them admit to never or rarely having actually read it, “while biblical literacy is about as low as it can get, Bible sales have been booming.”

Could it be that biblical literacy is being replaced by biblical consumerism? In today’s consumer culture, we are what we buy, wear, and carry. We identify ourselves by our patterns of consumer choices, by the market niches we buy into.

Bibles are, indeed, consumer objects and a lot of people, perhaps a majority, interact with them as symbols rather than as literature. While this is true, it would be hardly surprising if Christians, in McGregor’s words, “lost their shit” if someone suggested that Bibles might be clutter. (The expression “lost their shit” rather than “took offense” is mocking.)

So we are in agreement that people are giving a kind of commercially produced object a sacred meaning. Why are they doing this? Here is where McGregor and I differ. She interprets it as status posturing. White women felt threatened by Marie Kondo because their ability to signal their superior status was being called into question.

The status of the book as object is at once denied and overburdened: the physical codex is both a stand-in for the act of reading and a trophy to demonstrate that you have the correct emotional and intellectual relationship to that act. Mere book-owners may see books as things that can be repurposed as decor or given away when they’re no longer needed, but readers know that books contain other worlds — and their book collections become status symbols, signs of their heightened sensitivity.

Of course, there is a certain amount of peacocking about reading habits. I have a particular pet peeve about that staple of book blogs “Does [fill in the blank] count as reading?” Can you count an audiobook as “reading”? Is a graphic novel a book? Who cares? Unless you’re reading to impress others. But just because some “bookishness” can be virtue signalling doesn’t mean it all is.

Let us, for the sake of argument, grant the premise that “bookishness” is a form of fandom akin to say being a Trekker or a sports fan. We do not generally assume that the fan is expressing superiority over non-fans by buying a team bobblehead or going to a Star Trek convention. We tend to interpret those activities as self-expression and trying to build a sense of identification with other fans who share an enthusiasm. If you told a sports fan that his sports memorabilia was clutter you might also expect to elicit a heated response. If you told a high-school music fan that her rock posters were clutter you might also get an emotional reaction before you ever have an opportunity to explain the finer points of Kondo’s KonMari method.

I would like to offer my own alternative explanation of why someone might be bothered by the idea of books as clutter, and then of why (white) women in particular might have had their buttons pushed by Kondo.

Let me begin with a story from Peter Hay from The Book of Business Anecdotes (one of the many books I keep on my shelves to refer to in my job as a writer). Hay was once the director of a small literary publishing company based in Vancouver. One spring, Hay and his partners had to get a loan to get them through the slow post-Christmas season. They asked a banker if they could borrow against their inventory.

“What inventory?” he asked.

“Well, we have a quarter of a million dollars worth of books.”

“So these books have printing in them?”

“Yes, that’s what we manufacture.”

At that the banker turned down the loan. “The paper would have been worth something,” he said. “but you’ve spoiled it by printing on it.”

Any writer can feel the pathos in that story. I once came across a used copy of one of my books described by an online merchant as being damaged because I had written a personal dedication in it.

Books can take years to write. One of my novels took ten years. My biography was the result of six years of research. And much of that consisted in tracking down (sometimes expensive) rare books. I have three shelves of them that represent all that work. It would never occur to me to even consider, for a moment, that my life would be improved by getting rid of them.

Even the books I have written on short deadlines with a view to being light entertainment were the result of a great deal of effort and collective enterprise. Every book that is published, good, bad, or indifferent, has a team of editors who scrutinize each word, and layout people and cover artists to make it look nice. You want to believe that effort has a special kind of value.

Ideally, a book reaches across distance and time and conveys an idea to another mind. It is  deeply human endeavor. When writers and readers write blog posts about the value of books they are, in part, aspirational. We need to assert that books are more than paper, ink and glue.

When it comes down to it, a book is an object that can be thrown away, burned, torn, pulped. The book that I, or anyone else, labored over for years, and proudly signed at an author event is someone’s clutter. I am well aware of that. How bleak it seems to care so much about something that someone can easily cast away as an annoyance.

The artist in me rebels against this reality. The artist in me must affirm that the book is a sacred object. My books, the books I love to read, your book, the books that people wrote years ago. I take as an article of faith that literature matters, in all its forms even though I know that there are a lot of books that truly are not worth the paper they are printed on.

“Telling stories, listening to them, are givens of human nature,” wrote Anthony Julius in the Times Literary Supplement. “It is what we do, as a species. They are also givens of human understanding, essential to our making sense of our world. They make us; they situate us. They are constitutive both of our species identity and our social identity. They are pleasures, for sure. But they are also needs. And needs should be self-justifying. Yet we cannot assent. We know that needs are often not accepted as self-justifying, even when accepted as needs (rather than, say, wants or desires).”

Art making, and art receiving are self-justifying human needs. When we write articles in praise of books this is what we (at least some of us) are affirming.

In any case, there are certainly worse things to value and prioritize than books. There are also worse things you could do than support the creation of new literature by buying them. (Even if you do eventually donate them to a rummage sale.)

So let’s move on and talk about why women in particular might have a strong reaction against the notion of books as clutter. McGregor writes that in the 19th century:

The bibliophile was a man, and he collected books not indiscriminately but with great attention to their status, their value, and their collectibility. But, as [Diedre] Lynch [author of Loving Literature: a Cultural History] points out, women were still engaging with book culture, just not via consumer decisions. (Women would become increasingly responsible for domestic consumption decisions in the 20th century, which is when the book market begins to swing decisively towards the female readers). So what form did women’s bibliomania take? Lynch describes a kind of literary scrapbooking effort that bears a striking resemblance to contemporary fan fiction and fan art worlds…Hold onto this contrast between a highly discriminating form of curated library collection and a highly personalized, almost fannish, engagement with books. The latter, I think, more accurately predicts the direction that bookish culture has gone in the 21st century, perhaps because book buying has become a predominantly feminized activity.

It is worth noting that not all scholars agree with Lynch on the gendered nature of 19th century book collecting. Heidi Egginton in The Journal of Victorian Culture argues:

The late-nineteenth century saw private book collecting gain a renewed respectability and cultural cachet as a leisure pursuit for the upper- and middle classes… during the 1880s and 1890s, this particular type of collecting practice was used rhetorically in a range of printed material to venerate ‘gentlemanly’ book-buying, in contrast to feminine forms of engagement with old books in particular. In spite of women’s comparative lack of advantage in the market for antiquarian editions, however, I argue that such a critique would not have been articulated so forcefully had women not been taking a determined interest in rare books. Evidence from central London booksellers during this period suggests that a variety of women were making antiquarian collections of their own. Male bibliophiles who denigrated female book-buyers in the periodical press were attempting to partially invent a homosocial tradition of collecting in order to distance their own pursuit from what they saw as the more emasculating elements of modern consumerism. This was a response not just to developments in contemporary print culture, but also to the growing appreciation of second-hand goods of all kinds among affluent female consumers with aesthetic and literary tastes shaped independently of male judgments.

Book buying, and book writing, have long been feminine activities. (By the way, if you’re interested in the history of women’s book ownership there’s a blog for that.) As I have pointed out here a number of times, in Victorian England female authors outsold their male counterparts, but their works were not deemed worthy of serious study and the memory of many once influential women has not found its way down to us. (A number of scholars are now trying to recover these “lost” works and bring them to our attention.) Books by women or which women appreciated have consistently been written off as fluffy, sentimental, non-intellectual and unimportant. If Egginton is correct, women were not only major consumers of popular literature, they were also creating “serious” libraries and archives to rival men’s, but their efforts, like their books, were denigrated.

It is interesting then to see a feminist writer contrasting the masculine “highly discriminating form of curated library collection” with the feminine “highly personalized, almost fannish, engagement with books.” Then following this with an argument that the feminized form of consumption led to the emotional engagement with middlebrow literature that book blogs now celebrate.

The bookish woman is not, she argues, the inheritor of the tradition of someone like Oscar Wilde who was broken by the loss of his carefully curated collection of first editions. Women’s claim to a love of literature is suspect because they are not discerning enough. All books are equally sacred in their eyes, and that means none of them really are.

Is it at all possible a century of being judged by the cleanliness of their homes, being told that this was more important than their intellects, and that their taste in literature is trivial might have colored their reactions to an authority suggesting their books might be clutter?



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