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    Against the objectification of books (or, some thoughts on The Discourse).

    Brittany Allen

    May 9, 2024, 10:17am

    A few weeks back, The Washington Post ran a piece spotlighting “super readers,” a self-selecting class of book nerds who pride themselves on reading very, very fast. I clicked on this article even as my hackles rose, and some pre-programmed scorn settled in the back of my throat. Why, I asked the author, who could not hear me in WashingtonWhy pedestal the reader who goes to books like a buffet, craving quantity? Why is our culture so intent on praising folks for reading not wider or more deeply, but faster and more

    That’s a rhetorical question, of course. This late in the timeline, I can’t pretend to be surprised by the symptoms of capitalism. Books are not exempt from our relentless, always-be-optimizing productivity culture. Maris Kreizman observed a trend toward their “bulletpointification” in a recent column. “It’s troubling to see books treated like mere vessels for self-betterment the way that cold-water therapy and Fitbits are,” she wrote. I tend to agree. 

    What strikes meand Kreizman, later in her essayis the profound incompatibility between the object of the book and the ethos of productivity. Novels, in general, take a long time to create and consume. Unlike other cultural products like, say, the TikTok, they are not necessarily designed for single-use, speedy consumption. Their effects, too, are nebulous. Such that they cannot be repurposed for advertising in easy, obvious ways. 

    Because what one can “get” from a novel is rarely clear at the outset, their quantitative consumptionor, let’s just call it binging them, to keep with the timesseems particularly silly. 

    And what do we hope to “get,” anyway? 

    When it’s not merely working as a portal to another universe, what’s a book even for these days?


    If we follow the implicit WaPo thesis, one answer to this question might be: “being a metric for self-improvement.” After all, “super” is not a bad word to hear applied to oneself. Ditto, “achiever.” Or, “Meeter-of-goals.” 

    I know from personal experience that apps like Goodreads, which allow one to set an annual reading goal, have contributed to the gamification of reading. For many years, I used the site to share recommendations and gently compete with book club buddies. But it didn’t take long for me and my peers to start taking our reviews too seriously. Thanks to the site’s design, we got to thinking about books in terms of a reductive ranking system. (Three gold stars for “liked.” Four for “really liked,” etc.) We’d up our ante every spin around the sun, turning a book-a-month goal into a book-a-week one. Until “hitting” a specific number of books per annum became another New Year’s resolution, on par with designs to work out or eat better. Books, in short, became for me something to win. 

    Others have documented Goodreads’ slide from promising nerd hub to hellsite. (In another salient op-ed for The New York Times, Kreizman called the site’s current incarnation not just broken, but “an unreliable, unmanageable, nearly unnavigable morass of unreliable data and unfettered ill will”!) And it’s true! Over my years on the site, I watched what began as a fun nudge decay into a nasty compulsion. Yet another app impelling me to achieve, to finish, to judgeand yes, to buy. 


    This brings me to another hackles-raising corner of Recent Book Discourse: the deification of the book as object. In a sharp musing for The Walrus, Michelle Cyca frankly catalogs the postmodern function of the book-as-physical prop. Sure, we may read a novel, she allowsor some of us might, anywaybut that novel is just as often enlisted as a “decorative object…[a] social signifier,” and evento invoke a John Waters maxim–an erotic spark. As proof that these shallower modes of engagement are dwarfing the novel’s intended purpose, Cyca sheepishly offers up her own TBR piles, as well as the confession that she is a hoarder of print.

    Around this point in the article, I had to lower my hackles and consume some crow. Because I also can’t avoid the judgy spines from several towering piles in my immediate vicinity. And if I’m honest, there are books in those piles that I have purchased as totems, in support of a story I tell about myself about being a “reader.” 

    (If not always a super one.)


    To recap, then: books can be competitive measurement, and they can be wallpaper. They can be status and intellectual symbols, and self-soothing mise en scène. Habits, context, and costume, in short. All the things that make up…a character. 

    In a last bit of hackle-raising clickbait, I offer this recent analysis from The Conversation. Inspired by the results of a poll showing that “61% of Generation Z and millennials have read a print book, e-book or audiobook in the past 12 months, but only 57% identify as readers,” some journalists have extrapolated a theory. Apparently, these days? “‘Reader’ is an identity, not a behavior.” 

    I fear, with the addition of this brain-bursting line, that we have entered Tedious Nitpickers’ Corner. The walls of reason are closing in. For what could it possibly matter, whether or not a person “identifies as a reader?” Hackles high yet again, I was ready to chalk all the statistics up to clickbait nonsense. But then I looked at the raw data again, and saw tentative cause for rejoicing.

    Because there is another way to tell the story of this poll: according to a recent study, more people read books than care about narrativizing themselves. And if that is true, couldn’t it be that the pleasurable task of reading is winning out against the dumber work of self-mythologizing? Is there hope for the book as mere portal, after all? 


    This brought me back to the “super readers,” collected in the WaPo piece. A deeper read there reveals that they are not a monolith, those supers. Not in terms of their approach. Sure, there are those interviewed who offer tips on optimizing output but dispense no specific titles. Train as you would a marathon, they counsel, with spreadsheets and tracking apps. Consume, consume, consume. But on the other hand, we must consider the retiree Paul Scott, who chalks his reading speed up to insatiable curiosity. Or the book blogger Vivian Taylor, who emphasizes the pleasure she gets from reading, going so far as to describe it as her “self-care.”

    On closer inspection, I find the main thing I take from all the supers is jealousy. Not for their reporting systems, but their time. 


    I think this bit from Cyca finally captures both my holy relationship to books, and my shifty, totemistic impulses about them:

    The truth is that books do have a kind of animating power to summon long-held memories, emotions, and ambitions. My books are an archive of who I’ve been, who I might be, who I still hope to become: maybe a person who has read all of Roberto Bolaño’s hulking posthumous novel 2666, which I’ve been intending to finish for well over a decade now.

    Her use of the specific title here is grounding. Because Bolaño is also on my list. I appreciate the nudge. And, today, I honestly believe I’ll get around to him. Becauseif you’ll permit another self-soothing fictionI like being thought of as a super-dooper reader. But I love to read. 

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