s.e. smith, ‘Is the ‘Shelfie’ Just Intellectual Wankery?,’ xoJane (via se-smith)
Speaking as the grandaughter of immigrants, as the daughter of working-class people (all of whom had piles and piles of books), as somebody who grew up poor, and who has been broke on and off for most of her adult life, who has worked as a secretary and a customer service rep…
…speaking as somebody who drives a car that’s old enough to drive itself…
…speaking as somebody who didn’t have the money to finish college…
…I call bullshit on this.
Books can be bought second-hand, inexpensively. They can be got at thrift stores, for crying out loud, and all you need to enjoy them is a place to sit and enough light to read by. Books are re-usable and storable. You can buy them when you have a little money and keep them for later.
And they give us something to do on the bus.
For those of us who do ride or who have ridden a lot of buses.
They are, in terms of dollars per hour, the cheapest way to educate, solace, or entertain yourself.
I have a lot of books because they are cheap, not because they are expensive.
ETA: I agree with some of the points that the OP is making about the potential for elitism and pretentiousness in framing, but the quoted segment above is elitist nonsense in its own right. Only the middle class is intellectually curious?
Warning: Scott unexpectedly blows his top a bit.
Oh, my. Where to even begin…
S.E. Smith’s piece is written with something resembling good intentions, but it’s predicated on a recontextualization of the act of book ownership that is ludicrous and insulting. It also features a defining-down of the term “upper middle class” that would be pretty breathtaking even without the rest of the junk surrounding it, but I’m not even going to really dwell on that. Let’s talk a little bit about the economics of books.
The mass-market paperback is an industrial artifact that strikes us as a bit out of place these days, not so much a fish that has smoothly evolved to walk on land but a fish that flops about after its water has receded, fighting to stay alive. The MMPB, which only truly came into being during and after World War II, was mass in a way that most of us barely comprehend in 2013 because its former sales spaces have been killed off in a process lasting more than thirty years. These things used to be bloody everywhere… every grocery store, every pharmacy, every newsstand, every gas station, every department store. The ubiquitous MMPB significantly pre-dates the era of specialized national chain book retailers (like B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, Borders, B&N, themselves now slain or transmuted by shifting commercial landscapes). The main point is, there was a time when exposure to the chance to buy cheap paperbacks was 100% integrated into the experience of going out to buy any of the other necessities of life. The rudimentary book aisles at Wal-Mart and other surviving ‘big box’ stores in 2013 are simply not analogous; not in their depth of selection, not in their price points, not in their physical accessibility.
Return to the phrase “cheap paperbacks.” This too is critical. The MMPB was meant to be inexpensive and disposable. It was meant to attract impulse buyers. It wasn’t meant to be printed on acid-free archival paper and passed down as an heirloom for generations to come. It was banged out cheaply to be sold cheaply… or pulped if it didn’t sell quickly enough.
These books were not status symbols of the “upper middle class.” They were dirt-cheap popular entertainment for all social classes, and all social classes were tempted by racks of the things nearly every time they entered a retail establishment. Remember that… these days the book aisle at Wal-Mart is a place you seek out on your own initiative. Forty years ago, cheap books were something the store would have tried to sell to you at multiple points, in the places you find now DVDs and candy bars and cut-rate video games. Cheap books WERE the DVDs and cut-rate video games of forty years ago.
Now, grandpa isn’t here to lament that time has moved on, kids. Grandpa likes DVDs and video games quite a bit. Grandpa just wants you to remember that books were targeted for sale to everybody, everywhere, and were not doled out of vaults at country clubs.
We also need to talk about those magic places called used book stores, where even high-quality editions were (and are!) available at prices so low they make the fresh MMPB on a supermarket rack seem like it’s printed on sheets of iridium. I grew up in the 1980s on a steady diet of visits (thanks, mom!) to the land of the dime book, the quarter book, and the fifty-cent book. Reference books might run a dollar. Library discard sales were similar treasure hunts; so many potential hours of entertainment and education compressed into such a tiny price tag! I’m not even talking about the other major haunt of my youth, the public library, because I think it’s sufficient for my point to focus solely on book experiences that came directly out of the wallet.
This was not, and is not, a necessarily expensive hobby. This was not, and is not, some sort of elitist fucking class marker of the indolent and narcissistic.
"Owning large quantities of books," "being familiar with them," and "frequently referring to them" aren’t symptoms of elitism. They were, and are, and ought to be ASPIRATIONAL SYMPTOMS OF BASELINE LITERACY AND CULTURAL APPRECIATION. Social crusaders in every age of our modern world have understood that functional literacy is part of the very BEDROCK of building and empowering a population to be something other than terrified serfs. Literacy is a common weapon and books are common treasures. Trying to re-frame the act of building a personal library as shameful posturing for the rich and privileged is bullshit. It’s anti-intellectual concern trolling predicated on the flabbergasting notion that the poor don’t have an interest in books or what they represent. It’s no fucking different than the depraved right-wing notion that the poor can’t “really” be poor if they have such luxuries as refrigerators and running tap water available to them.
Oh geez not this again. My grandpa worked in a mill when he had a job at all, and read all the time and mailed us books and valued (self)-education and all the other things that are supposedly upper-middle-class, even though he never went to high school as far as I know. I’m living at the poverty line and routinely have to get rid of piles of books due to lack of shelf space. So are my parents and they read all the time. Reading isn’t even a marker of middle-class status let alone upper middle class. WTF. I mean I know there CAN be class-related stuff with books but it’s so far from absolute that these statements are ridiculous and offensive. (via youneedacat)
I have ton of books and I am poor as hell