“Just owning books in and of itself is a telling social marker, and the number of books you own is another one. The bookshelfie and shelfie alike are ways not just to geek out with fellow book fiends, but also to send a signal about your cultural, social, and class position. Owning large quantities of books, being familiar with them, frequently referring to them, working in an industry where books are valued, these are all markers of upper middle class status, reflecting education, purchasing power, and social privilege.”
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.
Reblogging for commentary. I own tons of books. SO many books. Like, thousands of books. My family is hardly “upper middle class”-we’re lower middle class on a lucky/good day. That sort of happens when your mom’s a teacher and your dad’s a dryland farmer. We have little enough money that my college education was paid for primarily by a needs-based scholarship. And still, *we have books*. The library booksale, where you could buy books for a dollar an inch or five dollars a flat; Goodwill and Arc and Savers, where you can buy books for fifty cents if you hit the tags right; the bargain bins at Barnes and Noble, where you can get giant hardcovers for four dollars if you play your cards right; donations from friends and family; there are SO many places to acquire and buy books. So s.e. smith is being pretty damn classist in and of zirself to say that poor people can’t read or don’t have any means to. Kindly stop.
…books are a durable good. I mean, yes, if we’re talking about small children’s books, they’re probably not going to last for more than one reader, but anyone old enough not to smear jam on the pages is typically not consuming a book by reading it.
You may well have consumed your own interest in the book, yes, because how many times are you really going to feel compelled to re-read the latest science-horror or whiteguy-thriller or weirdo-conspiracy airport-market best-seller that you bought for a bit of literary popcorn? But be that as it may, the book itself—the object conveying the story—is still perfectly usable. Whenever you have something like this, you’re going to get quite a healthy second-hand market. In the case of books, that second-hand market’s been thriving since before our parents were kids.
So yes, posting a picture of your stuffed-to-bursting bookshelves does convey a certain amount of social information, even if nothing else can be deciphered. You, person who posted a picture of your bookshelf, are A Reader. You read books, or at least you’d like people to think you do. We do not need to be able to read the titles and authors on the spines to see that you believe reading books is important. As a way to convey purchasing power? Not so much, unless your shelves are stacked with nothing but leatherbound early editions or brand-new, recently-released books.
And, of course, let’s not forget the number of bookcase pictures that have nothing whatsoever to do with rarefied intellectual aspirations. The photo of the floor-to-ceiling bookcase with every Dragonlance book ever printed arranged in chronological order by story rather than publication date is not meant to communicate that the owner has strong opinions on the applicability of Marxist theory to freecycling. The picture of the cozy armchair next to a shelf containing the five most recent entries in the “Left Behind” series next to Daily Devotionals and Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul is not meant to say “I work in an industry where books are valued.” They signal social information and social status, yes, but thinking of it purely in terms of mainstream economic elitism is like trying to describe a sphere using a single axis.