As our cultural products are digitized, the book-as-artifact takes on new cultural meaning.
If you’ve been reading of late, you will surely have read that books are going out of style, and fast. Headlines proclaiming the ruination of literature and accompanying doom of civilization have graced the pages of nearly every heavyweight paper in some form or another. In 2007, The New Yorker’s Caleb Crain lit the literary flame with his Bradburian headline, “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?” Following this, as is so often the case, was a retort from The Guardian’s Steven Johnson, telling Crain and The New Yorker to get a grip – the medium was the message here, and the message was that people are still reading (perhaps even more than before), just not in print. And for a trend that’s already been observed in a myriad of other cultural arenas – the shift from vinyl to mp3, analog to digital, etc. – it seemed a logical evolution.
The digitization of a cultural product feels inevitable, even destined to happen, leaving some to wonder how this hitherto entrenched progression of technology has possibly surprised anyone.
But wars are still raging, albeit literary, wordy ones, and if you’re not getting the irony here, I can’t help you much. What is most interesting, beyond the hyperbolic proclamations of intellectual and creative annihilation, is what the digitization of the printed word has done to the cultural status of the book. Inasmuch as the medium is the message in terms of its socially transformative power (see: Marshall McLuhan’s oft-cited essay on the power of media), it is also a means of enacting and communicating our identities to each other: a performance. The medium we choose for our cultural consumption and expression conveys to others who we are, or who we like to think we are, or who we want others to think we are: the onion-like layers of social/self-deception.
It comes down to simple semiotics. Roland Barthes had a few things to say about it, before he gave up on mankind and all, and my favourite (and now unbelievably obvious) observation of his was the notion of “second-order signs” or “connotations” that an object can signify beyond its basic, first-order representations. A book signifies its basics – its matter, the content within its covers – but it also signifies a class or culture that it is associated with and that consumes it; its connotations exceed its mere physical being.
Which brings us back to the notion of representation. What is happening in the literary world has as much to do with self-representation within contemporary culture as it does with the actual digitization of cultural artifacts. When a cultural product begins to fall out of use by the mainstream, its cultural signifiers – and thus its cultural significance – continue to transform, albeit in different ways. Thus, while the literary world of print is dwindling physically, it is flourishing culturally. The easier and cheaper it becomes to read a book digitally, the more those who still invest in print are elevated to a different cultural status, at least in terms of their literary preferences. As news media like The New Yorker and The Guardian herald the dawn of the illiterate generation, the semiotic power of the printed word is actually (re)bourgeoning.
Don’t believe me? Just look around: The signs are everywhere, and if you participate – however reluctantly – in the roundabout games of culture and capitalism, you will see them. Library-themed wallpaper, novel-adorned iPod cases, and – I kid you not –perfumes that smell of old books. Countless websites are fetishizing the libraries of the rich, the stylish, and the literary with titles such as “Bookshelf Porn” – and if that doesn’t brazenly celebrate the book’s semiotic fetishization, I don’t know what does.
As always, the film industry is quick to jump to trend. Innumerable movies are being based on the classics of literature: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the Brontë sisters’ Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Murukami’s Norwegian Wood, and who could forget the one-man literary masturbation that was Woody Allen’s A Midnight in Paris?
More than anywhere else, this fetishizing of the printed word and subsequent surge in literary paraphernalia can be seen in the fashion industry – the elite, the modern-day sartorial bourgeois. In an article for The National Post, fashion critic Sarah Nicole Prickett aptly wrote, “for fashion watchers, the new elitism ascribed to books is a boon. If the masses are against you, fashion is for you.” In other words, as books fall out of the mainstream, they become a target for the fashion industry, which seeks to align itself with symbols of elitism.
And so naturally the fashion industry has adopted this literary trend and harnessed it for all its consumptive power. Etsy shops are selling “vintage” earrings embellished with portraits of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. The signifier-gluttonous and hitherto literature-free clothing shop Anthropologie is now selling J.D. Salinger boxed sets. Fashion designers are silk-printing libraries onto evening gowns. Others are crafting exorbitantly priced clutches to look like famed novels. Still others are basing entire collections on the idealized styles of classic heroines, filling the streets (and street-style blogs) with images of overgrown Lolitas and bedrooms à la Virgin Suicides.
But it all makes sense, doesn’t it? We are increasingly living our lives online, forever stuck in the cat-and-mouse game of losing and actualizing ourselves on the internet, and it is all done to the beat of social media. We spend so much time representing ourselves – or, as The New York Times was so quick to say of our generation, “selling” ourselves – that we hardly have the time or incentive to put our Macs to sleep and pick up a novel. And after all, why just read a book when you can wear your literary elitism for the world to see?