People who pretend to read as a status symbol are certainly obnoxious — but are they on to something?
by Oliver Traldi
When you first hear about a store called “Books by the Foot,” you might think: The name tells me they’ve got a whole lot of books to sell me. But it turns out this Washington, D.C.-area business is going for something far more literal.
Books by the Foot, Ashley Fetters tells us in Politico, “has become a go-to curator of Washington bookshelves,” offering “precisely what its name sounds like it does.” You call them and tell them how many feet of books you need. Maybe you tell them you’re a liberal; they send you books with the names of liberal authors on the spine. Or you tell them you’re a conservative; you get conservative authors’ names.
When the set designer for Meet the Press ordered books for their show, he “wanted … to project familiarity infused with a sort of intellectual gravitas,” so he “requested vintage books … and replaced the pages in a number of the books with Styrofoam in order to avoid overloading the shelves.” Fetters explains how Books by the Foot’s business model has changed in the Zoom era with “the rise of the well-stocked shelf as a coveted home-office prop.”
In my experience, the fact that nobody reads has become one of the mainstays of intellectual life. People get angry about an article, try to denigrate or even “cancel” its author, but it turns out they haven’t read past the headline, and sometimes not even that. People talk up some writer (or worse, some “thinker”), say they prove or disprove some thesis, but it turns out they can’t reconstruct the argument, and they just tell you to go read the whole body of work yourself.
When I read reviews written by others of the same books I’ve reviewed, I find wild deviations from the actual text, accounts of claims not even made, and psychological projection that could be fixed with a few minutes of reading. Most reviews seem to be essays about other topics Scotch-taped hastily on to the occasion of the release of some book, as if the book is just there to provide an opportunity for the reviewer to get to their hobbyhorse.
The Politico article reminded me of a trip I took to a D.C.-area bookstore last Thanksgiving. There I saw one of the strangest and most unsettling products I’ve ever encountered: a poster of a “feminist bookshelf” displaying book spines. It’s a truly great poster: incoherent in terms of aesthetics, genre, and politics all, it puts authors like Hillary Clinton, Roxane Gay, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria Steinem, Jessica Valenti, and Lindy West all next to each other, all their names written in that almost-but-intentionally-not-quite-accurate cartoon-ism.
The idea seems to be: You’ve heard these names rolling around; you don’t have the time or money to engage with the actual books depicted here, but you also can’t risk not seeming like you’re with it when it comes to feminism. So here’s this genuinely insane item which can signal your knowledge and affinities.
One of the most amazing things about the ideology behind the poster is that it’s fundamentally and obviously correct. There is no point to reading most of what’s on that imagined bookshelf. You can get most of the knowledge you need from the gibberish the authors tweet; even the sensible authors have already been funneled down into the discourse in the way they’re deployed by people in arguments: “Oh, you think that idea makes sense? Read some bell hooks, sweetie.”
People who don’t read and claim to are an improvement on, for instance, people who have read only one author and talk about them constantly.
“Oh, you like history? You should read Hegel on the philosophy of history.”
“What’s that? You need a casserole recipe? You should read Hegel on the philosophy of history for that, too.”
Lots of public debates are just battles between one group of people who have only read one book, or one small set of books, and another group of people who have read a different book or set of books. They go back and forth: “Here is what this book said.” “But here is what this other book said.” This is what’s mocked in the famous bar scene in Good Will Hunting.
The kerfuffle a couple of years ago about whether racism was “invented” in the Enlightenment reminded me of this — just a recycled and unquestioned trope a few people picked up in some seminar which is now beyond dispute since to dispute it would, after all, require doing further reading and thinking, which is to be avoided at all costs.
I myself talk about books I haven’t read all the time. I can think of tons of examples. I know the sorts of arguments they all make; I know which ones are good and which ones are bad. Even some of the books I castigate other people for not reading closely enough are books I haven’t myself even opened. On the other hand, there are books I’ve read cover-to-cover from which I’ve retained absolutely nothing. Those ones are the most dangerous, I think.
Ultimately, you’re on safer ground talking about a book you’ve read about than a book you’ve read. With those books, at least you know the sorts of things people say about them, and you can go ahead and say those things, too.
Is it so bad not to read?
I read and reviewed Hillary Clinton’s What Happened in 2017 and I think the poster is a better investment than the book. At least it has a certain kind of unhinged credentialism kitsch to it. (Of course, there’s very little chance that Clinton herself wrote either that book or the one included on the poster.) Most books I’ve reviewed have been hastily written, repetitive, unclear (and where clear, derivative), full of errors of spelling, grammar, fact, and common sense. Of course, most magazine and newspaper articles are no better than the books (present publication excluded, my editor required me to note).
In general, if everyone is talking about a book, it sucks. What’s more, public conversation about books can be inherently untrustworthy.
When the first negative review of a widely-lauded book by a much-beloved writer appeared in January, a writer friend told me that “everyone” knew the book was bad, and that that was why it had taken so long for anyone to review it negatively! By “everyone,” of course, they meant everyone who’s anyone — everyone who actually knows how to read and does, for real, read. But then “everyone” is virtually no one — and that’s even as a proportion of people involved in “the world of letters,” “the life of the mind,” and so on.
It’s been almost 10 years since Charles Warnke wrote “Don’t Date a Girl Who Reads,” an almost parodically self-congratulatory trash heap about how people who read are better than people who don’t, one of the most characteristic works of the ThoughtCatalog era of online writing.
What bugs me isn’t the not reading; it isn’t even the pretending, since, as I said, it’s perfectly possible for someone who hasn’t read a book to know more about it than someone who has read it. It’s the whole backdrop culture; it’s the reading as both experience and credential.
One positive lesson, though, is that simply reading can give one an “angle” nobody else has — even if everybody else is talking and thinking about the thing one is actually reading. The Big Short depicts, inter alia, how Michael Burry was able to predict the housing crisis and financial crash of 2007–2008 simply by reading: “How do you know the bonds are worthless?”, he’s asked. “Aren’t they filled with fucking thousands of pages of mortgages?” He answers: “I read them.” Then the reply: “No one reads them.”
I hear similar things from scientists: Studies get cited without anybody really looking into what they’ve actually established and how, and claims end up integrating into literatures, and entering into public consciousness, without really being checked. This is one of the sources of the replication crisis.
Michael Burry shorted the housing market. If there really were some sort of a marketplace of ideas, or of stories, or of scientific studies, or of anything that is communicated with the written word, it would be time and past to short that too. Bad ideas are tied together with the twine of bad writing, and people get themselves committed to whole constellations of bad ideas without really knowing what they involve — knowing only how they’ll look as a Zoom background. An attempt to please the Room Rater rather than to get anything from inside the books themselves.
So I say only:
Don’t trust the books, and don’t trust the people who say they’ve read them. So much of it is just a sham.