Buy books. Refuse to read them. Impress your friends.

Yes, I know it’s the Huffington PostBut this gem caught my attention, from a truly bizarre article called “12 Books You NEED on Your Bookshelf”:

But if you’re going to buy hard covers with at least one eye on the opinions of visiting friends and relatives, these are our choices of the titles you really should have on display.

And which books should you “really have on display”?  If you really want to impress, you must own copies of both Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which the Huffington Post helpfully shows in a side by side slide rotation. 

I know.  I don’t get it either.

In a striking touch of whimsy, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style makes the list, because “it is never a bad thing to hint at a dislike of improper grammar.”  Uh, sure.  Perhaps it is an even better thing to simply use proper grammar, but obviously not as much fun as showcasing The Elements of Style like a cool knickknack to give your guests a vague impression of respect for the English language.  I mean, everyone adores the grammar police, so “hinting” that you too are capable of hijacking Internet threads to lecture about comma placement will absolutely garner respect in the right quarters.   I love The Elements of Style, but I never felt the urge to use it as an attention-getting prop.

These choices are perhaps unintentionally funny.  But some are just sad.  Toni Morrison’s Beloved makes the list, not as the great, gut-wrenching read that it is, but as a kind of shelf candy to put on display to steal esteem from your acquaintances.

Who does this?  Who buys books solely to impress their friends?  Outside of a university English department, I mean?  (Except the denizens of English departments at least read the books.)

In fairness, the Huffington Post refers to these books as “conversation starters” and “fascinating reading in their own right” but emphasizes their utility as status markers.

It isn’t necessary to actually read these books, which is why the Morrison choice is sad.  One need only create the illusion of having read them to score easy points on some obscure status scale.   Immediately afterthe article refers to its list as “fascinating reading” it assures us that, according to the Daily Mail, buying books solely to impress is common practice in Britain:

The research by Lindeman’s wine found Pride And Prejudice is the book most of us lie about having read, followed by The Lord Of The Rings, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter and The Hobbit.

Really?  People feel a need to wow their friends by lying about having read The HobbitWuthering Heights is apparently another book, according to Lindeman’s, that people wish to be seen reading but don’t actually read.  According to the Daily Mail, “A survey suggests the average Briton owns 80 books which they haven’t read but are there only to make them look more intellectual.”

I would ignore these articles as spots of silliness, except context changes the game into something more tawdry.  Apparently circles of folks, none of whom apparently respect literature or even bother to read it, invest considerable money in decorating their homes with books so they can appear to be literary.  They then create the awkward fiction of discussing books they’ve only pretended to have read with other people who are also only pretending to have read them. 

We’re in an economic crisis, and so, predictably, the humanities are held in contempt. Humanities majors, who are trained to think critically about the disconnects in society that facilitate this crisis, are routinely scorned in Internet forums as losers who can’t get jobs.  Fewer college students are choosing majors in the humanities. 

According to the Vancouver Sun, in an article called “No future for serious reading?” that ran at nearly the same time as the Huffington Post piece, nobody bothers with serious books.  It opens with a quote from Christopher Hitchens:

The chances of a 17-year-old American being able to say anything meaningful about Thomas Jefferson are disconcertingly slight. The chances of the same student knowing anything significant about Poe, or slavery, or of being able to translate the most elementary Latin … or even being able to define the word ‘ironic’ are slighter still.

And yet – there is supposedly some perceived value in displaying literary books you don’t read to make some weird impression on your friends who don’t read either.  This has nothing to do with buying more books than you have time to read – I get that – or with buying books as a reference source that you intend to occasionally consult.  I get that too.   This is strange. 

Status strategies are rarely simple, but I can’t think of any that involve investing considerable money in pretending to have done something that fewer and fewer people value.  And getting your friends to play along. 

What do you think of buying books solely for status in the current anti-humanities climate?   Anyone else struck by the oddness of this practice?

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