The traditional function of the book is disappearing. Now that many more books are being bought than are being read, it is time to recognize that there is more to books than the transfer of knowledge and insight. What then are the new meanings of books?
A bookcase is pure intimidation. How often do visitors, impressed by the magnitude of bookshelves, ask whether you have read them all? Well, actually, no. Not a book owner exists who has read every one of his books, not even the greatest intellectual. We hear the echo of the words of the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, in the biographical film bearing his name: In response to the familiar question about his appetite for reading, he answered that he had only read five of the many thousands of books in his possession, and he added, ‘But I read them very carefully’.1
Of the millions of titles published each year, totaling several billion volumes, if only a fraction of them is actually read, what then is the function of the book? Can it still be seen as the knowledge tool that we suppose it to be? Or have books slowly taken on other functions, more symbolic in nature?
In a recent text, the Belgian curator and philosopher Dieter Roelstraete quantified the maximum number of ‘read’ volumes in a library at 5000.2 Their owner would then, for a period of fifty years, have had the virtually impossible task of reading two books every week. Where the purchase of books was concerned, Roelstraete admitted that he was well on course, having purchased 1500 books in 15 years, but his reading average was well behind the goal. He feared a rising stock of unread books.
Why feared? Who is it that determines that a book's most important significance lies in its being read? Seventy years ago, Walter Benjamin wrote about the murky motives that drove buyers of books to purchase books for their libraries.3 The contents of the books was only one of their possible reasons for doing so. Objective factors such as date of publication could be an equally good reason for buying a book, as can the color of a cover or a single illustration on page 40. A project by Laurenz Brunner and Marianne Viero completed a little over a year ago illustrated Benjamin's thesis. They collected books based on the colour of the covers. A row of books had also been selected with the word 'modern' in the title. The result had something of a Broodthaers kind of beauty and intelligence, and it comprised a poignant criticism of our shortsighted and conservative relationship to books, without interfering with books as a source of beauty, knowledge and insight.
In our culture, the unread book has a good reputation. The words ‘do not read’ carry with them the feelings of shame and failure, as Umberto Eco once noted. But this negative attitude fails to do justice to the unread book and misconstrues its importance, not in the least in respect of economic considerations. Do not forget that every book is first and foremost unread, and that it is this that determines its attractiveness, so that we are quick to part with cash in order to have it.
It is not the read book, but the unread book that entices the buyer into the Walhalla of the unread book (the bookstore), where, surrounded only by unread books, he is seduced into exchanging his income for as many unread examples as possible. Once purchased, the book immediately decreases in value, as if even the prospect of its being read has a devaluating effect. Now that we know that so many books remain unread, what it amounts to is that we are going to great expense to move unread books from the one bookshelf (the bookstore) to another (our homes).
As a rule, booksellers have a single explanation for this not so productive behaviour: the promise of the transfer of knowledge. It is the promise that makes the difference, causing us to reach deep into our pockets, more than the knowledge to be gained. Once the book is read, the promise has vanished and the value of the book has dropped to nothing. It even looks dogeared. The terms we give to books that have been read are apt: ‘devoured’ or ‘read to bits’. One by one, they can be seen as lost –dead bodies in the cupboard.
In fact, book owners have every interest in leaving a book unread. Only unread books give gloss to the collection. Only unread books have a future. Racks filled with pristine books are like a reflection of light offering a glance into what we might tomorrow become – if we were to read everything, which is clearly not going to happen. They are opportunistic self-portraits, mirrors of the ‘man to be’. People buy books not to learn, but to hope. It is self therapy, comparable to the purchase of a new shirt or slacks. Call it intellectual decorum, mascara for the literate.
The promise inherent in unread books does not mean that all of them are treasured for a lifetime. There are those that lose their magic and whose knowledge on offer – but not consumed – becomes a thorn in the side of their owners. Take a moment to add up the total of all the unsuccessful studies and unfinished courses, the countless uncompleted intellectual detours and false starts, the costly bad investments and half-read brain teasers.
Owners who have had enough of bookshelves filled with unfulfilled dreams often decide to clean up. The books are maneuvered out the door and condemned to a second life at the secondhand bookstore. There is not really a great deal of faith in the chances for such books as these, and we can poignantly conclude that most of these books are sold as gifts. Books as gifts have a great advantage over every other unread book: they can be left unread without a bad conscience. For books like these, it is not about the content, but that fact they were given as gifts. They bear only the love and the friendship with which they were given. As a final seal to guarantee this new function of the book, the name of the person who gave the book is often written on the title page, as if he or she were the new author.
The Art of the Unread
In recent years, the advance of the unread book has known no limits. In 2005, it led to the first polls in search of the most unread book in the Netherlands and Belgium (in the Netherlands, Donna Tart won the so-called ‘Yellowed Booklayer’ award; shortly thereafter, Flanders elected Hugo Claus’s Het verdriet van België).4 There was even an exhibition, organized by the Austrian artist, Julius Deutschbacher, who installed an entire library of unread books in the Palace for the Fine Arts in Brussels, comprised of books contributed by viewers.5
The growing importance of the unread book is perhaps most evident in the way publishers are exploiting the phenomenon. In total awareness that not ‘the reading’, but ‘the not reading’ has to be the trigger, they have declared books -- en masse -- as a fetish. Instead of being mediums, books become objects, sometimes quite literally, in the way some publications are even given end-table formats, including the legs. The book is marketed as a must-have, something that can no longer even be leafed through. The growing quantities of cookbooks, gardening books and travel books are further proof of the growth of the unread book. A year ago, in a text for METROPOLIS M, they led Jouke Kleerebezem to conclude that there are hardly any books being offered for the purpose of reading. Everything has become reference material.6
What has elevated the unread book into art is art. Only in this genre are books produced that radiate, in every possible way, that they do not need to be read. It is sufficient to leaf through them, thankful for the many illustrations or indeed the exceptional design, which in art circles has come to be more highly valued than the content. The coveted 'Best Presented Book' award is not about the most complete annotations, but about the design. The public does not buy art books to read them, but to 'look at them'. In most cases, they are just a souvenir, associated with the memory of a visit to an exhibition. Note the masses of people who blindly purchase the catalogue at a blockbuster exhibition. The theoretical essays will not be for their benefit, if indeed they are there at all. The tendency is to separate the illustrations from the texts, and we can expect that the art book with text might disappear for good.
Some producers of art books have now become so accustomed to their products not being read that they act as though the reader no longer exists. They carry on as if they are themselves their only readers – which is often also the case. Producing art books is not an economically lucrative activity. It is a hobby. Certainly where the catalogs of individual artists are concerned, extra money is required: from family members, galleries, art foundations. For self-promotion of this kind, there is no market and no channels of distribution, with the result that editions are handed out by the hundreds. The art catalogue functions in a closed circuit, as an exclusive promotional gift. Yes, a gift, and we know what that means for a book.
This is not to say that today's art book is an economic fiasco. Indeed, it is in the field of art that a publisher has appeared who knows exactly what the non-reading book buyer wants: Taschen. Taschen products are books to look at and book objects, and with them, Taschen has become the largest and wealthiest book publishers in the world. They also published Rem Koolhaas’ picture books. Their newest must-have: drawings of the Eiffel Tower, clearly not your average art historical study, but available in XXL format.
- Dieter Roelstraete, 'Art books now: seven theses from an accomplices point of view', Roma Publications 90, Os livros fazem amigos, Culturgest, Lissabon, 2006.
- Walter Benjamin, ‘Unpacking my Library’, in: Illuminations, English translation, New York 1968.
- ‘De vergeelde boekenlegger’ elections were organized by Kluun in 2005. In Belgium, the elections were organized by the Flemish Radio and Television broadcasting corporation, November, 2005.
- ‘The Library of Unread Books’, Bozar, Brussels, 9 May, 2005.
- Jouke Kleerebezem, 'Ubi lector, ibi liber', METROPOLIS M, 6/2005.