It’s Christmas time yet again. If you couldn’t tell by the growing appearance of ‘What to Buy’ lists appearing in newspapers or by various shops now displaying a glut of festive tat and unsubtly changing their jarringly bland muzak to some saccharine festive anthems. If it by some bizarre chance you haven’t yet noticed, it doesn’t matter anyway, the calendar would inevitably catch up as would the intensity of Xmas media saturation ensuring you’ll be pretty much unable to escape it bar going into an early mince-pie induced coma. But of course I’m not telling you anything new here, and I’m not now going to go on a pointless Christmas rant saying how Xmas is perhaps a capitalist conspiracy to get us all to spend what we don’t have.
As it happens I don’t actually fester with bah-humbugism, I do actually embrace Christmas, but doing so in a stiff upper lip manner, that is to say I don’t get childishly excited; I have an appreciation for the general good feeling that swills about while playing down the Christian/Captialist aspects. One reason I particularly like the festival, that being said, is that it gives me a reason, as if I really needed one anyway, to purchase books for people.
I must confess here that it’s not often that I actually visit major high-street bookshops; I make heavy use of second-hand stores (Readers World in Birmingham is great, don’t let the poor reviews in the link here put you off), libraries and yes, Amazon.
But it was when visiting a bricks and mortar store recently, with the intention of gift purchasing, that I once again encountered a phenomena which I’m calling ‘Designer Covers’. This new breed of books are typically hardback although special paperback editions have seemingly now got in on the game, presumably because the iconised hardbacks have been doing so well. I can of course easily understand from a marketing point of view as to why publishers would create such books, eBooks are forever on the up, or so we are told, and the USP actual books retain over their digital rivals is that they exist in the physical world, (you know, the world of matter, you know, where things actually exist) so it’s obvious even to the most brain-dead marketeer to play this up and fetishize this aspect. But sod marketing and their evil scheming ways. Especially because my first instinct on seeing those books is, but never said, “Oh wow, how cool” Damn them for making me feel like that!
This feeling very quickly dissipates when I actually think about it for a few seconds, leaving me with a quandary. I do, as I can tell from from my initial reaction, like the effort that has gone into re-designing the various book covers, which, I believe, can be an interesting art-form in its own right. But then, with perhaps a smidge of Hipster syndrome at play, I can’t help but think why would I pay for this mock retro when there are are surely plenty of actual old books waiting to be found. But does the genuine matter? In a society of signs surely the synthetic image of old is much more appealing than actual oldness, isn’t it? It’s pastiche of oldness feels more real than the ‘actual’ real article. Well capitalism is certainly banking on it anyway. Eventually the argument at hand here can become tautological. The whole thing ultimately boils down to image, which the marketeers behind this new retro are of course all too aware. The choice is then, do you want to appropriate neo-retro and remain modern in your oldness or acquire ’real’ retro and fool yourself into thinking that the age of the item actually makes a difference to how genuine your delusion of living in a past utopia is.
But ultimately what needs to be questioned is why is this interest in the old even around in the first place? Why despite myself occasionally being critical of it, do I still find myself attracted to such propositions. Is it perhaps that with ever-increasing digitalisation of the world, in which the firm borders of time and space are collapsing, whereby not only does the digital bleed into the physical but whereby the physical, with technology such as RFID, is increasingly, via “The Intertnet of Things, bleeding into the Wired. In such circumstances perhaps we feel the need to grab onto something stable, something physical, something with a defined sense of time, even if that something is essentially nothing, a token relic of times when metanarrative gave us structure and stability.
Rather than being a case of Luddism, I’d suggest the people most susceptible to such purchasing are in fact amongst some of those most integrated in the digital world such as myself. Like reality, there is no real binary, or neither is there pro-tech or anti-tech camps as such, there is space in-between. Hipsters are the classic example actually. They live there life in a digital world, but they taint it with sepia hues and pseudo lens flare, they listen to MP3s but do so with a cassette iPhone cover. Rather than creating new futures, they are creating new pasts.
So where does this leave me? Are these new ‘designer books’ to be scorned or embraced? Essentially, there is no absolute answer; how can there be when we’ve allowed, for better or worse, our main pillars of stability of time and space to corrode? I may end up purchasing one or two of the books, they are nice objects in themselves, but while books can furnish a home that certainly isn’t the point of them. But seeing as they take up space in ones decreasingly lived-in physical environment why not purchase books that serve as art as well as content? As the marketeers have noted and as hipsters like to indulge, the physical item is more than just content, it has an essence of its own. I’m still no clearer as to where my position on ‘the issue’ stands, and to be honest, I glad that’s the case.