Sunday, May 06, 2012

Oh those girls and their books!

This New York Times article from a few days ago has been making the rounds on my social media sites: lowly book technician discovers an engraving by Paul Revere! And, yeah, the part about making an unusual find is nice (the engraving isn't the first known copy of the image, though it's very rare). But the article itself is stupendously bad, written in a voice of sentimental condescension. Here are some early paragraphs:

Day after day, a tall, shy woman weaves her way unnoticed through the earnest and learned campus swirl of Brown University. She enters the hush of a library, then promptly vanishes from sight.

[. . . . ]

Ms. Malchodi is more spiritually attuned to books than her Orwellian job title might suggest. She came to Brown as an undergraduate in the early 1980s, but life wound up demanding her study. Soon she was working in a College Hill bookstore rather than reading in a college library, and making cabinets rather than writing papers about her beloved Romantics.

One day she saw an advertisement for a bookbinding and conservation job at the university. She has been here ever since--though mostly underground--inspecting old books, submitting to their long-ago stories and vanishing to where now is then and then is now.

In the ensuing 20 years, gray has come to her hair and a husband and twin girls have come to her life, yet wasn't it all just yesterday? When Wordsworth thrilled her heart? When Wordsworth lived?

So okay, that's some bad prose right there, and it's on the writer, not the subject. But I wonder whether the two aren't related, for this is the way that lots of educated people talk about old books: in terms of rapturous sentimentality. Books are precious things! Oh, the dust of ages! Oh, the tooled bindings! They connect us to the past! Why, who knows who leafed these pages before us?

It's also worth noting the way that book-loving is so often feminized. It's a charming, quirky, unpractical, feminine habit, this ability to get lost in books and to have a passionate emotional relationship with them as objects. It's not that there aren't male book-lovers in the world or in popular culture, but as I noted some while back, the relationship that gets drawn between men and books tends to emphasize their deep thoughts and their pursuit of knowledge. Male book-lovers are writers and scholars. Female book-lovers may occasionally be imagined as writers and scholars, but more often they're simply readers--and the kind of readers who go into misty raptures over that old-book smell, and touching the past, and all that shit. Their thoughts about books don't matter; it's their relationship with books. They're books' most most devoted acolytes, and perhaps by extension the devoted acolytes of (mostly male) writers.

Don't get me wrong: I love books, too. And I own a couple from the seventeenth-century and get a little thrill from them. But I wish female book-lovers weren't so often portrayed as passive daydreamers, for whom books are just another form of daydreaming.

(This portrayal is rather better.)


meg said...

My one issue with the video is the dissing on the Kindle, as if that's not reading. And we know that reading takes a zillion forms -- including reading your blog, ferchrissakes -- not just "books."

Flavia said...


Yeah, I said only "rather better." I don't love everything about it, and I think in some ways it participates in the phenomenon I'm describing (love of [physical] books for books' sake). But I like that the women are portrayed as active, even aggressive readers, who actually learn stuff and make value judgments about books and people as a result.

Also, the can't be older than about 25. Twenty-five-year-olds get more of a pass when it comes to sentimentality and to self-definition through mere book- lovery.