Friday, August 03, 2007

Carrying books makes you look smart

Has anyone else seen the latest J. Crew catalogue? I have it only because I was at one of their stores last week (buying a navy blue pinstripe suit if you must know) and threw a copy in my bag. Today, in a moment of idleness, I picked the thing up and thumbed through it.

It's been a while since I perused their catalogue, so I don't know what the company's other recent photo shoots have involved (I seem to remember lots of beaches and barns, back in the day), but this one involves Boston, and it also involves a helluva lotta books. Some of the scenes are shot in front of the bookstacks in the Boston Athenaeum, while others just involve piles of books on the floor; being stood upon by models; in the arms of models; displayed with high-heeled shoes; and on, within, and all over the ground surrounding a 4x4 Jeep-type-vehicle.

And I was surprised by how much this annoyed me. I mean. . . attractive women in glasses, with really old books in their hands! In libraries! Shouldn't I be happy that J. Crew is celebrating (after a fashion) bookishness and libraries and the sexiness of people who read? And if anyone were to be excited by the juxtaposition of a totally cute high-heeled shoe and a stack of books, wouldn't it be me?

But I wasn't excited. For one thing, I found it irritating how prop-y those books were. Because I'm a nerd, I kept squinting at the titles on the shelves, and almost all of them were runs of very old, exceedingly dull-sounding bound periodicals ("New York Seaports" and "Pennsylvania History" are two I recall); they were clearly chosen only because they looked old and therefore cool, and not because the 20-something models with long shiny hair could have had any conceivable need to or interest in reading them.

And don't get me started on the models standing on stacks of books. I mean, I am, in Anne Fadiman's terms, more of a carnal than a courtly lover of books--I leave them face-down on the floor, use them as coasters, and dog-ear and write in them (albeit in pencil) with abandon--but there isn't even any pretended narrative point to this; were the models standing on books to reach a higher shelf, say, that would at least be explicable, and maybe cute in a little-girl way.

But maybe it's that cutesiness that bothers me. I couldn't help but notice that it's the women who are photographed with and near perilously-arranged or collapsed towers of books; books in the shots involving men are infrequent, and those books are always decorously placed on shelves or tables where they belong; the overall message, perhaps, is that there's something silly and excessive about women's relationship with books, while the men get to look moodily out of windows and think deep, studious thoughts.

I suppose it's foolish of me to be bothered by this, both because it's J. Crew, for God's sake, and because I'm clearly as much of a consumer, and as invested in constructing a certain look for myself, as are those 20-year-olds who buy glasses with clear lenses and pair argyle sweaters with tweed skirts. And really: who wouldn't prefer a little argyle to those simultaneously cleavage- and middrift-baring tops that I've seen entirely enough of in recent years?

But I am bothered, all the same.


moria said...

J. Crew just opened a store in the New England suburb I am temporarily calling home. An incredible sort of WASP hall of mirrors.

Their display upstairs, in the women's department, relies on antique-looking books placed pleasingly in amidst the sweater vests and so on. Now, I was thrilled to death last fall when Academic Chic came into fashion, and I had the same initial reaction you did to the piles of books in a clothing store. Having just written a whole post dedicated to books-as-objects and my love thereof, I'm perhaps in no position to say this, but I think you're right on. Displaying old copies of largely substanceless books only reduces them to the status of tchatchke, which is interesting from an academic point of view, but sort of terrifying from a Gatsbyesque the-pages-aren't-even-cut point of view.

Downstairs, in the men's section, there are no books. There are weird nautical props and antiquey suitcases. I think this confirms your therycule here -- men have no need to present an image that gives an impression of intelligence or erudition, because these are surely inherently masculine values.

I am still shamelessly revelling in the prospect of spending my next paycheck on tweed, more tweed, and tweed until the end of time. Which I will, of course, deploy to the purpose of projecting an authentically bookish femininity. Take that, status quo!

Anonymous said...

Nicholson Baker wrote a terrific essay called "Books as Furniture" about this very phenomenon. He actually tracked down the obscure old novels being used as props in catalogues. It's in his book The Size of Thoughts.

Flavia said...

MS: thanks for the citation! One of my favorite old New Yorker cartoons--I believe it's a Peter Arno--is of a couple being shown through a house by a realtor. The man is a stout, bald, captain-of-industry type, and the woman is a voluptuous, vacant-faced, and vastly younger blonde. They're just entering an empty room with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases all around. Exclaims the woman, "WOAH! What kind of crazy people lived here??"

And Neophyte: yes indeed. It's important to stock up on the clothes that project one's desired image/era when they happen to appear in stores. I've been pretty happy with the vaguely 1930s-esque revival that's been going on intermittantly for a while now, at least if one knows how to pick the pieces. But as you say: one must have the substance to back up the style!

Dr. Virago said...

If the men are book-less, I don't think it's because they're thought to be inherently erudite, but rather because bookishness/erudition is for gals and sissies and J Crew men are NOT sissies. (Note: intentionally using out-dated slang.) There's a long history of the WASP movers and shakers in elite colleges fromt he period that J Crew general likes to invoke (ca. 1920-50) not having to care about studies -- only working class men had to do that.

I was actually cheered by the J. Crew catalog when it arrived (yes, I get the catalog, though I really should stop it since I order things online -- why, btw, does that maket them send you a print catalog??). The reason why I sent up a little silent hurrah is that, in contrast to the furniture and housewares catalogs (Restoration Hardware, Pottery Barn, and Crate and Barrel), as least J. Crew shows the books the RIGHT SIDE OUT. In these other catalogs, they're usually lined up on the book shelves with the spines turned in so that they'll form a perfectly neutral background to the sofa or whatever's in the foreground. Drives me NUTS!

Dr. Virago said...

Good lord, the typos in that last comment! Sigh.

Anonymous said...

A bit more: there's a small excerpt from the Baker essay in this blog post from Tingle Alley:
And, as a bonus, TA provides a link to a sculptor who makes furniture from books--seriously, have a look!

Pamphilia said...

Yep. It's all over the Anthropologie catalogues too, though they've been doing this for a couple of years now.

When I got my hair cut a few days ago I leafed through the latest issue of "Elle" and was shocked to learn that not only is the sophisticated "collegiate" outfit just the thing for fall (as it usually is), but this year the latest trend is something they're calling "Professor Chic," I kid you not. I say: Bring It On.

Pamphilia said...

PS Anthropologie and Prof Chic are obviously less disturbing than your spot-on analysis of the J. Crew catalogue. It sounds like the women are (yet again) doing all the hard work. And it reminds me of David Denby's excellent piece in the New Yorker last week about the demise of the great hollywood screwball comedy, in which he argued that films like "Knocked Up" have basically demolished the genre. Instead of a sharp talking and sexy battle of wits, we now have the sympathetic do-nothing male and the boring do-everything female.

Flavia said...

Muse: you know, I've never warmed to Anthropologie--their catalogues are obviously prettier and more interesting than J. Crew's, but the whole effect turns me off a bit: too fussy or twee or exotico-femme-y for me. (And their stuff is absurdly overpriced!)

Anonymous said...

Long-time listener, first-time caller! (Or, you know, the blog equivalent of that.)

"the overall message, perhaps, is that there's something silly and excessive about women's relationship with books, while the men get to look moodily out of windows and think deep, studious thoughts"

Maybe it's just because I just finished rereading Northanger Abbey a few days ago, but this *does* seem to be a recurrent theme in the history of women and books! Though I don't know how the modern incarnation matches up with the "boys read less than girls!" panic that causes schools to do misguided things like have the girls continue on with the standard curriculum and the boys read things like David Beckham's autobiography.

As for realtors and books: I read a book a while back called Sixpence House, in which the author (I've forgotten his name for the moment) was moving to Britain and was told that he could never sell his house with so many books on display...

Pamphilia said...

F- I know what you mean about anthro, though I used to live near a store that had great sales, so I never had to pay those high prices. What bothered me more about them was their "over educated" French flea market aesthetic- Like anything they sold was original. That said, they do currently have a lot of very beautiful vintagey looking shoes and furniture that I cannot afford but will continue to salivate over. But I think I'm way more femme than you. (Incidentally, my verification word was "fiboi." I wonder what kind of gamine that is!)

Oso Raro said...

"Professor Chic"?! If only they knew!

J. Crew has always been WASP consumer porn, and I used to read it astutely, as well as wear the clothes. Now I hit the sale rack at Brooks Brothers twice a year. If I'm gonna do that drag, go whole hog! Why bother with ersatz overpriced crap made by slaves in China. Go for the real shit (made by slaves in China).

BTW, I'm back in BEC.

Tenured Radical said...


You look smart without books. But this gives me an idea -- give Extravaganza a J. Crew catalogue, get him to carry books as a fashion accessory, and hope he gets stuck in an elevator and is ultimately moved to read one!

Glad you liked thte post, by the way. You are still one of my top blogging idols.