I turn to the ‘Explore’ tab on the Instagram handle of Of B&B to see what’s trending in its world, and guess what it’s filled with? Photos after photos of books. Paperbacks paired with coffee. Cats curled up with their paws resting on the books. And more often than not, readers in all their vivid ways, sometimes showing us what they are reading to where they are reading it. I truly believe I could get lost for hours in simply scrolling through and checking out all the beautiful books, their artistically designed covers and have a soul-gratifying visual feast each day, every day, until the end of time.
So when I read Colin Horgan’s Why We Can’t Stop Instagramming Our Books, my mind began to race. Was this some kind of a new discovery coming from the lenses of bibliophiles who had realised that book photography can be a source of great content done repeatedly without it getting boring or old? Was this some kind of an obsession we were stuck with? Or were we, bookworms and book photographers, just vain snobs who wanted to impress the world with our high intellectual status?
Books are totems of intellectual status. Since their beginning, books have been a means of gaining a spiritual experience and have acted as a medium for self-discovery. In the ancient world, they had a more privileged status than they do today. Books were luxury items that lent their owners, often the wealthy ones, a certain cultural prestige. Just like we do today, in Ancient Rome the affluent ornamented their dining-rooms with a display of books. Book-cases built as high as the ceiling could be found in their libraries. While learning may have the objective of some, they were often a symbol of status, displays for show. Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher did not take too kindly to book collectors and libraries. In about 49 CE, he denounced them.
“Forty thousand books were burnt at Alexandria. I leave others to praise this splendid monument of royal opulence, as for example Livy, who regards it as ‘a noble work of royal taste and royal thoughtfulness.’ It was not taste, it was not thoughtfulness, it was learned extravagance—nay not even learned, for they had bought their books for the sake of show, not for the sake of learning—just as with many, who are ignorant even of the lowest branches of learning, books are not instruments of study, but ornaments of dining-rooms. Procure then as many books as will suffice for use; but not a single one for show. You will replay: ‘Outlay on such objects is preferable to extravagance on plate or paintings.’ Excess in all directions is bad. Why should you excuse a man who wishes to possess book-presses inlaid with arbor-vitae wood or ivory; who gathers together masses of authors either unknown or discredited; who yawns among his thousands of books; and who derives his chief delight from their edges and their tickets?”
Now, then, is the bibliophile’s affair with Instagram any different from what the Ancient Romans were doing? There is no denying the attraction one feels when looking at a book’s cover. Whether it’s those piercing eyes of the model on the cover we can’t take our eyes away from, or endorsements from famous people, or the blurb at the back, book covers encapsulate in a glance what to expect. At least they try to. No wonder the saying was born, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Not all that seems is going to be interesting. But is it easy to look away from the book’s skin? Reading a book takes a lot longer, a couple of hours at the very least, months if your book happens to be a tome. You only appreciate a book after you have had a chance to be with it at least for a couple of minutes. It takes time to absorb the words on the pages, get emotionally connected to the story and begin to like (or dislike) where the book takes you. Book covers, on the other hand, are an instant source of gratification. If the cover appears to be beautiful or striking or scandalising, that book wins the honour of making it into our hands, and hopefully, into our homes.
60 years on and Lolita still continues to be a challenge for designers trying to get the book cover to say it all. Which cover are you likely to look at and definitely end up purchasing the book?
Book jackets are designed for this very purpose. In fact, some covers are being designed keeping the social media in mind. It is to allow for an aesthetic appreciation of books, it’s the new way of allowing people to judge a book by its cover. The question I am pondering over is – is this just plain vanity, to show off the covers, without a care for the words within?
If the answer is yes, what about all the artful ways in we arrange our bookshelves, sometimes by genre, sometimes by jacket colours? As far back as the 1600s, Britain’s high society was enjoying books that had elaborately embroidered book covers. Is our tradition, our inheritance, our obsession with book covers nothing but our quiet way of saying, “I read, and therefore I am better?”
The ecstatic love for books belongs to not just those who read, the bookworms, it is also something that bibliophiles, the collectors of books share. The symbol of reading can become (and perhaps is) greater than the act of reading itself. The possession of a library can become an end unto itself. Books becoming Instagram-worthy is new only in the sense of the photographs getting a new platform for display; the idea that books can act as artistic props is much, much older. It is fair to say that, the portrait artist of the bygone centuries was seduced by the symbolism of a book – it was both a spiritual and an intellectual symbol. Madame de Pompadour, the queen of portraits (if I can claim so), is a testament to this. Like her, many other wealthy, aristocratic individuals sought to capture their devotion to books through portraits that were painted to show them either deeply absorbed in reading something or in a casual nonchalant manner, lost in a faraway thought as if prompted by something interesting or insightful found in the pages of a book they held.
Printed books have a certain allure, something that not even the ebooks, that were expected to take over the world of reading once, can beat. Paperbacks do go through a demise no doubt. All the unimaginatively designed ones probably get discarded. Perhaps they get loaned out or given away to local libraries. But there is no denying that they manage to have a greater emotional connection with a reader than ebooks do. Physical books don’t just give us stories. They give us a sense of place and time. There’s no knowing how one ebook is different from another. All ebooks feel and look the same. There is no “depth” to the book. Unless you look at the progress bar, you can’t gauge whether your pick is a short one or a long one. Ebooks aren’t even pages. They are just bits of data screen after screen after screen. When you open a new ebook in your e-reader, there’s no knowing where it will first take you. Perhaps the table of content opens up. Perhaps you are presented directly with Chapter 1. You may, in fact, never even see the design of the book cover. And this (along with several other reasons of course) is what makes an ebook unreal and unenjoyable for a purist.
Bookshelves, and by extension, book covers continue to symbolise high culture. Just like the once-upon-a-time portrait artist using books as a source of inspiration for his artwork, businesses are coming up with concepts of designing bookshelves to make them look, well, “Wow”. Books by the Foot is one such company that works with interior designers, theatre prop masters and even individuals in setting up books in ways that makes you want to take pictures. Repeatedly.
Whatever you may make of our obsession, there is no denying that the public display of a bibliophile’s most prized possessions is something that you would expect of any love affair. It is a source of delight, of inspiration, of pride.