Bookishness (n): fetishizing, appreciating, and keeping the body of the book
December 6th, 2016; San Diego, California. Students can be seen wielding large, caffeinated drinks and even larger sweatpants as they hunch over their laptops, trying to cram a semester’s worth of material into their memories. This is how early December typically is in San Diego State University’s Love Library – everyone’s traded easy smiles for anxiety, and the air is heavy with concentration. However, this past Tuesday, there was something atypical about the library’s aura.
Contrasting the misery of the student computing hub and 24/7 lounge was the glowing commotion of Love Library 430, and behind the classroom’s double doors it didn’t at all seem like a dreaded week of final exams was right around the corner. Inside, folks – a mix of students, faculty, staff and visitors – laughed and mingled with hot coffees in hand, while my exhaustion and I disappeared to the back of the room, perplex by everyone else’s liveliness. These guests were visibly excited about the forthcoming lecture, a discussion on the fetishizing of books, which I didn’t even know was a legitimate topic of discussion. And there I was – baggy-eyed and nibbling on a free sugar cookie in anticipation of an hour-long presentation, of which I predicted to be filled with terrifying, academic terminology and humor that I wouldn’t dare try to understand.
The lecture I braced myself for was called “Bookishness: On Fetishizing the Book in the Age of its Disappearance,” and it was just as English-geeky as prophesied. Of course, this was unsurprising, as “Bookishness” was the second installment in San Diego State’s Year of the Book, which looks at the way books are viewed in the digital age. Sponsored by the University’s Common Experience and the Digital Humanities Initiative, the Year of the Book is the kind of series that celebrates the book as a medium, metaphor and artifact – which, of course, completely justifies a bibliophile’s habitual book hoarding (at least we’d all like to think so).
I was sitting in my chair, pondering whether it would be uncouth to snatch another cookie from the refreshments table, when Special Collections & University Archives librarian Anna Culbertson spoke into the microphone. “This is a great turnout,” she gushed. “If anyone needs any, there’s more chairs in the next room over!”
Indeed, she was correct. While I was transforming into a pastry glutton, the classroom had nearly reached max capacity. It appeared as if “Bookishness” was not only my Year of the Book event of choice, but everyone else’s. For a moment, I considered that perhaps others showed up because they were too lazy to tackle the series’ preceding fall event – introductory bookmaking – but then I realized that it would be unfair to project my own shameful attitude onto innocent people. And as the event officially commenced, an uproar of clapping hands proved that a love for the ‘old’ book – not indolence – drove dozens of guests to attend.
Still, no one seemed as happy to be in room 430 as speaker of the hour and director of the SDSU Digital Humanities Initiative Dr. Jessica Pressman, whose published works surrounding digital literature (Digital Modernism: Making it New in New Media, Oxford University Press, 2014) and textual media (Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in a Postprint Era, Minnesota University Press, 2013) are evidence of just how bookish she truly is. But the fascinating thing about “Bookishness” wasn’t Dr. Pressman’s relationship with the commonly used adjective, bookish. Instead, it was the way Dr. Pressman reoriented the adjective into a noun, calling it a “cultural phenomenon,” that had us listening intently. In one word, bookishness succinctly answers why there’s been a trending obsession with the ‘old’ book aesthetic in a time when almost every text can be summoned via black mirror.
“Just because we don’t need them, doesn’t mean we don’t want them,” said Dr. Pressman, who theorized that bookishness, in fact, is a result of our easy access culture, in which a shift from conventional to digital has left many grappling for the body of a book whichever way possible. We succumb to fetishism – which, as Dr. Pressman carefully noted, is an attribution inherently associated with the “manufactured” value or power of an object, not perversion and sexuality. We cling to books as artifacts and we turn bounded stacks of paper into fetish objects to creatively cope with loss and change.
An intersection of artifact and fetishism was best illustrated at the end of Dr. Pressman slideshow, as photos of duvets, earrings, cupcakes and shoes crafted to look like books flashed up on the projector screen to the delight of the room’s biggest book nerds (including Dr. Pressman, who afterwards seized the opportunity to show off her very own MacBook sleeve, which imitated a giant book).
I then realized that the presentation was not unlike my very own Pinterest and Tumblr feeds, where the cover artwork for children’s and YA fiction, from Shel Silverstein to J.K. Rowling, manifests itself as kitschy merchandise: tennis shoes, matchboxes and coffee mugs. Such collectibles may be perceived as unnecessarily consumeristic, but as Dr. Pressman’s lecture revealed, it’s pure bookishness – another way to preserve the physicality of a book, even if we are not reading it.
Dr. Jessica Pressman is currently researching for her latest book, “Bookishness: The Afterlife of Books in Digital Literary Culture.” More information about the project can be found here.
Upcoming Year of the Book events can be found on the SDSU Love Library website.