Who’s Well-Versed in Virginia Woolf? Books as Aesthetic Currency in the Digital Age | Tommy Sissons
Image credit: Tommy Chatt
“Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too”. – Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller
In a futile attempt at comfort, you shift about on your chair before the commencement of your Zoom meeting. A very important Zoom meeting. Perhaps you have a cramp in your leg already. Perhaps a stray splinter is poking you in the back, but this is the only vintage wooden chair you have, and you will not be seen publicly on your moth-eaten russet sofa. Important. Very important. You make sure the spine of War and Peace can be seen behind you on your bookshelf. 1,200 pages, that. You’ve checked. Important. You re-assess every inch of your professional appearance from the waist upwards, but perhaps you have no shoes on. Perhaps you have not yet changed out of your pyjama bottoms or (even more daring) have no trousers on at all. You chuckle at the thought of your small act of unviewable rebellion as you click ‘Launch the Meeting’ and come face-to-face with your boss; your very important boss, who is attempting to secretly check the page-count of their own copy of War and Peace and has not seen you enter the call.
As the Twitter blog @Bcredibility has demonstrated to us, in the virtual landscape of professional communication, books have become a form of aesthetic currency. Work-related meetings have moved online and, due to this, the physical affirmation of an individual’s competence (intrinsic to the expectations of neoliberal society) must be reconsidered. The finer details of the clothing one wears, the strength of one’s handshake and the manner in which one conducts themselves in person are all of use no longer. The only utensil left to assist the worker’s hopes of ‘social mobility’, or indeed maintain the senior staff member’s already-existing authority, is the screen. Of course, the problem with the screen is that the individual must invite their colleagues into their private domestic sphere on a daily basis and the interior of their home is at risk of being scrutinised as an extension of their character. Hence, the back-drop bookcase has become the desirable new asset for public figures, private sector ‘professionals’ and others (employed and self-employed) whose job allows them to work from home. In this way, literary ‘property’, like in-person assurances of credibility before it, has become as much of a trading point as language itself in work settings. The language of the individual is at risk of becoming invalid until it is reinforced by visual proof of their knowledge and respectability – in this instance, their reading habits, their literature of choice.
Turn on the television. Politicians, celebrity chefs, doctors, film directors, union reps, scientists, and football pundits, amongst others, all appear purposefully positioned in front of their bookcases, as if interrupted mid-study by the broadcast they are partaking in. Whilst audibly he appears to bemoan the grave economic downturn of the country, the red-faced minister visually insists, in attempted subtlety: “Yes I have read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Yes, all seven volumes, and I did it in one sitting, and I didn’t blink once”.
The curation of bookshelves as backdrops for political broadcasts is, of course, an act of prop-making. As the curtain rises, we find ourselves in the personal library of a governmental figure – hardback volumes of science, law, and philosophy line the wall. Our historically-engrained cultural connotations of personal libraries tell us that this figure can be none other than an esteemed academic. We must, therefore, trust this individual’s opinion because it appears to be one that has been formulated through extensive research and consideration. They know what is best for us and can be trusted to act in the interest of the populace. However, as the government’s deplorable navigation through the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, this is not the case. If we were to prod the books on display behind such televised figures, we may in fact find them hollow, untouched, perhaps even husks of papier-mâché welded together in simulation of a library – a visual crutch of authority for when the words of the speaker are in question. We realise we have been tricked.
We may even argue that the use of bookshelves as symbols of unquestionable knowledge by those in command of capital is akin to an act of simulacra. The use of bookshelves as tools of hegemony can be considered a manipulation of truth. The bookshelf here is an unfaithful copy of what it once was, but our associations of it remain. Just the sight of it can be enough to inspire the average worker’s aspirational desires. They want to mirror this aesthetic of authority, so they copy the copy, and curate a bookshelf for professional purposes themselves. Very soon imitation becomes a cultural norm, and we are caught up in a parade of appearances, mirroring a curation of falsity. This is not to say that the average bibliophile or those who work within a literary sphere should resist displaying their prized possessions. Books should, of course, be celebrated. We must, however, remain aware of the political and social implications of capitalism’s performance of knowledge when brandished before us. We cannot allow books to be manipulated into public hypnotism, to be made co-conspirators to political hidden agendas. We must remember that the very image of books running along a shelf can appear as a dictatorial bourgeois ideal of cultural capital to those who do not have time to read, those who do not have the financial comfort to purchase a collection of books, and those who have not been instilled with the educational confidence that the study of such literature is ‘for them’. The exhibitionism of academia, for many, can be construed as condescension and, when books are used as an assertion of political or cultural authority, such a decoding is often accurate.
As a part-time English teacher at a comprehensive school, I conduct my virtual lessons in front of a plain wall. This is, amongst other reasons, an attempt to eliminate the risk of a perceived cultural gap between myself, embodying the role of the English teacher, and my students, who may not have books at home and who may interpret a consciously expansive display of literature as culturally daunting, foreboding, or officious. In essence, we do not have to curate ‘intellectual’ settings in order to teach, communicate or garner professional respect. I do not want to be a dictator of knowledge. I know that my most successful lessons are those in which my students adopt their own critical thinking and, in doing so, teach me something as well.
Books must be approached tentatively and gradually, rather than imposed, if we hope to inspire new generations of readers and auto-didacts. Let me illustrate this. Not too long ago I was working at a different comprehensive school. There was a particular boy I taught who was on the tipping point of being expelled. He would not engage in his tutor-time reading sessions because he had no interest in the literature being presented to him. He was also banned from the school library, because as soon as he got inside, he would swing hardbacks at the heads of teachers and peers. The pages of Moby Dick and Jane Eyre would dissipate like the feathers of papery dodos. He wanted to be a Motocross rider. He was certain of that, but he had no knowledge of the technicalities of motorcycles nor the intricacies of the sport. Knowing this, every morning I would sneak him a Motocross book from the library which contained diagrams and specialist information, and he began to read this during his tutor time. I was eventually given a firm telling-off for doing so; however, I
now know an assortment of miscellaneous facts about motorcycles – because he started to teach me them. After a number of meetings with senior staff, I finally convinced the school to give the boy another chance and hold off plans for his expulsion. Whilst specialist Motocross books do not fall under the umbrella of literary work, this experience points to the broader power of reading in general. After all there is no reason for texts such as these to not be proudly displayed on bookcases alongside (or instead of), say, Tolstoy, Woolf and Shakespeare, if these are the books that inspire you.
Even texts that traditionally denote cultural capital were rarely, if ever, written with this motive in mind. Books are, at their core, a demonstration of the power of language, of the imagination and of a critical reflection on our communal world. They are, in many instances, objects of disorder – responses to and embodiments of the mysteries and the unknowable corners of human experience.
Such an experience is the antithesis to the conservative ideal that one can master and dictate absolute knowledge. Nobody can, as hard as the bourgeoisie may try to imitate, or trick the population into believing they inhabit, this unattainable role.
My bookcase is not perfectly arranged, but then again it is curated for no one but myself. There are books behind books, horizontal, vertical, and diagonal. Heaps of paper poke their noses out of knackered envelopes. Notebooks are taken down, jotted in, and put back in whatever gap appears to me first. It is an active bookcase. It is a brick wall under constant refiguration with no ideal shape or structure in mind. I am proud of it and I am proud to celebrate the books on it; books that it would be controversial to display in the neoliberal sphere.
However, if books are to become aesthetic currency in the digital age, let us barter honestly, instead of racing to display the same high-brow texts that we have been told will convey our intellectual authority. Let us publicly celebrate the books that are personal to us and that truthfully reflect our standpoints. Then, at least, we may engage in a more meaningful aesthetic dialogue and understanding of one another. Let us subvert the cultural capital assumed by the ownership of canonical texts by constructing and displaying our own canons of choice.
In 2017, I was approached at a library by a certain Conservative MP, as I came off the stage from a Q&A event for local school pupils. He wanted to discuss with me how to encourage reluctant young people (specifically those from low-income households) to read consistently. His interest in cultivating a reading culture amongst working-class young people was, of course, superficial (an imitation of interest even). Since 2010, the Conservatives have overseen the closure of almost 800 UK libraries (17% of all branches). In reflection, I would like to have the same conversation with him now, in a virtual setting. I would, for once, arrange my bookcase specially, so that the creased spines of my counter-cultural books, my books of socialist criticism, my banned books, my footballer autobiographies, my beginner’s introductions to the things I have taught myself outside of formal education and my proletarian fiction and poetry are visible. I would beam at my personal cannon and raise a large mug of builder’s brew to him as he joined the video call. Then I would start talking.
Tommy Sissons is a poet, writer and educator based in London. He is the literary editor of GRASS Magazine, a publication specialising in the promotion of working-class creatives. Sissons has toured his spoken word poetry across Europe and delivered talks on widening participation in education and the arts at a number of academic and cultural institutions, including the V&A Museum and Sheffield Hallam University. Tommy’s debut book, A Small Man’s England, published with Repeater Books in January 2021, and can be purchased here.