Sentences — October 22, 2008, 4:40 pm

Less Reprehensible Regions of Conspicuous Consumption

readingmatters

If it were your ambition to convince a friend that her deeply held belief, cherished since childhood—say, that apple cider is undrinkable, undigestible, and unbearable—is dangerously off the mark, you need only offer her a taste either to confirm or complicate her certainty. Good will is the only lever required, in such matters of taste, to cut a towering absolute down to something that allows for the sight not merely of doubt but, potentially, delight. If it were your ambition, however, to convince your friend not that cider is yummy but that reading is as well—a fine pastime at minimum and, at best, a life-saver—you would be, to use a sophisticated bit of exegetical shorthand favored by the literary: nuts.

You can no more convince an adult that reading matters than you can build a new foundation to save a house already fallen into collapse. For an adult to be a reader, the child they were must have been a reader: for a child to be a reader, an adult within its immediate arc must be a reader. Books that would sway the non-reading adult towards the practice of reading, and which would try to sway such an adult to do something they do not (reading) by doing something they won’t do (reading) drive me, therefore, bananas. They make, for all their good will, precious little practical sense.

When I saw the cover of Margaret Willes new book, Reading Matters (Yale), I confess to having been so blinded by its title that I did not bother to look, for several days, at its cheering sub: Five Centuries of Discovering Books. “This book sets out to examine how people bought and acquired books over the past five hundred years, thus combing two of my favourite activities, shopping and reading,” Willes’s book begins. Though I happen to be someone who hates shopping as much as he loves reading, I was very engaged by Willes’s walk through the history of one of our less reprehensible regions of conspicuous consumption.

“I cannot live without books,” Willes tells us Thomas Jefferson told John Adams, in a chapter on Jefferson’s 6,487 volume library which—after the 3,000 volumes in our de facto national library, the Library of Congress, were burned to nothing by the British, in 1814—he sold to the United States as a replacement (two thirds of which, in 1851, were lost to yet another fire). Willes is a knowledgeable guide to the material and a clear, unfussy writer, one more eager to share what she knows than to convince us we should know it. Words aside, the book is also pleasurably and usefully full of pictures. I could stare at the photo of a Penguincubator all day, now that Willes has convinced me of its existence, and of how it came to be.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

July 2015

One Day Less

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dressed to Kill

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Wrong Prescription?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Travel Day

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Fugue State

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Avian Voices·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The mockingbird’s bath is an orgy of thrashing and writhing about. When he has finished, one of the innocents alights on the rim of the basin and looks with disbelief at the thimble of water remaining.”
Illustration by Eric Hanson
[Browsings]
Before the War·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I’m worried that what the Houthis did to push Yemen into a civil conflict in September 2014, the Saudis may end up doing again when they end their campaign by eliminating the Houthis.”
Photograph by Alex Potter
Article
The Speakeasy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In order to understand how Marty’s could survive as an institution, I returned a year after my first visit to spend a week at what was sure to be the world’s bleakest comedy club.”
Photograph by Mike Slack
Post
The Lost Land·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.”
Photograph by the author
Article
Wrong Prescription?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whatever the slogans suggested, the A.C.A. was never meant to include everyone.”
Illustration by Taylor Callery

Estimated cost of the environmental damage caused each year by the world’s 3,000 largest companies:

$2,200,000,000,000

Two thirds of U.S. teenagers experience uncontrollable rage.

Beekeepers began extracting 1 million honeybees living beneath the siding of a house in New York State.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today