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 February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
Post
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Article
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
Criticism
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

 
“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today