Saturday, July 2, 2011

Books to Watch Boys By, or, what I've learned from

Part of the Future of the Bookshop Project involves considering how books and bookshops are imagined in our culture. Reading over this section of Laura Miller’s study of bookselling in the US got me thinking–

“in creating an inviting environment that facilitates social interaction, the bookstore may be encouraging people to associate the act of browsing, and possibly even reading books, with socializing. …The fact that many individuals choose to spend time reading in a quasi-public, consumption oriented place such as the bookstore suggests that Americans may see reading as an activity that can be both social and solitary, as much an adjunct to other activities as an escape from them.” [135]

The concept of semi-public reading reminded me of the Tumblr HotGuysReadingBooks. As an internet phenomenon what does it tell us about how we think about books and reading as a social activity (let’s leave aside what we think about guys for now)? First up, Miller is right: HGRB provides documentary evidence of the way in which reading is taken as a quasi-public activity (not only when one is reading in a comfy chair in a bookstore, for instance, but when 'hot guys' are photographed in public settings reading books and then these images are uploaded to a Tumblr, a blog, or some other online social space). Is there more to this than just the usual social networking drive to document the minutiae of our lives on the internet?

To me it seems significant that watching boys read is regarded as a very particular form of entertainment in itself. Even though the point of the site is arguably about ogling hotties, there is also an undeniable trace of ‘the literary’ here: the boys featured fit a particular type (a few are muscle men, but most are handsomely bookish and winsome), they are posed or captured candidly in locations we like to associate with reading: cafe lounges, trains, stairwells, libraries and bookstores. In these scenes books are an accessory, or a backdrop, for the fun of the social entertainment (in this case, ogling boys). There are plenty of other examples of this in our culture as well. Consider the bookshop cafe, or the hotels and bars furnished with books; here the books are part of the social atmosphere of fun as much as they are the entertainment in themselves.

This points to the way in which our idea about what books symbolize is slowly evolving. Critics like David Reisman have emphasized the book’s value in society as a vehicle for privacy but, like many other forms of private activity that have been shaped by their encounters with digital culture, it seems that books are now also understood as social tools. Of course, books have often been used as markers of our identity. But in the last twenty years books have taken on a more central role in our entertainment culture – Oprah’s Book Club is the obvious example, but think also about the number of television shows, films, websites, youtube videos, blogs, Tumblrs that have sprung up which celebrate books as 'scene setters' in the drama of our social lives. In particular, books and bookstores are not only associated with Romantic ideals about self-development and discovery but also another kind of romance - the romance that HGRB also taps into - books as tools for negotiating romantic attachments (see also: You’ve Got Mail and articles like this). Books and heartache probably seem like a more natural fit, but websites like HGRB demonstrate that books are also associated in the public mind with the leisure, fun, and diversion that social networks provide.

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