I tend to go to Powell’s when I need a mental pick-up. The one on Hawthorne is a long, but comfortable walk from my apartment, and the walk through residential neighborhoods decked with twisting, moss-covered trees clears my head. And then there are the books themselves–I don’t know what it is about books that makes them such a fetish object for so many others and me, but they are. There’s the Book Lust book series (and the related Book Crush), various accessories scattered all through Etsy, and, well, the whole concept of the sexy librarian.
I’m particularly guilty of this conflation of reading and sex. My flatmate (another former English major) and I used to joke back in college that we were librosexual. We had jokes about phone sex with Spenser (who probably wouldn’t have appreciated them and would have banished us to the Bower of Bliss, which is actually fairly disease-ful, despite its name) and our own imaginary harem of poets. Once we made a makeshift fort in one of the library study rooms, placing a blanket over a table, to create just the right atmosphere for reading Middle English poetry–we soon realized that the odd looks we got when we emerged for a water fountain break were because people thought we were having sex. I think part of it comes from the same place that inspires math majors to crack “show me your derivatives” jokes: we all want to prove that what we’re passionate about is interesting–so interesting, in fact, that it’s sexy. But with literature it’s only partially the discipline–it’s the books themselves that are supposed turn us on.
“Sex sells” is perhaps the most oft-quoted advertising truism. It motivates the homogenization of female musicians to a specific standard of beauty; people used it as an excuse for Sarah Palin’s appeal. People smugly quote it to dismiss complaints about degrading ad campaigns. But it’s not just mainstream publishers, massive chain bookstores, or even county-run public libraries (though I feel terribly guilty for including them in with massive money-making marketing machines) who are perpetuating librosexuality; it’s diy folks on Etsy and indie presses. It’s my friends who made their own copy of the “First I get naked. Then I read banned books.” button. So this makes me wonder: Is the sexualization of books just a means for book marketers to deal with an increasingly digital world? Has it always been around? Just why do books make me want to stroke their spines?
And no, it’s not because the kids these days have to associate everything with sex. The kids these days did not invent sex, though we like to pretend we did.
I think a lot of us forget that books have always been valued for their physical form. I’ve summarized in an earlier post the development of books as an object, but here’s a brief repeat. In the Western World (I’m not as familiar with trends in literacy in other parts of the world. The book history/binding course I took was rather Euro-centric), codices (books with bound spines, as we think of them today. They replaced scrolls around the 5th century CE, according to this site, which I checked to refresh my memory. I have a terrible head for dates.) were either sacred or luxury items, valued both for their beauty and the knowledge they contained. The invention of the printing press and the rise of literacy led to books falling into merchant-class hands, and, eventually, even farther. Zap forward to the 19th century, and you’ll find William Morris, disgusted with the mass production of books (and industrialization in general), writing entire treatises on the most aesthetically pleasing margins for laying out text, and publishing artistic printings of such classics as The Canterbury Tales through the Kelmscott Press.
In the later half of the 20th century, books became even cheaper. My copy of 1oo Years of Solitude was my dad’s back in college- he bought it for 75 cents. It’s falling appart already, and its heavily acidic paper is brittle and discolored. But elegance is coming back, even in mainstream presses–aside from genre fiction, which often gets the cheap paperback treatment, I’ve noticed books with bi color printing, uneven edges meant to lend a handmade vibe, blurbs justifying the choice of font, and better paper. Many of my fellow English majors couldn’t bring themselves to buy used copies of their course books because highlighting and pen marks made them cringe. Illustrated editions of everything from the classic writing reference The Elements of Style by Strunk and White to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code have hit the shelves. We’re bringing “sexy,” or, at least, aesthetics back to items printed for the upper-middle and middle class (and those who can’t afford to buy a copy can theoretically imitate the thrill of a beautiful edition by taking it out from their local library, assuming their local library is well-funded. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.). We can easily make the conclusion that books are just like any other consumer product. The spine of a book, the curve of a car, the sensuality of chocolate: it’s all part and partial of sex in consumer culture. Sex sells, after all.
But books have always had a a forbidden fruit aspect to them–Eve’s apple didn’t just shine; it was sweet to the taste. As long as books have been made, they have been vessels for subversive, dangerous knowledge. I’m not just talking about pornography either. From Galileo’s blasphemous astronomy to Blake’s unorthodox mythologies, we can count on any revolutionary work to bring censorship upon its head. It’s little surprise that perhaps the most famous censorship trial in the US centered around the sexually explicit content of Joyce’s Ulysses. The banning of books has inspired entire movements, weeks of celebration, and other novels. In Western culture, at least, we tend to fetishize danger–I’m pretty sure Freud did some writing on this, but I can’t remember it off the top of my head, so I could be lying to you there. Though not the whole story, I certainly think part of the drive behind sexy book marketing is the sense of rebelliousness and subversion.
While we’re doing some digging around in our culture’s psychoses, I can’t resist bringing up a related explanation, even though all my sources for it are either buried at home with my college books or have long since been recycled (I can’t save all my handouts). Certain branches of literary criticism, particularly those with a psychoanalytic bent, have seen books and text as being like a female body for men to dissect and interpret. Books are mysterious (and sometimes, as I mentioned about 50 times in the previous paragraph, subversive,) which early feminist thinkers would label as culturally feminine. And boom: sex. This goes along quite nicely with the whole forbidden fruit theory (perhaps a little too nicely. I’m sure there’s a complication in there somewhere). Am I seriously saying that we subconsciously view books as feminine? I’m not sure. Still, it again points to the many ways our culture intertwines women, the forbidden, and sex.
And there’s yet another way to look at it (yes! another!). Aside from the Etsy men’s tote bag, most of the lusty book products I’ve seen have been marketed either towards women or with women (using pinup girls with books, for example). Now, on the one hand, women have long been targeted by marketers as the ultimate consumer group. But I think the indie producers of the stereotype are working with a different cultural current entirely. Ever heard of the smart/sexy dichotomy (as in you’re either one or the other)? We’ve been fighting back. As the media constantly bombards us with images of the sexy bimbo on TV, is it any wonder that we want to respond with witty quips, images of reading pinup girls, and the classic Portland glasses-clad “Reading is Sexy” girl? Our book fetish is an Emma Peel Kung-Fu kick to anti-intellectualism.
So are books becoming sexier as they return to being objects for the privileged? Or is it their promise of knowledge (with its ties to both sex and power?) that makes us hot? I’m going with both: not even our beloved books can escape consumer culture, but reading has never been an asexual act (I’m sure Victorian children’s authors would be horrified.). So next time you feel coy curling up in bed with a book, remember that, historically, you’re not alone.