(And srsly no offence intended to the shelfie ppl)
Introducing the relationship between text and image, I will explore the many ways in which the physical book is currently being fixed as image in the digital world. I will contextualise this, in relation to the emergence of eBooks, and the anxiety surrounding this. I will also explain the ‘cultural gluttony’ model of consumption, and how this affects literature-as-image in digital culture. I will consider how this framework is intrinsically tied with Western ideas surrounding the ‘self’ and how the genre becomes a form of projected identity.
I will analyse how this framework is applied to widen the divide between ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ culture, maintain patriarchal order, perpetuate racist and classist beliefs on ‘stupidity’ and keep the narrow coordinates of the literary canon in its place. This continues Professor Brian Street’s argument in Literacy in Theory and Practice (1984) that the seemingly neutral area of literature and literacy can be manipulated to justify and sustain the ruling power systems of the ‘educated’ West.
Each of my three chapters will consider manifestations of identity in the literature as image model. For my first chapter I will focus on the ‘shelfie’, which I will argue is a contemporary example of how the library can serve as a cult of personality for its owner. In my second chapter I will consider the fantasy of “the girl who reads”, looking at online images of the ideal woman who spends “more money on books than on shoes” and soft lit faux-vintage photographs of thin, white women reading in ‘antique’ drawing rooms shared on micro blogging sites such as Tumblr. In my third chapter I will explore how the literature-as-image model has the power to subvert the impossible standards of cultural elitism, and destabilize racist, classist ideas of the intellectual through mimicry and exaggeration.
Considering the Shelfie:Kindles, Cultural Consumption and White Masculinity
“In the present case, the stress-and-vanity-compensations' own evolution saw video-callers rejecting first their own faces and then even their own heavily masked and enhanced physical likenesses and finally covering the video-cameras altogether. And, behind these lens-cap dioramas and transmitted Tableaux, callers of course found that they were once again stresslessly invisible, unvainly makeup- and toupeeless and baggy-eyed behind their celebrity-dioramas, once again free — since once again unseen — to doodle, blemish-scan, manicure, crease-check — while on their screen, the attractive, intensely attentive face of the well-appointed celebrity on the other end's Tableau reassured them that they were the objects of a concentrated attention they themselves didn't have to exert.”
-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Books operate (in so many cases) as adornments, physical assets to bejewel and bedeck one’s self. A narcissistic aspect of book collecting that seems to be excused, perhaps even ignored, by virtue of an imagined heritage of unfaltering male genius, after all not all books are written by ‘Great (White) Men’ they just, so often, happen to be the ones remembered. As a result, a door stop copy of the complete works of Hemingway is not going to be seen as intrinsically ‘feminine’, intrinsically ‘black’, intrinsically ‘common’ (intrinsically inferior). And in a white supremacist, patriarchal culture, that favours the ‘masculine’ mind over the ‘feminine’ body (particularly the bodies of women of colour) the purchase of a leather bound hardback is by extension regarded as more acceptable, more noble, than a trip to the beauty salon for an expertly crafted weave or a new set of ornate, bejewelled acrylics.
This is what the cultural critic Ayesha Sidiqi regards as “the myopia of latent racism that’s more anxious about gold chains on a rapper [and by extension other coded signifiers of unwhite ‘excess’] than an Armani tie on a hedge fund analyst.” But whilst, the floor to ceiling library remains as striking an example of conspicuous consumption as the ‘guns, bitches and bling’ stereotype of gangsta rap in the early 90s, or the wealth-as-resistance model of artists such as Jay Z and Kanye West, it possesses none of its critical subversion, affirming rather than subverting the existing power structures that keep the existing system of white supremacy in place. The satirical writer Christian Lander pokes fun at this, joking, “white people need to show off the books that they have read…after all what’s the point of reading a book if people don’t know you’ve read it?”
Because whiteness is a construct (and an unstable one at that) the ground it lies on is as precarious as the survival of the physical book in the digital world. The theatrical performance of its ideals, the lip-synching of its imagined values through the literature-as-image model, is necessary to ensure its survival in digital culture. Here ‘literature’ (in the vague, canonical definition of the word) is whiteness and whiteness is literature. Both are unstable as both are imaginary.
For as the American cultural critic James Wolcott argues “books not only furnish a room but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities. At the rate technology is progressing, however, we may eventually be traipsing around culturally nude in an urban rain forest.” This quote is important for three reasons. The first is that it emphasises how literature-as-image (prior to the emergence of the eBook) has served as an important tool for anchoring the self (branding the self) through this imagined literary heritage. The second is that it illustrates how technology has the potential to destabilise this model, as eReaders not only erase the absolute necessity of large book collections (as an eReader such as ‘the Kindle 3’ can hold up to several thousand books) and, third that the ‘bookless’ book reading style of the eReader, lends the reader a (possibly unwanted) sense of cultural anonymity.
Because the eReader lacks one important thing: a book cover. A curious commuter sitting opposite an aspiring cultural glutton will be presented with nothing but a plain grey or black rectangle [i.1, 2]. This is reading as a solitary pursuit, anchored not in image (for there is no image to display, no possibility to project a theatre of the self) but in the text itself, a concept that stands in direct opposition to the literature-as-image model. How fearful this jump is, the very medium that once sought to confirm a person’s impeccable tastes is replaced with an unpleasant ambiguity, that grey slab, a grave stone for one’s cultural credibility, slyly suggesting that the ‘cultural snob’ may be straying away from the canon. In using a medium for reading that conceals, rather than reveals, a person’s cultural consumption, a curtain is drawn, suggesting something to hide,suggesting, perhaps, that what lurks beneath is not Ulysses but 50 Shades of Grey.
i.1. The back of a ‘Kindle Paper White 3G’
i.2. The back of a ‘Kindle 4’
i.3, 4, 5. Pride and Prejudice eBook cover from the company ‘Out of Print’.
The literary memorabilia industry attempted to counter this through the creation of faux-vintage Kindle covers, with American companies such as ‘Out of Print’ creating reassuringly antique style eReader holders to create the public illusion of reading, not just a hard back book, but a classic novel (though perhaps-as Nicholson Baker suggests in his essay ‘Books as Furniture’-the two are interchangeable) with the company offering hard back book covers of Moby Dick, Atlas Shrugged, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice [i.3, 4, 5] to reassure the uncertain eReader user of their place in the literary world. The product description for the items, in ‘Out of Print’s online store, reads: “It's time to put the "book" back into eBooks. Made by the oldest bookbindery in the U.S. to look, feel and wear like an actual book. From the original 19th century jacket art by Hugh Thomson.”
This is text as object, and as image, self-reflection as performance, copy as original-because with its hardback “feel”, “look” and “wear” a Kindle cover of Jane Austen (even if the eReader itself does not contain a single work by Jane Austen) is truer to the idea of Jane Austen than, say a word document of the entire text of Northanger Abbey printed on cheap printer paper in a simple font such as Comic Sans. Is a classic piece of literature still part of the canon when presented as such? Is Jane Austen still Jane Austen if printed in Comic Sans or Jokerman? In the literature-as-image framework the answer would be: No. No, it is not. For in this instance (to quote William Weaver) “the ancestor seems to be the imitator”.
But the ‘old-fashioned’ eReader cover is only a temporary solution, covering the hole that the Kindle made in the paper-y propaganda of the ‘well-read man’. Not to mention that an eBook cover’s illusion that a cultural glutton has been reading nothing but The Great Gatsby for the past eighteen months, may unintentionally tarnish the myth of the omnivorous intellectual, rapidly consuming books. For a single cover is static, lacking the vastness of a great library. And even if the Kindle reader did possess a vast library of physical books how could anyone know? This returns us to Christian Lander’s quip of “what’s the point of reading a book if people don’t know you’ve read it?”
Enter the shelfie, a new incarnation of the literature-as-image model (and an important example of how the genre has mutated within digital culture). Emerging in the summer of 2013, the meme, which was spearheaded by a small circle of the American literati, is a form of self-documentation that “has people posing in front of their bookshelves and posting the photos online. That way, readers are able to share not only their faces but also their reading selections with the digital world.” [i.6, 7]
i.6 and 7: Two early examples of shelfies from the Tumblr ‘bookshelfies’ [note the copy of Infinite Jest in the bottom image]
In this sense the shelfie is a contemporary example of how the library can serve as a cult of personality for its owner, offering a parallel to the book-as-object model put forward in The Great Gatsby (with Gatsby’s large library of uncut books, and complementary ‘Oxford man’ persona, used as props for his character) where the fantasy of the self overpowers the fantasy of the text, with the implied story telling of the image-book and object-book serving only to decorate the story of the man.
The overwhelming positive response by American magazines and newspapers is as revealing as the ‘shelfies’ themselves. Consider this extract from a Salon article titled ‘Book Shelfies: Vanity for Introverts’, which reads: “But the new “Bookshelfie” may be just the antidote to those useless arm-angled snaps, by providing fellow bookworms with shared lists of your best-loved literature (links to Amazon included). Genius!” There are many important points highlighted in this quote. The centring of capitalist consumption through Amazon links is notable, evoking Nicholson Baker’s premonition of the literature-as-image in digital culture model in 1995 when he spoke of “the hard-core consumerist, tricking out books into luxury objects and personality accessories.” Whilst, the playful use of the word ‘genius’ is another allusion to ‘the-book-as- self’ model.
But perhaps what is most interesting, in this particular instance, is the implication that the shelfie somehow transcends vanity, with the author contrasting it to the ‘base’ quality of its supposed predecessor the selfie, with its “useless arm-angled snaps”. A point supported by subsequent reporting on the trend, with The Spectator questioning if the shelfie is indeed “the ultimate antidote to selfies.” This is shelfie as antidote to the “useless” ‘feminine’ act of self-love through self-documentation, a counterattack to the ‘radical narcissism’ of women such as Kim Kardashian [i.8.], for if anyone stands in opposition to the shelfie model it is her, a woman whose delight in her own image, her own body, is obscene, and whose fame was founded on unwanted images of the erotic (a sex tape) being leaked against her will. However, the logic of placing the shelfie in opposition to selfie, to place one as ‘stupid’ and one as ‘smart’, one as narcissistic and one as noble, is ultimately unfounded (and not without a certain sense of classism and misogyny). Because the very notion of ‘genius’, particularly the ‘literary genius’ with its first person narratives and ‘one of a kind’ point of view, is the ultimate manifestation of the uniquely fascinating ‘self’, and subsequently the reader’s own consumption of this myth of the exceptional author, applied to facilitate the story of one’s own uniqueness (whether in shelfies or eReader covers) perpetuates a cult of aggressive individualism that match, if not surpass, celebrity selfie culture.
i.8. Kim Kardashion’s ‘belfie’ (an amalgamation of the words ‘butt’ and ‘selfie’) shared on her Instagram in October 2013.
i.9. A ‘wear the old coat and buy the new book’ image by an uncredited author on Pinterest.
This “wear the old coat buy the new book” mentality (a quote that has unsurprisingly merited its own yellow-paged picture, circulated around microblogging sites, with mock ink pen handwriting-i.9) offers us a three-point plan for understanding the shelfie [see fig.1]. The soul (that culmination of essential selfhood) and the ancestry of genius (where each individual ‘classic’ is original only in the sense that it possesses the fingerprints of the greats that came before it) form the bottom two points in the triangle, which slope together to reveal the final facet of this structure: the mask.
The mask is the wearing of existing individuals so you may become more of your own individual. The mask counters the fear of failure, the fear of creating something that is not ‘genius’ (and therefore interrupting the seamless self and diminishing one’s godliness) by creating your own author (your own genius) from many other authors (many other geniuses). Here nothing is lost because nothing is created. The implied faces of the authors: evoked in their names stacked horizontal on your bookshelf saving you from mediocrity, from femininity.
For if we follow the literary critic Lionel Trilling’s argument that, “literature offers the experience of the diversification of the self” then we can regard the notion of embodied authorship, through carefully curated bookshelves, as not a “threat to the integrity of the real self” via “impersonation” but rather a solidifying of the self through a pre-existing history of collective greatness. A complement to the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Reid’s proposition that “two or twenty intelligent beings may be the same person.” In applying this notion of the collective individual alongside John Locke’s argument that “continued existence makes identity” we find anchoring the individual within images of old libraries makes for the ultimate expression of the self.
Now I have finished this investigation into the shelfie, I will progress to Chapter Two, in order to compare and contrast these findings against a selection of 21st century photographs of women reading, in order to understand how images of books (and the question of identity surrounding this) are represented differently across genders.
 D. Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996: New York) p.151
 See the essay ‘Books as Furniture’ in Nicholson Baker, The Size of Thoughts (London: 1997) p.192, p.184
G. Rose, Visual Methodologies (Los Angeles: 2006) p. 173, 182
T. Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Massachusetts: 1992) p.4-5
G. Ryle, The Concept of Mind, (London: 1963) 42, 264, 265
 S. Rose, Abolishing White Masculinity: From Mark Twain to Hip Hop (Maryland: 2014) P.3, 4
 C. Battersby, ‘The Clouded Mirror’, in: S. Edwards, Art and Its Histories: A Reader (Guildford: 1999) p.132
Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (New York: 2007) p.54-55, 130, 131
S. A. Tate, Black Beauty: Aesthetics, Stylization, Politics (Surrey: 2009) p. 24, 26, 50
 A. A. Siddiqi, ‘Lily Allen’s Anti Black Feminism’, Noisey, November 13th 2013
Available at: http://noisey.vice.com/blog/lily-allen-hard-out-here-ayesha-a-siddiqi
 E. Quinn, Nuthin' but a "G" Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap (New York: 2013) p.180, 188
See Jay Z and Kanye West’s 2011 album Watch the Throne which argues the merits of consumption as subversion in a white supremacist society.
 C. Lander, Stuff White People Like (New York: 2009) p.187
 J. Breuklander, Literature is Dead (According to Straight White Guys At Least), The Atlantic, July 18th 2013
N. Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: 2010), p.x, xi, xii
 J. Wolcott, ‘What’s a Cultural Snob to do?’ Vanity Fair, August 2009
 W. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, (Chicago: 1983) p. 392
P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (London: 2010) p.1, 2
J. Prescott, ‘Inconspicuous Consumption: The Problem with E-Books’, The Isis, June 13th 2013
 “Patchen Barss, author of the erotic engine thinks the Kindle is providing us with a brilliant cloak of erotic invisibility – no need to be embarrassed on the bus by a cover that shouts, “I’m reading about the alternative uses for riding crops, and it’s not even 9am!” Barss takes this one step further: “I think it gives people a thrill to know they look outwardly respectable, when actually they are being privately titillated,”” C. Lyons, ‘50 Shades of Frustration?’ Stylist Magazine, August 2012
 Baker, The Size of Thoughts p.190
 Quoted from the product description of the item ‘Pride and Prejudice eBook Jacket’ on the online shop for Out of Print.
Available at: http://shop.outofprintclothing.com/Pride_and_Prejudice_eBook_jacket_p/r-1008.htm [last accessed 01/05/2014]
 P. Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, transl. by G. Wall, London: 2006, 68, 69, 71, 72, 73, 74
 W. Weaver, Travels in Hyperreality (London: 1986) p.146
F. Nietzsche, ‘The Use and Abuse of History’ in: Thoughts Out of Season, Part II, translated by A. Collins, MA (Edinburgh: 1909) 32, 33, 60, 61
A. Bermingham, J. Brewe, The Consumption of Culture 1600-1800 (London: 2013) p.28, 29
 Lander, Stuff White People Like, p.187
 M. Drisscoll, ‘Readers put their books online via 'bookshelfies', The Christian Science Monitor, August 23rd 2013
Available at: http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2013/0823/Readers-put-their-books-online-via-bookshelfies [last accessed 03/05.2014]
 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (London: 1994) p.51, 52
For imagined ancestry as set design see also: Angela Carter, Wise Children (London: 1992) 95-6
 L. Fields, ‘Book Shelfies: Vanity for Introverts’, Salon, August 20th 2013
Available at: http://www.salon.com/2013/08/20/bookshelfies_vanity_for_introverts/ [last accessed 03/05.2014]
 Baker, The Size of Thoughts
 “Kim Kardashian exemplifies the American Dream of Now, Now, Now, Now — it is the Gatsbyan dream, to come from nothing, to fake (or fuck) your way to glory and riches.”
A. Sicardi, ‘The Curious Case of Kendall and Kim’, The Style Con, March 7th 2014, available at: http://www.thestylecon.com/2014/03/07/curious-case-kendall-kim/ [last accessed 03/05.2014]
 L. Trilling, The Opposing Self, (London: 1955) p. 156-7
Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, p. 392, 393, 394, 395, 396
E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, (London: 1961) p. 16
Trilling, The Opposing Self, p. 218, 219
 T. Reid, ‘Of Mr Locke’s Account of our Personal Identity’, in: J. Perry, Personal Identity, Los Angeles: 2008 p.114
 J. Locke, ‘Of Identity and Diversity’ in: Perry, Personal Identity p.52