BY EMILY STEWART
At this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival, I gave away my most-loved books along with individual handwritten letters addressed to the reader of each. In a quiet corner of Melbourne’s Abbotsford Convent, I displayed the books on a desk and over the course of two days sat down with thirty participants to chat about books and reading, before gifting them a book and a letter to keep. I called it the Dear Reader Project. I am a passionate reader. I’ve completed an Honours degree in literature, managed a bookshop, and trained as an editor. That is, I’ve had three terrific, tax-deductible reasons to indulge my book-buying habit. But I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with the weight of books that surrounds me. I’ve started to wonder about the specific function of books as cultural objects. What is their psychic measure? What do they act as receptacles for? I’ve closely followed and participated in conversations around the death of the book; a conversation that manages to bore and fascinate in equal parts.
I became interested in how we might begin to enact our conversation about books in new ways. In today’s arts climate, numbers mean a lot. Festival organisers silently count their attendees, hoping for increases that will bolster their funding applications. Online, page views and reach stats serve as a similar metric. It’s a logic that Twitter formally encodes: the screen is fed and made active by the exponential growth of ideas.
But despite Twitter and despite festivals, I am lonely as a reader. With Dear Reader I saw an opportunity to investigate literary experiences and attitudes to reading beyond the panel, magazine or interface. One of the most interesting challenges festivals face is the question of how to activate the energy audience members bring with them to an event. What Dear Reader offered was meaningful conversation between passionate readers.
Over the weekend I met and spoke to thirty people. Those numbers at a panel event would be modest, but I had hopes that my installation would offer a depth of engagement and exchange that counted for much more. When I pitched Dear Reader to the festival, I was putting forward a project that was small, intimate, private and entirely offline. As such, it can’t help but be read in juxtaposition to the rhetoric of growth outlined above, and as a counterweight to the question of technology. In this essay, I’m writing towards these two things.
As self-contained objects, books brand themselves perfectly. We understand them immediately as something whole and distinct: when a person puts one in their backpack, they do so with fidelity to a certain idea, character or world.
This containment is helpful to the act of reading, because to be held in thrall means a forgetting of everything else, a close-to-total engagement with the text. Static and physical, when reading a book-object you can’t slide sideways into your email or the next level of Candy Crush. Umberto Eco makes the point that books are the perfect invention and cannot be improved upon. In This is Not the End of the Book, he likens them to spoons, because: ‘You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon’. He argues that the function and grammar of books has never changed, and that although we see different iterations of the book (hello epubs), they all essentially work in the same way.
What has changed, though, is the physical context in which reading takes place.
In her recent book Untangling the Web, Guardian reporter Aleks Krotoski suggests that if Web 2.0 was about mainstreaming the social possibilities of the internet, then the third phase is about us learning to self-manage our new interactive world. The usefulness of the physical containment of books has so far been unmatched by technology, because on networked devices we can’t help ourselves – we sever the state of thrall physical books ease us into by refreshing our news feeds. But as we begin to normalise and codify these new reading habits, and refine our ability to self-control, I wonder for how long the physical properties of books will continue to be of use. Perhaps the notion of book as tool, as Umberto Eco conceives of them, will give way to book as ornament – we’ll find ourselves keeping and gifting only those which offer something extra beyond the text itself.
Imagine taking a High Fidelity moment and organising your books according to your emotional terrain. Which ones did you read while in love? While grieving? Which were gifts from others, or have sat dormant on your shelf waiting for the right time? What books should be there, but aren’t. Are missing.
The books we own stratify our histories in important ways. They are both a visual coding of the events that shape us, and also our weird mirror-self: an amalgam of who we were and who we aspire to be. But if books have held this quasi-biographical function in the past, we barely need it now. My web browser fulfills the same function as my bookshelf. Ideas and memories structured, sorted, archived, forgotten, removed. Shared.
At the point where I began the Dear Reader Project, I felt I’d reached a personal tipping point in my attitudes to how information is found and sorted. I felt confident about googling my way back to any book I needed. About repurchasing them as ebooks relatively cheaply, with the bonus of having them in searchable text. I realised part-way through undertaking Dear Reader that the ease with which I was willing to give up my books was due to a radical shift in what books meant to me. Their physicality had stopped being so important.
The idea of the book as a commodity also began to make me feel uncomfortable. Books in abundance are a referent of Western wealth and mass consumption. Given that technology – especially mobile phone technology – has given the developing world unrivalled access to texts and knowledge economies, it makes the question of 'what are we storing? What ideas are we really holding onto?' that much more uncomfortable. I wondered whether my over-the-top book collecting was an anxiety of privilege.
I found articulation of this feeling in the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who, for the book This Will Make You Smarter, points out that we’ve moved beyond the object and its late capitalist connotations. He identifies selection, presentation and conversation as the way forward in creating and exchanging real value.
Dear Reader was very much a sharing of the personal. The exchanges that occurred were remarkably diverse. Some conversations lasted for 15 minutes, others for over an hour. It was my intention to keep these exchanges deliberately private – again to create a juxtaposition with the impulses of our online lives and the idea of expansion and growth as meaningful. I wanted to regain a sense of value in the small, private and personal. I didn’t record the conversations, nor have I published the letters. I can say that in some of the conversations we geeked out about shared books we loved and hated. In others we talked about how reading informs our writing practice. And in many conversations, books were a jumping-off point that we strayed from entirely. Being placed within a book festival context, and a festival for emerging writers specifically, gave this project a particular cadence. Most of my participants were already primed to talk about books; they were, as are presumably the readers of this essay, book people.
After thirty conversations, the feeling I was left with is that the question of how or on what we read is relatively moot. But for most of us the desire to tally our reading experiences in a real world context remains true.
The books on my shelves were beginning to feel like physical amnesia. Many that I loved I barely remembered, and would likely never pick up again. I wondered if it would perhaps be better to revisit each of them, to document one crystallised thought, and then gift them on, goodbye.
It turns out that revisiting and writing about each book was a wonderfully generative act. With each letter I successfully completed, some of my anxieties (as a writer, as an editor, as a reader) washed away. The subject matter of each letter riffed directly off the book in question, but varied wildly. Some honed in on a particular idea, others talked about the social context surrounding the book, or the story of my happening upon it.
In her captivating essay Identify Yourself, Krystal South speaks about the disembodied projection that takes place online while we’re doing other things. We might be cooking dinner or sleeping IRL, but online, our persona is always live and active. We exist in augment to our physical selves. Letter writing is a lo-fi version of this concept. Thanks to the Dear Reader Project,there’s thirty parts of me circulating out there in a semi-public space beyond my control.
By giving my books away, my most favourite ones, I’ve opened myself up to new ideas, new stories. I’ve set my creative life on a new trajectory, and in the guise of the bookseller, an apprentice role I’ve never really left behind, I’ve spruiked and promoted the voices of writers I believe to be meaningful. This act feels like a fitting homage to those authors I’ve loved. And it’s one I hope to continue in different iterations for as long as print books sit heavy on my shelves.
Emily Stewart is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. Her writing has appeared in numerous local journals, including Seizure, Rabbit and Cordite Poetry Review. Earlier this year, the Emerging Writers’ Festival hosted her installation Dear Reader, for which she gave away all her favourite books. Later this year, she is heading to the Philippines with a cohort of 20 Australian artists to collaborate with the Manila-based theatre group Sipat Lawin Ensemble on a crowd-sourced play about love. Her website is emilyvalentinestewart.com, and on Twitter she’s @StewEmily.