Lecter = Lector

lower case hThe Proposition: Houses Publish BOOKS. Writers’ Houses publish their texts as e-books, making them available to readers not as commodities but as cultural resources.

  • Writers format their books for e-reading devices, eliminating the cost of printing and distribution.
  • An online central repository acquires and curates a cultural archive of e-books from among those offered by writers and makes them freely available for downloading.

*   *   *

The cannibal sits at his elegant hardwood desk surrounded floor to ceiling, rank upon rank, by books. Like his gourmet culinary artistry and his impeccable professional reputation as a psychiatrist, the vast personal library serves as cover: surely this sophisticated blue blood is above suspicion. But isn’t it possible to read his cover? The psychiatrist delicately probes beneath the skull into the mind; the haute cuisinier prepares aesthetically challenging meals featuring organ meats; the killer constructs aesthetically challenging sculptures featuring the bones and hollowed-out skins of his victims. The library too is an artistic set piece, more conventional surely than the cannibal’s other installations. He has opened the books; one by one he has gutted and consumed them; now he positions himself as centerpiece of a vast sculpture of spines and skins of books.

My mental image of a book coincides with the visual image of the books lining the cannibal’s shelves. A book is a physical object that I can see. I can tell a book by its cover: if it has a cover, it’s a book. I can hold it in my hands, read what’s on its covers, flip through pages bound firmly along one edge. The design is simple, elegant, immediately recognizable, iconic. Many books are arrayed on bookshelves in our apartment.

I’ve written several books, but not a single one of them looks like a book from my imagination or from my shelves. The books I’ve written exist only as computer files. Though I can display the words of my books on my computer screen, I can’t see the books on the drive, can’t hold them in my hands, can’t line them up on a shelf, can’t use them as props validating my status as a real writer.

But are they real books? Not until they’re published and bound – that’s what a friend told me over dinner at his place after I’d informed him that I’d recently finished writing another book. It’s not a book: it’s just a pile of paper, and not even that if it takes up space only on a computer drive. I called him a dick maybe half a dozen times and stormed out without even waiting for dessert. That was five years ago – I haven’t seen him since.

[Exerpted from the pamphlet “Book Fetish,” presented as a document on this website and as a .pdf (5,490 words).]

A classically designed object that you own, hold in your hands, display on a shelf in your home: how important to readers is the fetish value of a physical book?

I check books out of the library rather than buying them. I write fictions on a computer. Toward the end of one of them the main character, an unpublished novelist named Bud, is browsing through a bookstore. He overhears someone reading aloud. As he gets closer he recognizes what’s being read: it’s one of his own books.

Bud ducked down the next aisle of books, looking for his name in the alphabetical array. He found the right stack, then the right shelf. There were two copies of each of three books bearing his name. He recognized the titles: novels he had written and stuck in a drawer awaiting a miracle of discovery.

No one can accuse me of being a realistic fiction writer. In my fictions the fetishes often turn out to be more real than just about anything. My own books remain undiscovered, so there’s still time for me to fix this scene, to purge Bud of his fetishistic fantasy, to have him, say, browse through somebody’s Kindle and be surprised to discover some of his own books in the collection. But I know Bud, and I know he’s not that sort of guy.



One thought on “Lecter = Lector

  1. Here’s “The Credibility Bookcase,” an NYT article written by Amanda Hess during covid shelter-in-place that will likely disappear behind the paywall. I’ll excerpt particularly salient passages:

    The bookcase offers both a visually pleasing surface and a gesture at intellectual depth. Of all the quarantine judgments being offered right now, this one feels harmless enough. One gets the sense that for the bookcase-background type, being judged by their home libraries is a secret dream finally realized…

    But often the titles of the books themselves are not legible through the screen; all that can be ascertained is the overall vibe. The presence of gilded, leather bound volumes can overwhelm the expert’s own expertise, recalling the props in an ad for a personal injury lawyer; a library so extensive that it requires a “Beauty and the Beast” style ladder inspires grudging respect. Treating a book as a purely aesthetic object is often seen as an affront to intellectual credibility…

    The credibility bookcase, with its towering, idiosyncratic array of worn volumes, is itself an affectation. The expert could choose to speak in front of his art prints or his television or his blank white walls, but he chooses to be framed by his books. It is the most insidious of aesthetic trends: one that masquerades as pure intellectual exercise.

    It is remarkable how quickly the bookcase has become obligatory, how easily it has been integrated into the brittle aesthetic rules of authority. The appearance of the credibility bookcase suggests that the levers of expertise and professionalism are operating normally, even though they are very much not. There is a hint of tender vulnerability embedded in these authoritative displays. At a time when even our appointed experts rarely know what’s really going on, the veneer of respectability is always at risk of tumbling down. Last week, the ABC correspondent Will Reeve appeared on “Good Morning America” in front of a highly credible bookcase featuring an antique-style clock and a shimmering golden urn. He was not wearing any pants.


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