Here we are in the middle of one of the most significant communication technology revolutions since the development of the printing press – and it seems we are enchanted with the past. I’m not talking about Downton Abbey or Mad Men, although they do evince the trend. According to the marketing and advertising agency JWT New York, the continuing replacement of many consumer goods with their virtual equivalents is bringing about a fetishisation of the old-fashioned, physical object – things like books, for instance. It’s a habit they call ‘objectifying objects’, and if you’ve walked into (or even past) a craft market, a bookstore or a vintage emporium in the last year or so, you won’t need JWT to tell you that objectifying books is a thriving industry.
Businesses like Melbourne-based Rebound Books create stationery by recycling classic children’s stories; the designer Jim Rosenau fashions bespoke bookshelves from cleverly selected vintage hardbacks; the team at Art Meets Matter have had unanticipated success by revamping the classic, orange paperback Penguin book design and stamping it on coffee mugs, tea towels and tote bags. Even the pocket-sized convenience of an iPhone’s networked online calendars and apps has proved no impediment to the popular success of the Moleskine notebooks made famous by many of modernism’s finest writers and artists.
And it’s not just books. The typewriter has become the latest hip collector’s item. According to an article in the New York Times, hipsters have embraced old Remingtons and Smith Coronas because of an existential enervation with digital life:
Though they grew up on computers, they enjoy prying at the seams of digital culture. Like urban beekeepers, hip knitters and other icons of the D.I.Y. renaissance, they appreciate tangibility, the object-ness of things. They chafe against digital doctrines that identify human “progress” as a ceaseless march toward greater efficiency, the search for a frictionless machine.
But does this strange new interest in old things merely point to the fact that books as we have known them are now nothing more than a retro relic ripe for recycling?
In his recent book, Retromania, Simon Reynolds observes, ‘the accent, today, is not on discovery but on recovery. All through the noughties, the game of hip involved competing to find fresher things to remake. […] We live in the digital future, but we’re mesmerised by our analogue past.’ From the fad for collecting manual typewriters to the desire to own a shelf full of vintage Penguin paperbacks, something about the present dematerialisation of our literary culture is turning us into preemptive nostalgics (after all, let’s not forget – the printed book is still very much available in our present culture).
Even though printed books are not yet outmoded, the powerful feelings associated with nostalgia are being applied. Rather than interpreting this strange turn as a desire to hurry along the disappearance of print, applying this aura of nostalgia to reading and writing could be described as an attempt to demonstrate the emotional power that books have acquired over the last 400 years. That is, this application of nostalgia to all things bookish is the literary equivalent of apps like Instagram, which makes modern-day photos look ‘authentically’ old-fashioned.* Just as you can apply a vintage filter to your snapshots in order to signal to your social network and yourself that this thing happened, was important, felt special and so on, revamping the world of literature, by making it appear older than it really is, is a way to maintain contact with all that is permanent and significant. In this regard, a book with a tangible history of production and ownership compares favourably to its e-book counterpart, which can give its owner no real sense of its origin, carrying as it does fewer messages about its production.
In an age of digital excess, items like typewriters and printed books stand for both material and emotional authenticity, and realness. Although reading books on a Kindle or listening to music on an iPod is undoubtedly convenient, the absence of the material object can make us uneasy – how are we to demonstrate to ourselves and others what we value? The e-reader, for all of its utility, introduces anonymity and alienation into the world of reading. A printed book manifests both the identity of its reader and the experience of its reading. For example, in reading expansive novels like War and Peace or Infinite Jest on an e-reader one does not physically experience the book’s vast terrain in the same way as with the print copy – nor can one impress others with the conceptual weightiness of one’s reading tastes.
I suspect it won’t be like this for too long. One enterprising company in the United States has already started to produce iPad cases fashioned to resemble classic leather-bound books. Now (already!), even the e-book is vintage.
*The idea that Instagram’s popularity can be explained by its presentation of the (virtual, ephemeral) digital present as (real, significant) analogue past, is expressed by Nathan Jurgensen in his excellent essay ‘The Faux-Vintage Photo’.
Caroline Hamilton is a Killings columnist. She is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne investigating the future of publishing, writing and reading. She has also written a book about the publishing success of Dave Eggers, One Man Zeitgeist.