Monday, 16 November 2009

Books as Social Markers

There was an article by Peter Munro in The Age on Sunday under the title Lost in Cyber Space in which Prof. Bob Cummins (Deakin University, convener of the Australian Centre on Quality of Life) lamented that he had "lost a social marker" after he emptied his shelves of books.

The fact is that I just never read those books and was never going to read them again—they were just academic props. But maybe they filled a function as that—as a prop for who Cummins is … probably shouldn't have done it … I guess walking into an academic's office and finding a wall of earnest books is quite consoling; it means at face value you look like the real deal. Someone sitting in their office with bare shelves—how odd, what's wrong with them?

It is surprising that Prof. Cummins, who has a Personal Chair in the School of Psychology uses words like maybe, guess and probably in the above quote. I would have thought it was reasonably obvious that he would lose not only his social markers but some of his academic credibility.

The article goes on:

Possessions help define us, brand us, but what happens when they start to hide away in boxes in top cupboards—CD stacks supplanted by iPod docks, film collections by downloads, libraries by wireless reading devices

It is an interesting question, but the answers proposed by the article are not very convincing. Sharing playlists, reading lists etc are not really the equivalent of letting someone look over your shelves or your cds. And for a true collector, or the conspicuous consumer, it isn't remotely the same. To know someone is "listening to" The Beatles (when, in fact, they are a collector of first pressings, and the singles and LPs on their shelves are worth more than your house) or that they have Dracula on their shelf of "favourite books" (when, in fact, they have a first edition in a dust-wrapper which is worth more than your house) tells you nothing. This is because, records or CDs and books are material objects which encode a myriad of social markers in their very materiality.

I recently helped sort through some of the books left behind by a retired academic. Many of the books had the name of the academic concerned, a date and a place neatly written in pen on the front free fly-leaf. Collectively, these "earnest books" were not just "academic props"—though that was undoubtedly part of their function—they marked the progress of an academic life over five decades and on three continents. Battered, filled with marginalia, with ticket-stubs and call-slips as place-markers, sorting through them was like reading a biography of their owner.

How anyone could leave so much of themselves behind is a mystery to me—I tend to be quite sentimental about such things—because the owner of these books left behind a substantial part of their own personal history, not just "a social marker."

Biblio-sentimentality aside, the article seems to ignore the fact that as an increasing number of the things in our life (books, music, film, photos) make the transition from physical to virtual we accumulate an increasing number of new things that store, use or manipulate our virtual books, music, films and photos: digital cameras, photo frames, mobile phones, PDAs and hybrid devices like PDA-phones, ipod-cameras, etc.

It is these objects that now carry social markers, and are the evidence of our conspicuous spending. So, if Bob Cummins really wants to impress his colleagues and students he need only install two side-by-side Macs on a long and spartan black desk, a wall-mounted ipod doc sound system, and a 46 inch flat-screen to display album-covers on or to display a virtual fish-tank. Easy-peasy.

Oh, and he can send me his book cases. Because I always need more of them.

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