Notes for week of 23 January, 2023

This column which appeared in The Guardian on Monday got some corners of Twitter so upset that they slung abuse at the author, and the paper had to change the headline to remove the references to “middle class smugness”. Twitter is a hellhole, and abusing journalists on there because you don’t agree with them is inexcusable, pathetic behaviour. At the same time, the Guardian deliberately framed the column as a piece of clickbait, and the article itself does everything it can to try and set up this contrived dichotomy between those who “keep books” (later defined as “having a lot of books and boasting about it, treating having a lot of books as a stand-in for your personality, or believing that simply owning a lot of books makes one ‘know things”’) and those who donate their books “to people who can most benefit from them”.

I donate some books to charity every now and again, but I keep the majority of the books I buy, because I might want to read (or at least refer to them) again. Sometimes I just stand in front of my bookshelves and pick up books and leaf through them, maybe to read the inscription inside from the person who gave it to me, maybe to just pick out my favourite bits, or look at which bit I underlined to try and figure out why. I have a few books I go back to again and again, rereading them every few years.

I don’t think that makes me a “smug and middle class” member of the “cult of book ownership” and I don’t think the person who wrote that column does either. But the problem isn’t with this specific column, it’s with the ongoing quest to create ‘content’ that will set Twitter alight and drive page views… Which then puts the author into a horrible position of being asked to come up with another, even more inflammatory, stance for their next commission. This is how monsters like Giles Coren and Allison Pearson are created - they are the battle-hardened trolls who enjoy and are fuelled by the abuse they get on platforms like Twitter.

See also: James Marriott’s recent Times column about AI ‘spelling trouble for creatives’ (and for a comprehensive criticism of that, plus a bonus take down of Nick Cohen, read Mic Wright here).

All of which is a long and rambling way of saying… Go read Jason Diamond’s article on Judging Books By Their Covers instead. That is a heartfelt, deeply personal and touching exploration of what books can mean to people and why they’re so important. And it’s one that couldn’t have been written by any AI. (I’ve really been enjoying Diamond’s newsletter The Melt of late, btw).

→ Coincidentally, I wrote a little, personal essay about a book for London in Bits this week. Here it is.

→ Some interesting things I’ve read this week:

Welcome to the Shoppy Shop Why does every store suddenly look the same? from Grub Street. Includes this intriguing sentence: “My current thought is that they don’t feel local to a place, but instead they feel local to the internet, which is, after all, where we all live.”

On a similar theme: The contagious visual blandness of Netflix sums up some of the reasons I’ve enjoyed the “texture, substance, imperfection…” of films like After Sun recently.

The Art of Bidding, or How I Survived Federal Prison is a bit of a weird one. It’s written by Eric Borsuk who is also known as ‘one of the kids that the American Animals film was based on’ (he’s the one who wrote the book that became the film), but the article isn’t really about ‘the art of bidding’ (although it starts off there it leaves that framing device behind pretty quickly). Also Eric’s ‘coping mechanism’ seems to have mainly been ‘being incarcerated with his school friends’.

Will Wiles pays tribute to the genius that was Kevin O’Neill

→ Listening to:

Marquee Moon (obviously)