Shelves of deceit
When the lockdown was enforced and we were all confined to our homes, I began organising my bookshelf. I no longer had stray paperbacks all over the house. Half of my bed was not filled with chaotic piles of books anymore. I could finally spread my legs while taking a nap. This was received with great enthusiasm and approval of my mother, and confused glares of my cat.
This exercise, however, allowed me to reflect and ponder over a few things that I would not have acknowledged otherwise. It made me wonder why I felt the urge to read or procure these books. This did not result in comfort. I was filled with remorse instead.
Seeing my books neatly arranged in shelves, I could not help but wonder if I had played safe all these years. Most of the books I own were penned by popular and commonly well regarded writers. These were the books peddled by literary circles, anointed by the Booker or the Nobel prize to enjoy commercial success. As much as I have felt good and have had faith in my taste in literature all these years, it now seems not much of it was under my control. I have merely conformed unknowingly to a role that was marketed to me.
It might be difficult for us to acknowledge, but it is nonetheless true that we can be in a false sense of control about our reading proclivities or tastes. Do we not succumb too easily to marketing algorithms and social media tractions?
This culture has turned mortal humans into automatons with very little scope for individuality or distinctiveness in terms of reading habits. Once we get assimilated, we are barely capable of hearing what our own heart desires to read and enjoy, what our own faculties process. What remains is a simulated instinct of syncing with the hive. We feel doomed otherwise. What if fomo ~ fear of missing out kicks in? Who will come to save us then? This inevitably leaves little space for accommodating works or writers who have not been approved by the "system".
All I am trying to do here is answer my conscience. Why have I failed to read and accommodate writers that have not been graced by a system which has a knack for propagating a group's moral or political self-righteousness and spinning art and literature into profitable consumer products? Is resistance to this system futile?
The books that we know about are rarely the fruits of us actively seeking out new and interesting voices overlooked by the establishment. We feel content with what the wind brings to our senses. No wonder the writers we commonly read are mostly straight males from big cities who belong to the majority ethnic or religious group and have an unfair edge in influencing the society that we continue to inhabit. No matter how much we think or speak of widening our progressive values, does it translate to what we are putting on our shelves, what we are reading?
If we are surrendering our literary senses to the system, we will inevitably be enabling those who benefit most from it. We become complicit in the silencing and eventual extinction of these voices that the privileged class have deemed unworthy or intentionally want to suppress.
The system propels us with a drive so that we feel obliged to keep up with it. This may come in the form of keeping up with literary trends, peer pressure, and desire to appear well-read and educated. We are much more likely to pick up a book these days because we see them apparently everywhere: our social media feeds, sources that are not always attentive to which voices they are helping to disseminate.
Goodreads, labelled as the 'Facebook with books', has been acquired or rather, devoured by the disreputable giant Amazon. To be at the mercy of the Goodreads algorithm to find new books which have been programmed to maximize profit for its parent company seems like a horrifying prospect. The unsuspecting reader becomes a pawn in the battle of the algorithms to dominate the market, while our inquisitiveness as a reader undergoes a silent death.
There are many others around us who hear about new books from BookTube—the part of YouTube dedicated to reading and discussing books. BookTube culture seems to rely heavily on following the current trends in the publishing world—keeping abreast of literary awards, chiming in on those books that have already secured good publicity in the market. The relatively bigger channels on the platform cater mostly to commercial genres—books that are produced with a target demographic in mind.
Despite being so susceptible to the parables of the market so often, however, there are many channels on the platform that are unique, that promote engaging conversation on books and can be redeeming to watch. The BookTube community have even made efforts to reflect on their reading habits, and have attempted to make amends. The Reading Women challenge for instance—which also operates on Instagram and hosts a regular podcast—feels like a great initiative. But in some ways it is still falling short since the conversation only tends to include a few selected women writers. It seems as though the moderators were not willing to look beyond a few familiar names.
Bookstagram, the Instagram equivalent of BookTube, has its niche community for books too, although the dimensions for hosting conversations and intelligent engagement can feel a bit restrained here.
Instagram is flooded with images that employ books as a visual prop which hardly ever have anything to do with the contents of the text, as though it didn't matter what these books stand for. It also tends to showcase a lifestyle that is more about "refinement of taste" centred on books. This curation of a persona which has been branded by its moniker, "the aesthetic", may seem grand at first glance, but it does not take long to see its derelict nature. The "aesthete" does very little but showcase some common and popular books with very little indication to what they mean to them. It is hard not to see the irony here—people who show much public adoration of books do not always take the effort to engage intellectually with them. One could say they are tempted to read the same book as their friends as it enables them to have a conversation, so that books become but a prop of social interaction. One wonders how rejuvenating such discourse can be when the books in question were picked primarily for maintaining social graces.
It is not unreasonable to be distrustful of a culture that treats literature this way. Swimming against the current does pose the risk of isolating one, too. Why should one bother to scramble their brains when accepting the system seems effortless and convenient? But how hard is it to realise that flowing with the herd along the current makes us more vulnerable to falling off a cliff?
I have very little to say to many around me for whom the act of reading is merely a medium of entertainment, a distraction from their otherwise occupied lives. But what about the rest of us, who hold literature and the world of books as dearly as our own lives?
I do not believe that we as readers are bound to surrender to the system. Perhaps we should spend a bit more time and effort in digging out those voices which have been left out in darkness and undeserved obscurity. We may aim to broaden our palette by reading works across countries and subjects.
One name that immediately comes to my mind is Michael Orthofer, who single-handedly runs the literary website complete-review.com which, in addition to being an excellent source for literature from across the world, is also a testament to Michael's efforts as a reader to find great literary works that are not always visible to a reader in the Anglophone world.
Now that I am in my mid-twenties, how a book reaches me is quite different from how I would get in touch with one a decade ago. During those teen years, I would stumble upon a book as though by accident. It would fill me with astonishing delights and joys of surprise. Those days are behind me. I have moved from a suburban town to the capital city and have experienced the advent or rather intrusion of the internet in every aspect of our lives. I have been exposed to other people who read and the cultural landscape around me. All these have exponentially increased the ways I can come in contact with a book. But the innocent joy of finding something new and unexplored are lost for good. By borrowing from the tongue of this mechanical age, the sensor for detecting wonder has gone offline. I have become numb. Our desensitisation to these wonders has given way to the mechanical and the mundane.
It is ironic that people who seem to invest so much energy, enthusiasm, and emotion in reading books should spend such little effort in deciding what they are putting in their palette. Can we not do any better?
Mursalin Mosaddeque grew up in the suburban town of Rangpur in Northern Bengal.