0. TBR! TBR!
Regardless of whether your passion is for books, films, games or comics, the chances are that your home contains a large stockpile of unconsumed culture. Depending upon the exact nature of your passion, this stockpile can take a number of different forms including:
- A pile of books marked ‘To Be Read’
- An array of downloaded or recorded TV series you need to ‘Catch Up On’
- A Steam account containing games boasting zero hours of play
- A shelf groaning under the weight of shrink-wrapped DVD box sets
As perverse as this kind of cultural opulence might seem, it is as nothing when compared to the mind-boggling absurdity of our tendency to buy new books and films when we have dozens of perfectly wonderful titles sitting at home on a shelf. Why do we do it? Why do we buy books we don’t read? The answer lies in our postmodern condition, the economics of human attention and the ever-changing nature of the self.
1. We Are What We Buy
There is a wonderful scene at the end of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) where the adrenaline-soaked bomb disposal expert returns home to the US and finds himself frozen in terror before a wall of supermarket peanut butter. The source of the man’s terror is not the peanut butter itself but rather the realisation that he has no basis for making a meaningful choice between the different brands, textures and flavours of peanut butter. Horrified by this newfound freedom, the character promptly returns to Iraq in search of a simpler (albeit far more dangerous) existence. This scene perfectly encapsulates what some thinkers refer to as the postmodern condition.
Postmodernism means a million different things to a million different people but one can think of it as the realisation that the world contains no objective values. On one hand, this realisation is liberating because it allows us to live our lives unconstrained by the feeling that what we are doing might be objectively wrong. On the other hand, this realisation deprives us of the sense of satisfaction that comes from doing something objectively right. In other words, while postmodernism may have freed us from the oppression of traditional values, this liberation cost us the ability to live lives filled with meaning and certainty. To speak of the postmodern condition is thus to speak of a profound spiritual malaise that stems from the fact that all of our choices are arbitrary and that, no matter who we decide to become, we could just as easily have chosen to become someone else. Like the character attempting to buy peanut butter, we are inundated by choices and yet have no basis for making a meaningful decision.
This aspect of the postmodern condition is explored in the TV series Dexter. Dexter Morgan is a psychopath who struggles to understand the thought processes of normal humans. Aware of Dexter’s proclivities, his adoptive father attempts to ‘solve’ Dexter’s alienation from human values by teaching him a code that might allow him to function in human society while also assuaging his urge to kill. Initially, Dexter treats the code as an objective value about the world but as the series progresses, he realises that the code is really nothing more than a set of arbitrary principles imposed upon him by a hypocritical authority figure. Once Dexter realises that there are no objective values, the code begins to seem flimsy and its moral elements cease to provide him with much satisfaction. Though Dexter explores a number of radically different solutions to this problem throughout the series, it is interesting to note that all of his solutions retain an obsession with the ritualistic elements of the kill. Indeed, while Dexter may kill a number of different people for a number of different reasons, he always has his killing room and he always retains a physical trophy.
Dexter’s obsession with the physical trappings of his passion reflects a very human need to lend the things we care about some kind of physical form. By killing in a certain way, Dexter is reminding himself (and the world) that he is a particular type of person. Similarly, when we purchase certain kinds of product, we are reminding ourselves (and the world) that we are the kind of person that buys those kinds of things. For example, my DVD collection marks me out as a fan of art house cinema, just as my collection of critical texts marks me out as someone with an interest in criticism. I buy these things because I enjoy them, but I also buy them because I want to remind myself that I am that sort of person. Purchasing decisions not only serve to broadcast my identity, they also lend a form of concrete physical reality to a sense of self that has been rendered flimsy by decades of postmodern deconstruction.
2. Clicking is Easier than Reading
The more observant of you will have noticed that, while the above paragraph talks about purchasing decisions as a means of broadcasting one’s identity, it does not mention the transformative powers of the books and films themselves. The reason for this omission is that buying a book is quite different to reading a book and this is precisely why people buy books they do not read.
Broadcasting one’s identity through consumerism is a mature and complex system in so far as it is possible to vary one’s identity through subtle shifts in purchasing behaviour. For example, when I buy Satoshi Kon’s Paprika (2006) on DVD, I am broadcasting the fact that I am someone who knows enough about anime to buy that kind of film. However, if I buy the exact same film on Blu-ray, then I am also broadcasting the fact that I care enough about the film to pay a premium in order to own it on a non-conventional format. Indeed, one reason why Blu-ray survives as a format is because it allows fans of particular films to reassert their devotion to certain films by buying them again in a more expensive format. People who own The Godfather trilogy on Blu-ray are not just saying they love The Godfather, they are saying that they love The Godfather enough to buy it twice. This also explains why people keep buying and re-buying all the different re-releases of Red Dwarf and Star Trek.
Aside from expressing varying degrees of affection for particular films and books, consumerism also allows us to express our aspirations. For example, when I purchase Paprika on DVD, I am not just asserting my identity as an anime fan, I am also expressing my desire to be the kind of person who has seen Paprika and who can discuss it in a knowledgeable manner. The gap between these two different identities provides us with some insight into the puzzle of unread books.
To become an expert on Dostoyevsky would require a lifetime of study and an inexhaustible fascination with comically scandalous dinner parties. While I can think of no goal worthier than becoming an expert on Dostoyevsky, it is nonetheless worth noting that the role of expert is not the only role available to us. For example, those of us who grow easily bored with scandalous dinner parties might refrain from devoting our lives to Dostoyevsky but this does not mean that we cannot read all of his work and enjoy what it is that we have read. We can become that person a lot easier than we can become the internationally renowned scholar. Those of us with other interests might even want to become the kind of person who has read and enjoyed a few of Dostoyevsky’s novels but ultimately prefers fantasy novels involving dragons and elves. Again, we can become this person as long as we have enough care and attention to fill that particular role. One of the reasons why consumerism is so popular as a mode of self-expression is because it allows us to begin climbing this sort of aspirational ladder without investing very much time or effort. Indeed, in order to become the kind of person who owns all of Dostoyevsky’s novels, all that is required is the time and dedication it takes to place an online order.
The French philosopher Voltaire once stated that, when faced by the collapse of all values and the death of God, the only thing left for us to do is to cultivate our garden. While this enigmatic response to the spiritual void of atheism has drawn a lot of different responses, my interpretation is that we should respond to the death of all values by investing our care and attention into a particular identity or worldview. The garden we are tending is the garden of our own subjective values and by investing care and attention in these values; we build a garden of meaning that (at the very least) distracts us from the meaninglessness of existence.
If we feed this idea back into our discussion of Dostoyevsky-related consumerism we find that the more one invests in a particular ladder of aspiration, the more satisfying that ladder becomes. I imagine there is a good deal of satisfaction to be had in looking back over a life devoted to the study of Dostoyevsky. Similarly, there is a good deal of pleasure to be found in reading all of his novels but while this pleasure and sense of accomplishment is far greater than the pleasure we get from being the kind of person who owns all the novels, this does not mean that there is no pleasure at all to be had in being that person. One of the great virtues of consumerism as a form of self-expression is that it allows us to make small investments for small returns.
We buy books we do not read because the act of buying a book is in and of itself rewarding. Indeed, while the pleasure to be had in being the kind of person who owns a Powell and Pressburger box set is much less than the pleasure to be had in being the kind of person who is an expert on their work, the economics of human care and attention mean that the buzz we get from expressing ourselves through consumerism is often more than adequate to justify the financial cost of the objects we purchase.
However, while the economics of human attention along with the self-expressive powers of consumerism may explain why there is value in buying books you do not read, they do not account for the fact that hardly anyone consciously buys books, films and games purely for the sake of owning them. In order to explain this, we need to consider the fact that our sense of self is in a constant state of flux.
3. You are not the Person You were when You bought that Book
What were you thinking when you spent your time screaming and shitting yourself? Why would you just lie there while your parents changed your filthy undergarments? What were you thinking when you spent four hours sucking face with a thirteen-year old girl or gave a blowjob to the guy in the letterman jacket who said he liked your hair?
The answer to all of these questions is that we are not the people we were as infants and teenagers and so should probably not be held to account for our actions at the time.
Why did you spend an hour laughing uproariously at your own jokes before puking your guts out? Why did you lie in bed for an entire week without eating properly? What kind of person believes that they are a golden god and decides to jump off a roof?
Again, the answer to all of these questions is that we were ill, drunk or high when we did those things and so should probably not be judged by the same set of criteria we use to judge actions undertaken in a normal frame of mind.
So if we are not the same people we were in our youth and we are not the same people we are when we are off our heads, when do we get to be ourselves? What is a ‘normal frame of mind’? According to an array of philosophers stretching back at least as far as David Hume, there is no time at which we get to be ourselves because there is no such thing as the self, there is only the thing that does the experiencing at any given moment. As Hume himself put it in A Treatise Concerning Human Understanding (1739):
When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions remov’d by death, and cou’d I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I shou’d be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity
While I leave it to people more learned than I to flesh out the link between the rising popularity of Hume’s attack on the self and the postmodernist attack on the idea of objective narratives, it is nonetheless interesting to note how compatible these two ideas can be.
Thanks to the influence of postmodernism, we use consumerism as a way of making our lives more meaningful and our values less flimsy. However, while postmodernism asserts that there are no objective values ‘out there’, Hume and his intellectual descendants assert that there is no fixed self ‘in here’. Combine these two observations and you have a perfect explanation for why people buy books they do not read.
As our neural chemistry fluctuates and our sense of self is re-drawn, the things we care about tend to change. One day we are all about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the following day we are all about the films of Michael Haneke. While some areas of interest stay fixed over long periods of time, there is no denying the fact that what we care about changes on a day-to-day basis. Indeed, what we care about changes because who we are changes.
While our sense of self is in a constant state of flux, the illusion of homogeneity is almost complete meaning that it is subjectively impossible to tell whether we are serious about Dostoyevsky or whether this is just a passing fad that will be gone tomorrow. The illusion of homogenous selfhood also explains why we struggle to notice when it is that we are being irrational. A beautiful example of this type of thing appears in the situation comedy 15 Storeys High. In this scene, a man announces his intention to lift weights using only one arm so that he can have one arm for tasks requiring strength and one arm for tasks requiring precision and delicacy such as icing cakes and stroking cats. After some discussion, it transpires that the man is only making this suggestion because he rode in a lift full of people smoking weed but his conviction that he is being perfectly reasonable is a beautiful example of how difficult it can be to tell the difference between a short-term self and more enduring long-term patterns.
One reason why we buy books we do not read is because when we buy them we think we are going to continue being a particular kind of person. However, when the neurochemical spike that created the Dostoyevsky fan dissipates, we are left with nothing but a collection of difficult books and the sheepish feeling that we might well have made a terrible mistake.
4. In Defence of Unread Books
Many of us look upon our TBR piles with feelings of shame. Here are books and films that we know are worthy of our time and yet we somehow manage to find other things more demanding of our attention. Of course, the real source of our shame lies in the fact that we realise that we are not actually the kind of person who does care enough about Russian literature to read Anna Karenina or Oblomov. We may aspire to be that person but in truth, that is not who we are and these books serve as a very physical reminder of the fact that the self we have is not the self we would like. However, the more I think about it the more I think that these feelings of shame and disappointment are misplaced.
There is no way of telling what kind of person you will be next week, next month or next year. When you bought those books you never got round to reading you were the kind of person who was happy to spend a little bit of money for the short term pleasure of being the kind of person who owned those books. However, because there is no way of telling where your future interests may lie, tomorrow may well see you circling back towards those books. You could become the kind of person who reads and understands Dostoyevsky. You could become the kind of person who becomes an internationally renowned scholar of scandalous dinner parties. You could become any of these people and because you happen to own all the books, those identities are just that little bit easier to assume.
Many left-leaning thinkers pour scorn on consumerism as a hollow experience but my view of consumerism is that life is short and people need to take pleasure wherever they can find it. The great god Pan is dead and so is Baby Jesus and if owning a load of DVD box sets gives you joy then you should not feel any shame or regret about being that person because being the person who owns books he hasn’t read is far more rewarding than being the person who owns no books at all.