Select Page

What do your bookshelves look like? Here’s some of mine:

bookshelves
I’ve kept most books I’ve ever owned. I’ve even kept little novelty books I’ve picked up out of cutout bins — things like a compendium of Jewish party album covers from the 40’s through the 70’s.

I’m not Jewish (well, not that much) and I don’t recall any of those albums from my youth. I just liked that someone would collect them all into a book. That book tells a story about a group of people who — after being marginalized and killed what have you for centuries — suddenly had enough money and time to support a whole market for kitschy Latin music to be played in the background of Mah Jongg parties. That book is the story of America in some way.

My college girlfriends (yeah, that’s plural) grew up in a spooky house on hill. Inside, they were always surrounded by books. Their father was a librarian. I’d walk around that house and marvel at the book-covered walls. There had to be thousands of them, stuffed into every nook and cranny. Their dad collected books the way some saintly people collect children. Some books just wandered by one day and needed a place to stay. Can’t leave them out in the rain. Get to know them a little and give them that corner there. They can play with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nabokov for a while. Maybe someone will come to pick them up. If not, guess we have more books!

I’d sit in the happy, dusty disarray of that house and reflect that each book around me represented not only a lot of work — but some original, mysterious spark of interest. The writer had to think “I think I have some new ideas about home knitting.” She got a publisher to agree with her. Someone at a bookstore had to agree at some point. There was a relationship that bound them all together in one virtual moment. The book was an artifact not only of one idea, but a whole series of ideas that led to choices–and a human bond. And those choices resulted in me standing in a slumping Victorian house somewhere in New Hampshire in 1993, paging through a faded paperback book about knitting. I was doing my part to honor that wonderful, inscrutable chain of events. It was like a sort of worship for me.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Edward Bernays.

Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew, and he was the author of the modern world. He took his uncle’s insights into what drove people to make choices and used them to help corporate America. He was the father of public relations. He was the one who got women to smoke by turning it into a subversive, feminist act. He helped get America into World War One by means of bullshit, mainly. He also did this:

. . .  he deployed famous public figures to proclaim “the importance of books to civilization and then convinced architects, home contractors and interior designers to build homes with bookshelves, believing, ‘where there are bookshelves, there will be books.’” Two decades later, The New York Times was putting out a dollar magazine, The New York Times Shows You 65 Ways to Decorate with Books in Your Home, celebrating the cheering effect of a wall of the publishing industry’s lithe and colorful new covers.

Think of all the writers over the last eighty years or so who poured their guts into the words on the page. Think of the process of writing from the first germ of an idea, to first draft, through rewrites and edits, to proofreading, to approval of the final, to the release and signing and promotion tours.

And all it was leading up to was for that book to sit a shelf in a suburban home in California somewhere, making its owner seem more worldly and intellectual. Many, many of those books would never even be cracked open.

Though they didn’t know it at the time, the author’s true function was as home decorator. There were entire writing careers and publishing fortunes made on books that never got read.

Then, of course, there’s this:

“If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!” — John Waters

I guess everything is about sex, after all. Thanks, Edward Bernays. Thanks, Sigmund Freud.