I’m writing this as a reply to Adrian Prechtel’s article in the Abendzeitung München entitled “The Death of the Bookshelf,” which focused on—believe it or not—the demise of the bookshelf—not so much as an altar to learning and culture, but as a bourgeois status symbol and a fixture of modern interior décor.
“The demise of the printed Brockhaus is an assault on already shaky bourgeois domestic culture,” Prechtel declares. “The educated citizen must switch to other symbols.”
The Brockhaus Enzyklopädie is, or rather, was, the iconic German encyclopedia, with a similar standing in the Germanic world to the Encyclopedia Britannica in the English-speaking world. It sums up in one publication what Prechtel dismisses as “the prestige object of the discrete charm of the educated bourgeoisie, the bookcase!”
“Bourgeois society” as a term of abuse, outside the more navel-gazing cul-de-sacs of European kulturkritik, is about as dated as Brockhaus itself, and if the preening bourgeoisie of Prechtel’s caricaturing imagination are still running around trying to score points off each other with “the book as status symbol,” then they probably deserve museum conservation as much as the bookshelves themselves.
Even the term “discreet charm” reeks of Luis Buñuel and the age d’or of the pre-war Surrealists (and fellow-travelers of Stalinism). “The disappearance of the paper Brockhaus is a sign of a cultural shift as a living mirror of bourgeois self-understanding,” Prechtel adds. Believe him, and the bookshelf was a last pillar of a society on its last legs since 1968. Pretty long last legs.
As a far more honorable, intellectually credible, and honest German critique of modern book culture, printed or onscreen, I’d prefer to cite the interview with poet and publisher Michael Krüger, recipient of the London Book Fair’s 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award in International Publishing, which appeared in Publishing Perspectives.
Now Krüger doesn’t really give a shit what readers read their books on. He doesn’t waste time worrying about whether they fill their booskhelves for love or for self-advancement. But he does care a lot about the books they read. “I only know there are good and interesting books, and bad ones. You can read them on paper or on the screen, I don’t care. I only get nervous when people are constantly reading second-class books, when reviewers praise third-rate books, and when booksellers put bad books in their windows. Since book publishing became a mass-market business, the quality level is constantly sinking,” he laments. “People thought that with digitization, the good books would be easier to get. But the problem is that most of the readers love bad books! I have no explanation for the fact that modern societies have invested tons of money into schools and universities only to find out that horrible books are much more loved than the good ones.”
Perhaps iPads and Kindles are becoming the new fetish objects of consumerism, with readers far more concerned with the latest gadget than the content—or rather, culture—that can be consumed through them. But the failure of modern education to produce cultured and cultivated minds is a far better target for criticism than the supposed snob value of the traditional printed book.