On the 21st January 2020, Alex Cristofi went from the peaceful quiet life of editor and author to being branded as a “book murderer”. Cristofi had, as his crime, cut three large books in half to make them easier to carry and read. What started as a simple solution to a logistical problem, prompted an explosion of disgust across twitter. Why has altering an inanimate object – in order to help it serve its purpose – better prompted such outrage?
This question is really asking us to interrogate the wider culture around literature and materiality. It is clear we as a culture greatly value the physicality of books. We saw a similar twitterstorm aimed at Marie Kondo last year for suggesting people should consider getting rid of books they will not read or re-read. After the birth of the Kindle in 2007, it was widely anticipated and feared there would be a dip in the sales of physical books. However, this did not last long and as recently as 2016 physical books sales rose by 7%. A 2013 survey found the most popular reason given for preferring physical books was that they “like to hold the product.”
The materiality of books is not only unavoidable, but highly romanticised, perhaps even fetishised. This can be seen in constant re-releases of classic texts every house already owns, right through to the almost pathological fear of permanently altering our books: whether this be writing on them, dog-earing pages or cracking their spines. But this fear has become so intense it, in many ways, actually hinders our experience with a text. I vividly remember a girl in high school who would spend English lessons contorting her torso to a 90 degree angle while she read, curving her spine into a hook in an attempt to read the book without cracking the spine – preferring to crack her own instead.
Mr Cristofi came to his own defense by writing ‘the book is just a mortal husk, it’s the story itself that is the soul’. Indeed, we have become so obsessed with the materiality of books that we have forgotten that they are functional objects. As a musical instrument demands to be played, so a book demands to be read.