Books Are Not Sacred
Book lovers — or at least some of them — are up in arms over a DIY craft video that uses books as a crafting material (thanks to @ShelfBuzz on Twitter for bringing this to my attention). In the video, Lauren Conrad demonstrates how to cut off the bindings of books to decorate a storage box, essentially disguising the box as a shelf of books. In response, there has been an outcry from readers who say that Conrad is murdering books and that her craft project is a profane violation of something sacred.
Well, I have a confession to make:
I am a book-murderer.
Several years ago, I took an art class. The final project in this class was to create an art book with some sort of unified theme. For my project, I chose to interpret and illustrate a poem, Eric Simpson’s “No More Personal Pronouns.” I thought long and hard over this poem and my project and eventually came to a chilling conclusion: I was going to cut pages and passages from a book, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, and paste them back together in a collage to be the background of my illustrations.
I could make all sorts of justifications for what I did. I could tell you about how I used an old, cheap copy of the book, how the pages were already yellowed and falling out, and it was really a mercy killing. Or I could tell you about how I was a desperate college student with a looming deadline, and I did it out of necessity. But the truth of the matter is that I deliberately and brutally tore that book into pieces and used its bloody carcass for my own personal gain.
And, to this day, I don’t feel an ounce of guilt for my crime.
Wherein lies the value of a book?
Some of you may be thinking by now that my remorseless act of destruction betrays a lack of respect for books and perhaps a lack of respect for their authors and readers as well. I admit that I’m not readily horrified by cracked spines or dog-eared pages, signs that a book is well-used (book mold, on the other hand…). As both a student and an educator, I believe in underlining passages and writing notes in the margins, a practice that dismays some book lovers. But none of this is out of disrespect — it’s out of love.
I am not the sort who dismisses the inherent value of a book as a physical object. With the emergence of ebooks, people are arguing every day about whether paper books or their electronic siblings will end up on top. Is content all that matters, or is the smell of the binding glue and the feel of the pages between your fingers part of what makes a book a book? I’m one of those irritating people who stands squarely in the middle. I read a book for its contents whether it’s presented in physical or electronic form, but I also value the beauty of a book as a physical object regardless of its contents.
What does this mean when it comes to “re-purposing” books or pieces of books as the materials for a craft project or piece of visual artwork? Is it okay to destroy something beautiful in order to make something beautiful? Or is a book something too sacred to touch for any other purpose but reading?
The death of a book.
I think what bothers me the most about some of the reactions to Lauren Conrad’s video is the idea that cutting up a book is murder. The books she supposedly killed in her demonstration are from A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. If I walk over to my bookshelves right now, I can pull out any of the first three books from that series. I can take a walk to at least one of my local bookstores and pick up the whole series if I want to. I can order them online or borrow them from a friend. These books are not gone just because Conrad chopped up one set of copies. The fact that I cut apart a copy of Wuthering Heights hardly means that no one will be able to read that book ever again. These books are not dead.
If we’re going to talk about murdering books, let’s talk about censorship. Let’s talk about banning books from schools and libraries, or making them illegal, or throwing them onto pyres because they contain ideas we don’t approve of. Let’s talk about the actions that destroy books out of malice, not out of a desire to create something new and beautiful from them.
Books are something special and, yes, sometimes even sacred. But if we make them too sacred for art, we make them too sacred to mean anything.