This phenomenon is best illustrated by a poster that for a while was following me around the internet in advert form, under the misapprehension that because I love cats and read books – and, indeed, have written a book about a cat – it had my taste in interior decor pinned down. The poster shows a cat and bears the slogan: “THAT’S WHAT I DO, I READ BOOKS, I DRINK TEA AND I KNOW THINGS.”
Apologies if you own this poster, but to me it encapsulates everything that is smug and middle class about the cult of book ownership. I don’t mean reading – provided you’re lucky enough to still have a local library, that is a pastime that is accessible to almost everyone. No, I specifically mean having a lot of books and boasting about it, treating having a lot of books as a stand-in for your personality, or believing that simply owning a lot of books makes one “know things”.
I understand that certain books can feel vital and precious. I grew up in a family where there were a lot of books on the shelves, though we couldn’t always afford new ones. I’ve never forgotten the privilege of that, nor of the position I’m in now, where I am sometimes sent books free of charge. Perhaps that’s why I find the idea of hoarding them rather sad – there’s even a Japanese word, tsundoku, for allowing books to pile up unread. Instead, I choose to donate mine to places where there are people who can most benefit from them, or leave them on the wall outside my house, where they always disappear.
I don’t mean to display my repulsive middle-class roots in front of my betters, but if Mrs. Cosslett spent a little less time humblebragging about how she transcended her privileged past and became a codex Communist, a Bodhisattva of book-donating, a one-woman welfare state for the literary indigent, and a little more time rubbing elbows with us fishwives and costermongers, she might have been aware that the whole “That’s what I do, I [blank] and I know things” meme template comes from Game of Thrones, and is generally used as, you know, a joke. (I even have a sticker on my laptop at work that says, “That’s what I do, I pick things up and put things down, and I know things.” See, it’s funny because I do indeed spend my time at both labor and leisure picking things up and putting them down, whether boxes or barbells, and also because…oh, never mind.) Ah, Guardian, you never disappoint.