At the Academy Awards this year, the prize for Best Animated Short Film went to The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. This is a lovely visual fable, with the classic theme of books and readers breathing life into each other, and perhaps the award was intended as the Academy’s tribute to the printed word. If you haven’t watched it on YouTube yet: Mr Lessmore is a dead ringer for a young Vikram Seth, and he writes books. On the day we meet him, his books, along with the rest of his vintage-era town, are torn apart by a storm. He survives but the aftermath is bleak: The world, now strewn with ravaged pages, has turned black and white. But before long, a flock of flying books appears on the scene, and they bring colour back to his life, as well as to the film.
It’s a neat reversal of the start of the movie The Wizard of Oz, in which a storm carries Judy Garland out of monochrome Kansas and into Technicolor paradise. That transition, of course, is a tribute to the magic of the movies. As Dorothy steps into Oz, she feels the same amazement as her audience must have, back in 1939, when colour cinema was still young. Returning to The Fantastic Flying Books, you’re forced to admit that the dawn-of-colours thing works better as a metaphor for cinema than for reading. Books actually are black and white, most of them. If you look inside.
You can leave The Fantastic Flying Books feeling that both the film and the Academy’s tribute are hollow and, all the more for their loveliness, self-defeating. I’d call them “booksy”. If you use Facebook or Twitter, you may have noticed the recent popularity of “booksing”, which is very different from reading. Booksing tends to show up as a gushy, shared celebration of the idea of books, rather than of the experience of reading any given one. Our reaction to last month’s award-winner is the latest example, but it isn’t the greatest, yet.
Eye-popping: Book displays take centre stage. Photo: Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images
Going by YouTube hits, that title belongs to The Joy of Books, a stop-motion video that’s been viewed almost three million times in two months. At night, within a bookshop, hundreds of books whirl about in ecstatic, sovereign motion. It’s a mesmerizing effect, but in truth, a less cultured film-maker could have set it in a supermarket, featuring hyperactive boxes of washing powder. The video ends zooming in on a black volume, whose title announces: There’s Nothing Quite Like a Real Book. At first, I thought it read “This is”, but no, it’s “There’s”.
Booksing often celebrates books through their most cosmetic aspects, like another viral hit, the website Bookshelf Porn (www.bookshelfporn.com). Reverse the order of those words, and at least you get some sense of content, but Bookshelf Porn is entirely about form. In fact, it’s entirely about furniture. Yet it was shared among friends as a testament to their love of reading. Writing about the site for Newyorker.com, Monica Racic implied that the nemesis of spectacular bookshelves is the Kindle. Wrong. The nemesis of spectacular bookshelves is a messy heap of books, which is to say, books that look like they’re being read rather than photographed.
There are many ways of being booksy. They include the over-scrutiny of cover design, the fetishization of typefaces, the reading of writing about reading and writing, and the purchase of Penguin India souvenirs. There is a new connoisseurship of pulp fiction, which we own not in hope of ever reading, but in hope of communing with the literary underbelly. There’s an epidemic of Tumblr pages that you can broadly call “Hemingway, Typewriter”, in which famous authors are seen doing things. Then there’s the veneration of the collection, the shelf, the bargain bin, the discount haul, and other forms of textual abundance (or, as we know too well, unread accumulation). Last but not least, being booksy means watching animated tributes to books that have nothing to do with actually reading.
The Fantastic Flying Books plays out the cute idea that our friends, the Books, literally live or die by our reading them, and they’re waiting to repay the favour to our own languishing imaginations. Yet within its kingdom of storybooks, the only one that’s ever identified is Humpty Dumpty: a child’s oral rhyme, not one you typically read. There’s nothing wrong with this, as a vision of books for children, especially considering the film’s inspiration—the sight of children, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, reading donated books in a shelter. “They had lost all their belongings and had no privacy, no TV, no way to escape,” William Joyce told Animation Magazine. “And once they started to read on their cots, they were totally lost in the worlds of their books.”
Okay, he gets an Oscar.
But what explains how we react to booksiness, not being children or hurricane victims? As images of reading that appeal to adults, or to the Academy in Hollywood, they are usually twee and patronizing. The pedagogy of books as “friends that you’re neglecting” doesn’t genuinely urge anyone to read. It only ends up furthering our admiration of books as design objects or symbols of lifestyle values. It doesn’t address the reasons our reading hours are disappearing. One thing I find that helps me to read these days is the appeal of a specific book—never the idea of books which dance around like hopeful fireflies.
A still from The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.
In our new digital lives, we’re deluged by text but evermore removed from proper reading. The textures and objects that once filled our lives have been replaced by the bald touch screen, though for every physical thing left behind, the Internet generates a billion virtual simulations. One result is booksing: a palliative appreciation of books as things, which muddles up the nostalgia for a more tactile world with our anxiety about just not reading enough. The joy of reading is harder to access than The Joy of Reading video. I’m as vulnerable to this as anybody. Yet when booksiness gets a big plug from the Academy Awards, it leaves me feeling suspicious and sad and mad, because it looks like a worthless welfare cheque from a healthy creative form to one that’s thought to be moribund. If reading is indeed about to die, then booksing is a good sign of its dropping pulse. If we stopped booksing instead, we’d have one less distraction.
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