In Praise of the Obsessive Reader: An Exercise in Taxonomy ~ Harold Augenbraum


Today’s essay follows on a paper I delivered late last year at the American Bookworm Society entitled, “Number Our Books: A Socio-Ethnographic Approach,” which was based on the pioneering work of Barbara Myerhoff, and a talk I gave earlier in the year at the annual meeting of the Deutsche Buchhändlunggesellschaft, called “Lesen, damit: U.S. Reading Patterns in the New Millennium,” the title of which an overenthusiastic undergraduate later infelicitously translated as “Read, Damn It” and published in an on-line journal last January.

It may seem a bit too obvious to begin by noting that the American literary and book retail environment is undergoing a period of great uncertainty but I think a brief history of the often jangled nerves in the book-selling and book-consuming business will set the current state of the obsessive reader in context of this larger habitat.

The current wave of anxiety began about thirty years ago. Until then for a couple of hundred years small retail bookstores had acted like fortresses on an American cultural frontier, purposed to defend high culture from a home-grown booboisie. Then in about 1980 these shops came under the scrutiny and control of ambitious efficiency-experts, and commercial interests pressured them to produce more financial capital than cultural capital. The widely vilified villains in this slippery-slope are the brothers Borders and Riggio, as in Borders Books and Barnes & Noble. The until-then typical bookstore was transformed into a “superstore”. Inventory on-hand went from 15,000 or 20,000 titles to 150,000 titles. These larger stores offered a wider selection and lower prices for the same product. They took lower margins, and made up what they lost in the profit from the sale of a single-book by increasing the number of unit sales. Because of their size, they were also able to force publishers and book distributors to grant them volume discounts at the wholesale level and to require publishers to pony up for in-store placement and advertising money known as “co-op fees.” Understandably upset about different wholesale pricing for small and large bookstores, a group of smaller bookstores went to court and sued the larger ones. Also understandably, Barnes & Noble withdrew from the retail book trade group, the American Booksellers Association, and its training programs for bookstore employees. Many, many small bookstores, unable to compete, or rather unwilling to change their culture to compete, went out of business.

The reaction to this major change depended on what type and quality of interaction an individual wanted to take away from a visit to a physical bookstore. To a great extent, as the number of superstores grew, consumers benefited from immediate access to many more titles and lower prices. On the other hand, to many people the disappearance of small bookstores undermined the very fabric of a public culture of book-reading, which depended on regular, or at least intermittent, physical presence in a place in which many books were also present and where professional retailers who were interested in their own wares seem to share the customer’s interest and experience.

Uncertainty produces anxiety, and anxiety often produces anger. As the number of independent bookstores decreased, literary writers and readers championed the need for community-based bookshops, even though the odds against their survival, were, and still are, astronomical. As part of their efforts, they demonized the chains, or the “national accounts,” as they are known in the book business. (As an aside, in Europe this did not happen. Both France and Germany do not allow discounting on books, so superstores lose the major advantage of lower profit margins with higher volume. Small booksellers there are protected by law.)  The shrill manner in which the participants respond to one another is not untypical of the literary world, which has always cherished tension of some sort or another.

Then in 1995, the next step in the evolution of book-as-commodity took place with the establishment of efficient on-line ordering and delivery for individual book-buyers. It, too, created uncertainty in the traditional bookselling business. Founded the previous year, in order to turn a profit, would have to acquire about 10% of the retail bookselling market, which would spell the end for many more small bookstores. Amazon, too, offered extraordinary service and access to the book-buyer. Amazon, too, was able to pressure publishers to lower their prices, which elated book consumers. And the results of Amazon’s growth, too, forced some small booksellers out of business, as it tapped capital markets—some private, some public—that for the most part were unavailable to small bookstores unless they again were willing to change their cultures. Amazon, too, has often been demonized, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly.

And now in the past few years even that tension has ceded its central position to a new, shifting arena, where a new technology has changed both the buying process and the reading process. It’s called the digital reader.

The epoch of the consumer e-reader, lest we forget, began only about three years ago, but it seems to dominate all the commercial discussions in publishing and bookselling these days. Its invention, advent and proliferation is accompanied by a fascinating re-assessment of reading as a pastime, reading as a method of gathering information, and reading as a conduit for critical thinking and its by-product, humanistic wisdom.

In the midst of all this agitation, the reader’s experience, though not lost, is certainly, and perhaps temporarily, pushed to the background. Arguably more ink, and certainly more e-ink, has been spent in reporting the breathless excitement of new hard- and software for reading than on the reading content itself. Steve Jobs is more of a rock star than, say, a rock star.

The general or common reader has adapted to these changes very easily. Romance readers, in particular, have adopted the digital reader in spades. One sees hundreds of e-readers on the subway in New York. One assumes that many of these readers do not purchase their books from a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. They may never even enter one anymore after they buy their device, and they may not go into a library either.

But what of the avid reader of heavy-duty fiction and nonfiction, the people who read over a hundred consensus important texts a year or more, the person we often call a bookstore rat. What about the obsessive reader, whose medium is experiencing fantastic shifts in a habitat whose rugs are being pulled out from under them, and whose world is undergoing a sea-change? Where does he or she go for the book-buying experience when the world of bookstores is changing so fast? When it devotes more and more space to stationery, games, and electronic reading devices?

You know who I mean. You have seen him or her before, sallow-complected; bulging, sunken or darting eyeballs. They are usually thin and narrow-chested, their muscles are somewhat flaccid, and they drag the literary streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. They never understand why, why, bookstores—like bodegas and doughnut shops—are not open all nite. I realize that this is a very small subset of readers, but I also believe that the survival of the obsessive, in any subculture, the life of the eccentric individual, gives that subculture much of its cultural interest. In fact, you may be one of us.

The readers to which I refer have actually been identified and classified in various intellectual and scientific forums. Their syndrome is known as the Overactive Lector, which is generally acronymed as the OL. It was first identified and named in the last quarter of the nineteenth century by Alphonse Daudet’s alienist, Jean-Martin Charcot, who carried out much of his research in the clinic at Salpêtrière, where the mentally ill shared space with thousands of rats. The Overactive Lector has assumed various shapes and forms over the years. That form often depends on nationality, place, and intellectual currency. The OL was not, however, what the Victorians called a “literarian.” The literarian was a compulsive amateur whose interests were akin to the Overactive Lector. But the literarian generally developed his or her own outlets for expression through various print media such as newspapers and journals to the extent that he or she would publish appreciations of such vitality that they would almost rival such public critics as Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin. George Eliot, who through her marriage to George Lewes, had encountered many such people, and relied on her meetings with them to formulate the character of Edward Causaubon in her novel Middlemarch.

In our own country and in our own era, the American Overactive Lector, or AOL, is known by several identifying characteristics. Speech patterns are a particularly insistent marker. Both aspirated and non-aspirated consonants are exaggerated. Vowels are twisted and tortured to such an extent that they grow faint from the stress. Eye contact is rare and an interlocutor senses a modicum of personal absence even when the Overactive Lector is physically present. This AOL subset also takes various forms. Some are obsessed with a single book. They read it again and again and find in it a basis for every and all manifestation of social interaction, so much so that the Lector’s insistence begins to feed on itself. This person is known as Cannibal Lector, who was identified in a fairly recent long-form piece by Thomas Harris. Another interesting sub-group has been identified as those who, in childhood, generally between the ages of five and seventeen, felt alienated from the larger social group to the extent that to supplement their reading they would make up imaginary friends or even invent full-languages, with grammars closely derived from English but with variations based on hysterical fantasy. These are called Invented Language Lectors, or ILL.

The AOL can be contrasted to the British model. The latter tend to congregate in London and are often known as the London Overactive Lector, or LOL. In France, where the Overactive Lector tends to have a privileged place in the larger community, even appearing on television in small, displaying groups called pivots, they generally congregate in Paris, and are known in the English therapeutic literature as Paris Overactive Lectors, or POLs. French scientists have described their typical behavior as braiment, a term borrowed from similar behaviors found among African penguins, such as mutual ecstatic display and the sideways stare.

The invention and usage of the e-reader has caused significant unease to the Overactive Lector, who came of age constantly having been told that “he always has his nose in a book” or the more common “get your nose out of that book.” But with a single-screen, tablet e-reader, there is no “in” or “out”, so several alternatives have been suggested, including “he always points his nose at a book”. However, when it was shown that the e-reader is technically not a physical book, the phrase became “he always points his nose at an e-reader” and “stop pointing your nose at that e-reader.” Overactive Lectors themselves have lamented, digitally, in blogs and particularly in the comments sections of electronic magazines and news digests, that the loss of such terms is particularly unnerving.

So what are the encounters, therapies, and potential outcomes with the Overactive Lector?

It has become obvious during the past decade or so that the Overactive Lector is in crisis. Since behavior has been, for the most part, passive and benign until now, with supportive social environments readily available, pathologies have remained relatively inert. However, external influences have undermined continued subject health and need to be addressed for both individuals and group well-being.

The first question is whether the Overactive Lector’s behavior is caused by chemical or societal influence, that is, etiological or epidemiological. To my knowledge, no controlled study has been made of the former, or indeed, the latter, other than anecdotal. The sociologist Nicholas Basbanes has indeed studied the Overactive Collector, but physical obsession is very different from informational or experiential and Basbanes’ observations cannot be applied to the Overactive Lector.

In the early part of this century, the marketing department of the national chain Starbucks performed a few but limited studies of the effect of caffeine on the Overactive Lector, in turn by withholding and then providing caffeine solutions, but these studies were abandoned when it was  found that Overactive Lectors were not buying the inspirational books offered for sale in Starbucks point-of-purchase displays and even evidenced hostile behavior to cashiers and baristas when possible acquisition was presented to them in a purposeful but non-threatening manner.

A second question refers to loss of habitat and the resulting feelings of isolation. In 1965, according to the American Booksellers Association, there were 4,500 independent bookstores in the United States. In 2010, there were 1,500 independent bookstores and 1,500 book superstores, in addition to book sections of large multi-purpose stores such as Costco and WalMart. Although the actual number of books offered for sale in these stores and perhaps the square footage devoted to books may have remained constant and indeed the number of titles published has tripled in the past ten years alone, the Overactive Lector, when faced with the change, has been observed to become anxious and protective, and has been unable to adapt. Similar observations have been made regarding environmental shrinkage among the giant panda, who also exhibits limited ability to adapt to a changing ecology. Although it is far from clear, it seems that the Overactive Lector’s environmental need consists of a combination of physical space and nutritive diversity. Books oriented toward non-obsessive readers and efficient lighting both seem to frighten the Overactive Lector, who prefers a narrow, uncomfortable environment conducive to whining. Socializing also seems to be an increasingly important factor. Isolated book-buying through the internet does not seem to satisfy the social need to browse in a public place. There also seems to  be a further, more complex need in that the Overactive Lector wants to observe others in public isolation while he or she is being observed in that same public isolation. This is called passive display behavior. Active display behavior often takes the form of boring the sales cashiers with one-way discussions of ridiculously uninteresting publication history. This reduces social prestige among the larger group of general readers who observe such behavior while they are trying to pay for their damn books.

What should you do if you encounter an Overactive Lector in a bookstore? First, never make eye-contact. They will treat this as both a challenge and an invitation. If you are accosted, try backing away slowly. Most importantly, never ask a question that the Overactive Lector cannot answer. They will get agitated. If this occurs, take a half-step back. Pronate your palms and forearms to face downward. This will calm them down. Then gently ask, “So what do you think of the 1986 publication of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ edited in Germany?” After listening to the response for about ten minutes, you should able to excuse yourself and leave the store.

This taxonomy, with all the warnings and the therapeutics, is really just a slightly fantastical prelude to a real discussion of the book as an object of hegemonistic power. Obviously, I’m not the first to describe signs, signifiers, and cultural results of the physical book’s social changes. Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” really began the wave of looking at cultural products in a social environment and Roland Barthes picked it up and ran with it. (He, by the way, was hit by a laundry truck after giving an address to an audience of Overactive Lectors, ‘though that’s another story, more semiotic than semantic.)

Though we as obsessive readers may lament the fate of the codex book, we are, in a way, privileged to witness its slow descent of influence. For so long, the book has enjoyed a type of eminent fascism, and observations of this currently decreasing power have of course included some Schadenfreude. There are those of us who believe the words Plato gave to Socrates in the Phaedrus, which hundreds of contemporary writers have used as support for their arguments to the point that one cannot read an article on the subject without its being quoted, that the book would hinder the development of critical thinking. Our western culture has experienced the book’s cultural and political democratization in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, its economic democratization in the eighteenth century, its proliferation in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and its inundation in the past twenty years, as the number of titles published each year has tripled in two decades. We are experiencing, to bowdlerize Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Book-as-Empire (I reiterate, it is the codex book’s decline, not the long-form content). If you live in the eastern United States, you might also say that we are witnessing the digital barbarians looming in the west. If you live in the western United States, you might say that we are seeing the greatest cultural liberation of modern times, a struggle between the vying armies of democratization. A promised Utopia in the west trumps a corrupted past in the east.

We can’t really stop the friction between the two. Because the codex book has accumulated so much cultural baggage over the centuries, it has become a supply train overloaded with expectations. How and what you read is a marker, how many volumes you accumulate is a marker. How often have you heard people brag about how many books they have? Colleges recruit students with the number of books in their library. Where will all that need go? Can you imagine telling an eighteen-year-old, “study here because we have 1.3 million long-form digital files on our server?” Probably not, but that’s not how we will mark ourselves in the future. That’s a remnant of the past. Unit numbers will fade as markers of prestige. Instead of possession, we will value access, and its pathways to infinity.

As the army of digitization marches on, the vast psychic gulf between possession and access becomes clearer. A single book, as the French mediologist Régis Debray has written, is a limited object, so taking possession of it is an act of limitation. Owning many books multiplies the limitation, but doesn’t triumph over it. As the comedian Stephen Wright has said, “You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?” How many books do you have? 3,000? 5,000? 10,000? 20,000? Even a million books in a library implies limitation. Numbers allow containment and control. They coax a stable identity out of us.

A codex book is static and unchanging; to write with publication of your work with codex form in mind is an attempt to restrict nature and the passage of time. In contrast, when you read on an e-reader, you engage in a formal obliteration of stopped time by allowing your personal reading experience to rescind stopped time and participate in the infinite. You have transferred the reading experience from the physical nature of a talisman to the ineffable nature of experience, and that experience moves from the outside-timeness of the codex book—what lives on immutably as an object—to the inside-timeness of experience, which changes continually. A relentless, human passingness results, ordered only by individual experience. You render the reading experience infinite and recalcitrant, as if a bridge were disintegrating behind you as you race for the bilious edge of an unknown headland.

Entering a room full of books is like coming upon a gathering of souls in a forest. For a book person, possession, even when it is temporary, is anthropomorphic. It’s animistic, it’s delimited, it’s finite. It lends itself to personification. On the other hand, access is unlimited, it’s spiritistic, it’s diffuse, it’s infinite, and it has no face. Possession is closed and isolated while access is open and shared. They are different, but I can’t yet see if one is better than the other, only that I am more comfortable with the former. And even that level of comfort is based on the codex books as a sort of a stoppage of time, like a snapshot composed of frozen comforts. I have seen many, many debates over what we lose when we move from printed codex books to digital e-readers and none of them convince me that one is better than the other, only that some personal and neurotic sensibility drives both arguments.

The end of possession and the coming of access must make the Overactive Lector shiver. To face what now seems like an inevitability must be like confronting the exact opposite of what he has tried to control. It’s an encounter with diffusion, with a googleplex of time and space. If books as single, delimited objects, because they are objects in which one can invest immanence, once represented access to the infinity of introspective space, digital books now suggest access to the infinity of external space. And that’s scary. To the neurotic sensibility, that’s a frighteningly huge maw. It’s the guiding intelligence of a Stephen King novel wrought larger and larger as it goes on. This is what scares the critics who decry the coming world of reading without codex books. They believe that deep thought will disappear.

As the director of the National Book Foundation, I am, in essence, a book marketer. My job, each year, is to take twenty golden books called National Book Award Finalists and transform them into cultural currency, no matter what technology you might use to imbibe them. But I’m also one of the people I have been describing, the Overactive Lector, the Obsessive Reader. I wear t-shirts with pictures of writers on them. I drink martinis from a glass into which a John Steinbeck quotation about the drinking of martinis has been etched. Our breed turns limitation into a cultural capital of the margin. We form a tradition, and we reach back, I believe, not to those who painted on the walls of a cave, but those who were awed by those painters and paintings. It’s a literary symbiosis. And in fact, the faster the digital age arrives perhaps the happier we should be. Staying behind liberates us from the growing horde of conformist e-readers. Even as we move forward into a shared future, we can revel in our backwardness, if we so choose, and we can give it a hip name. We can be “retro,” like eighteen year olds who buy vinyl records. We will move through a cloud of reflected pastness, a nostalgia for a specific type of bygone nostalgia, for an era in when one could better appreciate an earlier era than our own.

I like to make fun of the Overactive Lector, but I do so with great affection. I’m not giving up my printed books and I doubt most of you are either. We are many, and we will survive, despite the major changes in our habitat and our nutrition supply. Paper mills love us. Moving companies hate us. We have our own version of climate change and our own view of the world. Who else would go for a walk in the forest and describe all the trees as “pre-books”? So let’s reject the role of Depressed Overactive Lector and Obsessive Reader, or DOLOR, which the media is forcing on us. Be happy. I bring Good News: There is no looming apocalypse. There are still 10 million books in the Library of Congress that you haven’t read yet. And I do mean “yet.”