"Books by the Foot" in which people purchase books to create the illusion of being well-read is a real business in Washington DC.

Dec 28th

Reading books is hard. Have you seen how many words they have? They're like, at least 1,500 tweets long!

Not only that, but you are expected to remember what you read for longer than 25 seconds. Apparently, they consist of extended arguments that often build upon complex concepts that require things like focus and attention span.

And the whole thing is almost always written by the same person! What's that all about?

Being well-read is just too much work. Appearing to be well-read is not only much easier but pretty much the same thing, at least as far as getting on television is concerned.

Fortunately, there are services for this and one of the largest is based outside Washington DC, the nation's capital of status anxiety.

Books by the Foot is a book-as-decor service located in Frederick, Maryland, just north of Washington, DC, and is run by bookseller Wonder Book. As the name implies, they literally sell books by the foot, not to be read, but to appear to have been read, or sometimes to serve as pure decoration.

Much of what they do is basic commercial status building, providing books to hotels, TV sets, and the like to create an atmosphere of serious erudition where none exists.

As Politico points out:

In a place like Washington—small, interconnected, erudite, gossipy—being well-read can create certain advantages. So, too, can seeming well-read.

And, as with nearly any other demand of busy people and organizations, it can be conjured up wholesale, for a fee.

There is nothing particularly wrong with at least part of this, it's not like anyone believes that members of the hotel staff at The Madison are curling up by the concierge stand to read Ruth Bader Ginsburg's autobiography. It's understood that it's for show.

But it gets increasingly deceptive, sad, and even disturbing, from there.

The "Washington bookshelf" is almost a phenomenon in itself, whether in a hotel library, at a think tank office or on the walls behind the cocktail bar at a Georgetown house.

"Think tank office." That's worth pondering for a moment.

Think tanks' only product is, well, thought. Books are a repository of thought. Why does a think tank have to purchase rows of books for their thinkers? Books they may or may not have read, or even seen or heard of?

Consider that the next time someone deigns to tell you what you should think.

And then there is the cocktail bar at a Georgetown house (Georgetown long having been one of the tonier neighborhoods in DC).

This is sad, but also important. This is part of the social fabric of the people making important decisions about your life, or at least have the ear of those people. And they buy books by the foot to appear knowledgeable to each other. They all know they do it. A handful are no doubt genuinely well-read, but who knows which is which? Who even cares anymore?

This part of the business was important but not huge. Then 2020 happened.

Roberts said residential orders, which had previously accounted for 20 percent of business, now accounted for 40 percent.

When the coronavirus pandemic arrived, Books by the Foot had to adapt to a downturn in office- and hotel-decor business—and an uptick in home-office Zoom backdrops for the talking-head class

Think about that for a moment. You are a person people assume to be well-read. That means, it is assumed you've read a lot of important and worthwhile books. You are respected, you've created this image, and yet you don't have any books in your own house? You don't have your own bookshelves of books you bought and read over the years? Are we supposed to believe you've gone 100% Kindle your whole life?

Another force at work [increasing residential sales], however, was the rise of the well-stocked shelf as a coveted home-office prop. When workplaces went remote and suddenly Zoom allowed co-workers new glimpses into one another's homes, what New York Times writer Amanda Hess dubbed the "credibility bookcase" became the hot-ticket item.

Headline from the New York Times earlier this year.

Imagine that you are a member of the expert class — the kind of person invited to pontificate on television news programs. Under normal circumstances, your expertise might be signaled to the public by a gaudy photograph of skyscrapers superimposed behind your head. But now the formalities of the broadcast studio are a distant memory, and the only tools to convey that you truly belong on television are the objects within your own home. There's only one move: You talk in front of a bookcase.

"The only tools to convey that you truly belong on television" are props.

Not your ability to build a sustained argument consistent with your premises or convey complex concepts in an understandable and coherent manner.

Props.

The New York Times article assumed these were people's actual bookshelves and at times, they were. We know this because reality intruded on occasion.

And the British politician Liam Fox's "bold grab at credibility is somewhat undermined by the hardback copy of The Da Vinci Code."

Oh my! a British politician enjoys mainstream fiction. Stop the presses!

In any case, now we know from Politico that reality is not always what it seems.

In Washington and in political circles all over the United States, the fact that people are still, after more than nine months, showing up to work meetings and doing live TV appearances from inside their own homes likely means there will be sustained demand for impressive-looking bookshelves.

Impressive looking bookshelves. Not impressive bookshelves or heaven forbid, impressive intellect.

Not much sustained demand for that it would seem.

The Wonder Book staff doesn't pry too much into which objective a particular client is after. If an order were to come in for, say, 12 feet of books about politics, specifically with a progressive or liberal tilt—as one did in August—Wonder Book's manager, Jessica Bowman, would simply send one of her more politics-savvy staffers to the enormous box labeled "Politically Incorrect" (the name of Books by the Foot's politics package) to select about 120 books by authors like Hillary Clinton, Bill Maher, Al Franken and Bob Woodward. The books would then be "staged," or arranged with the same care a florist might extend to a bouquet of flowers, on a library cart; double-checked by a second staffer; and then shipped off to the residence or commercial space where they would eventually be shelved and displayed (or shelved and taken down to read).

The tone of the article is not that of a blockbuster revelation that our leaders are primarily made up of fakes and phonies, but rather a ho-hum, run-of-the-mill report that our leaders are primarily made up of fakes and phonies.

Books by the Foot's books-as-decor designs have become a fixture in the world of American politics, filling local appetite for books as status symbols, objects with the power to silently confer taste, intellect, sophistication or ideology upon the places they're displayed or the people who own them.

Call me old-fashioned, but every book I have, I purchased to fill my appetite for books as sources of knowledge with the power to silently confer information, insight, and intellectual stimulation.

One of the positives for a business like his, he wrote in an email, is that familiar types of people, who work in similar fields and likely share similar aspirations, are constantly moving in and out of the area: "Military, [employees of the] State Department and embassies, political folks" are always either settling in or leaving.

Great. Military, State Department, embassies, political folks, people we are supposed to respect and listen to, all moving into Washington and none of them have read anything impressive.

"We can sort of, you know, guess, or read between the lines, and we've had an uptick in smaller quantities," Roberts said over the summer. "If your typical bookcase is 3 feet wide, and you just want to have the background from your shoulders up, then you might order 9 feet of history, or 9 feet of literature. That way, you put them on your home set … [and] nobody can zoom in on these books and say, Oh my God, he's reading ... you know, something offensive, or tacky. Nothing embarrassing."

Keep in mind, this is not considered news, it's an interest piece. Some light reading (ha!) from the Culture Club section.

And to be fair, this is not a phenomenon wholly unique to the Washington, DC, area. Books by the Foot sells to phonies nationwide.

I'm pretty much your average nobody as far as anyone is concerned. And yet even I have more than enough "impressive" books to create a decent Zoom bookshelf, from history, to early 20th-century fiction, to philosophy, to politics, to science. It's not all that unusual and not too much to expect from people passing themselves off as sophisticated intellectuals.

I also have a lot of fluff, and I'd put that on my bookshelf, too, just for the whimsy of it.

The point isn't that I'm special. I'm not. It's that these people aren't either.

We should probably stop treating them as such.


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