Earlier this month, TV personality and novelist Lauren Conrad posted a video showing how to jazz up a boring white storage box. The solution? Cut apart your old books and use a glue gun to paste the spines to the side. A lot of folks in publishing were outraged that she would cavalierly cut apart books – in this case, her collection of Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” – but the thing I found most frightening was watching her work with an X-Acto Knife. I watched the video, terrified: It was kind of like watching the movie, “Saw.” I was convinced that any moment the star of “The Hills” was going to cut off a finger and offer the world a seriously unfortunate event.
It’s also worth noting that Martha Stewart would have been appalled by Conrad’s final product. If you are going to eviscerate your books, at least eviscerate them evenly. The final project reminded me of the tie rack I made for my dad when I was a ten-year-old Webelo: We were supposed to use a coping saw to make a duck, and I used a coping saw to make what, in the end, looked like an amoeba.
But at least I didn’t cut off a finger.
In any case, I wasn’t nearly as appalled by Conrad’s craft as some of my peers – and I love the book made of paper and ink and glue. Who knows? Maybe I still feel a little guilty for drawing the Starship Enterprise in the sky above the ocean on the dust jacket of my mother’s first edition of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” I was seven or eight. I also drew colorful birds in the silhouette of the tree on her first edition of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I was twenty-seven or. . .
And perhaps I would have felt differently if Conrad were eviscerating my books – but I’m pretty sure that mostly I’d have been flattered.
What I found most interesting about the video is Conrad’s acknowledgment that even now, well into the digital age, paper books add style to a room. Certainly this was the case well before the digital age. People have been decorating with books since the advent of printing. Actually, we were decorating that way well before printing. But Conrad reminded us that the books we choose to put on our shelves say as much about who we are as the pictures or paintings we hang on our walls. When I gaze at the books in my library in my home, the room in which I write, I can recall where I was when I read a great many of them. Likewise, I enjoy visiting people and seeing what books line their walls.
And, yes, I get a Titanic-sized ego rush when I am flipping through a magazine and see one of my books as a decorative prop: “Midwives” on a nightstand or “The Double Bind” on a dresser.
Conrad’s celebration of the aesthetics of paper actually drove home for me why I love bookstores. It’s not simply the browsing – discovering new stories I want to read. It’s the beauty of all those books. The truth is, on some level we all still have a totemic connection to books made of paper. I understand the allure of the eBook and I certainly don’t want to vilify my friends and family who read novels on Kindles and Nooks and iPads. I am thrilled when people at airports introduce themselves to me and show me which of my books they are reading on their eReader.
So, I’m giving Conrad a pass for going Jeffrey Dahmer on a collection of Lemony Snicket stories. I’m not about to disembowel a book myself to make a box. And I’d much prefer that Conrad was decorating with the whole book, not merely the spine. But I’m still grateful that she appreciates the importance of surrounding oneself with the stories that feed our souls.
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This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 26, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” was published last month.