I upset a number of people last year with some comments on books and class, and I’ve been filtering through and thinking about their responses rather than responding in haste. Some of the critique I received was thoughtful and well-merited: I didn’t clearly articulate what I was trying to say, I collapsed some things into each other (for example, I didn’t distinguish the significant difference between being able to afford a steady supply of brand new hardcovers versus buying used or going to the library), and I didn’t distinguish between educational privilege (having gone to good schools, having been able to go to college) and the value of self-education and the pursuit of knowledge.
Does owning books make you a class traitor? Of course not. Does owning a lot of books make you a member of the dreaded middle classes? Not particularly, though it can. Does using books to send a signal that you are wealthy, powerful, and highly-educated, and therefore superior to those who are not, make you classist? I’d argue that it does.
My inability to clearly articulate that argument is on me: I should have been more thoughtful and much more careful about how I structured my argument, because it was not stated clearly. Rather than saying vaguely that owning books is a sign of privilege, I should have been more specific about the context: I should have discussed the kinds of books, the setting, and how those books are used. Someone who can afford to set up a library of hardcovers, who can buy any book desired at will, is obviously not comparable to someone with a library (of any size) of used books, or someone who uses a public library as a resource, or someone who budgets carefully to pick up new books now and then and relies on library books and used books much of the time. Access to reading material comes in a gradient, and I failed to distinguish that.
On the other hand, some of those responses deal with an issue I have really been struggling with of late on a personal level: the realisation that my class identity may not be what I thought it was. Many people in the US have difficulty with the intersections between social and economic class, and especially in progressive communities like the ones I belong to, there seems to be a strong push against the middle class: this is something no one wants to be, because being middle class is like being average, it’s like having more social power, it’s like being, well, socially privileged. Which it is. And thus, I didn’t want to identify that way, because doing so would be an admission of power and privilege, and many progressives, including myself, are uncomfortable with admitting when they’re in such positions.
I grew up in economic poverty, but I was, intellectually speaking, very wealthy. I thought of myself for a very long time as not just lower class, but working class: I’ve been working since I was 11, my income helped to support the household, I had very little money in comparison to my friends, I took pride in physical labour and working with my hands. It wasn’t until relatively recently that I came to the understanding that I wasn’t, and had never been, either of those things: I’m middle class. I may have been in the lower middle class, but I was still solidly a member of the middle classes.
My first reaction to this was anger and disbelief and a lot of contorting and backtracking in an attempt to make myself lower class, but it just didn’t fit. And I had to accept that it was possible to be furious about class inequality in this country while actually being a part of the class system that is oppressing people, and that as much as it bothered me to be considered ‘middle class’ and to take on all the baggage that came with it, I was going to have to deal with it. As I read reactions to my piece, I wondered if others were experiencing the same turmoil over class identification and experience, because some of the comments I read reminded me very strongly of thoughts I’d had earlier in my own relationship with class and identity.
Admitting that being able to afford vast quantities of books, having a place to put them, and having gone to college is a sign of higher class status is not classist. Failing to distinguish the gradient of access to reading material and education, on the other hand, is — as is commentary that implies that people in the lower classes are not intellectually curious or capable of seeking out educational resources on their own.
Confronting the fact that some people have intellectual and social privilege is not anti-intellectual, either, another criticism that was leveled at me. It’s just a fact. We need to be able to talk about how control to educational resources is used as a tool of power and control to oppress people — but, conversely, in that conversation, we need to avoid disempowering members of the lower classes who are fighting social control of educational resources, which is another thing I failed to do.
It’s also true that people can’t read my mind and thus had no way of knowing what I was trying to say, and my intent is irrelevant to the larger truth of what was read and experienced: that, again, is on me.
But I hope we can agree that access to books is not necessarily guaranteed to everyone in the United States, and that this ties into the class system, and that it is unjust that some people cannot access books while others of us, like me, can. Obviously, as many people reminded me, having a lot of books doesn’t necessarily equal higher class status. There are ample sources of affordable used books and books from the library that anyone can access — well, almost anyone. Library memberships can sometimes be difficult to obtain (libraries may require a fixed address or proof of residence, for example). Books can be too heavy to carry or read for a disabled person (and the solution of ‘just getting an e-reader’ isn’t quite so easy when such devices can be out of the price range of someone on a fixed income, despite the availability of ‘relatively’ inexpensive models). Someone in a homeless shelter or living in the rough has access to what she can carry, and little more. A single mother may not have time to go to the library between jobs.
Furthermore, this country allegedly has a 99% literacy rate, but, notably, the average person in the US reads at a ninth grade level. Many people in the United States cannot understand simple written instructions and signs, in other words, even if they can read. Thanks to shame about literacy and a lack of government interest in addressing the issue, they are often shy to seek advanced education, and they don’t communicate when they don’t understand things. (For example, a doctor might ask a patient if she understands post-surgical instructions, and she might say yes, and the doctor might hand her a pamphlet with the details, which she can’t read…and she might wind up with an infection because she was too ashamed to admit she couldn’t read the pamphlet.)
The inequalities in US literacy are obviously a direct contributor to class disparities, because if you can read at a higher level, you can engage with more books and newspapers, you can pursue more self-educational opportunities, and you can hold your ground more confidently in a society that privileges people who ‘talk right’ and know how to perform for public consumption. Clearly, someone reading at a ninth grade (or lower) level is subject to social pressures that people reading at more advanced levels do not experience.
In other words, there are barriers to getting access to books and being able to use them as resources, and we need to talk about those. We also, I think, need to talk about how a specific kind of book ownership, that of a performative nature, is elitist and classist. My earlier attempt at discussing it was not nuanced enough, but I do believe it’s important to acknowledge that people who keep books around for decor, and people who make a point of performing intellectual rigor to reinforce their class status, are participating into a system that feeds into both educational privilege and classism.