Welcome, welcome, book geeks. Pull up a chair while I scale this old soapbox for a long look at the relationship between geek culture and materialism and the resulting conflagrations between materialism and identity. What is the relationship between our possessions and our passions and our identities? Do geeks in particular feel they can only define their passions via their possessions? Those questions will lead to more questions, and if I’m not careful, we’ll have a series on our hands.
Before I begin, let’s define materialism—a word I do not use once in the body of this essay, but whose presence haunts every word. Materialism as I use it here refers to a way of thinking that prioritizes material possessions over (almost) all else. Materialism can be positive in that it keeps us grounded in the physical world without which we would wither and die, and it can be negative in that it prioritizes an activity/objects that are not (necessarily) nourishing to our bodies or souls. Though the dictionary I consulted words their definition in a way that assigns the concept a negative value, I would argue that materialism is not inherently good or bad. As with everything, we have to look at individual instances of materialism in order to decide if it is a positive or negative influence—or, as is most often the case, both at the same time—in our lives.
Down, down the rabbit hole we go.
Our possessions define us.
Since entering the internet’s geek spaces, in my case in the book geek sphere, I’ve noticed that much of the buzz and the chatter is about acquisitions and possessions. What books do you own? How tall is your to-be-read pile? What books did you buy yesterday? How many books did you snag at the convention? What did the publishers send you for review this week? How big is your library?
In part this is practical: If you want to read a certain book you have to get a hold of that book. Or: when a publisher sends you a book for review, you talk about it on your blog because it gets you excited, it gets your readers excited, and it gives the publisher a little thank-you mention for their effort. In part it is social: when I am excited about a newly purchased book I tell my friends. As I have demonstrated daily on Book Punks for the last year, I am incapable of not talking about the books that I am excited about. Which includes books I have bought and books I have been given and and and. If books are your thing, you’re probably going to buy books, and you’re probably going to talk about buying books.
That’s not the problem.
I enjoy buying books. I enjoy surrounding myself with books. The first thing I do when I go on vacation is look up the used book stores. When I have nothing to do on a Saturday I contemplate visiting the local book chain or going treasure hunting at the nearest used book shop. I get excited about a new book in the mail.
I enjoy these things because I like to read and because I like to talk about books. But I also enjoy these things because I know that if I have the books I love on display on my shelves, I can broadcast who I am—Nikki, a Person Who Reads a Fucking Lot of Wonderful and Maybe Slightly Eccentric Books—without a single word. No explanation required, no fishing around for the obscure places where tastes intersect. From that angle, my shelves begin to seem like an extension of my person, and while I curate them with the intention of having books I love to read and re-read close at hand, I also curate them with the knowledge that they are a crutch for communicating my identity.
Owning Codex Seraphinianus is a good example: More people are a part of that book’s cult than I had realized before I bought my own copy. My library is my guest room, and in the last year almost every visitor I’ve had has commented on the Codex. Owning that book has raised my potential to discuss one of the most mind-blowing reading experiences I’ve ever had 100 percent.
That’s not the problem either.
The problem lies in the meaning we ultimately attach to the possession of geek-related items. Am I more of a fan of Codex Seraphinianus because I own a copy? Nope. I love it just as much as I did during the fifteen years I spent pining over it. I look at it more now, but I could just as easily never, ever look at it, and people would still make the same assumptions about me because of its presence on my shelf.
Except when they don’t.
Assumptions about possessions can lead to faulty, sometimes toxic conclusions. “Hey that guy owns every edition of Lord of the Rings ever printed, he must be a huge Lord of the Rings fan.” Nothing wrong with that statement, and, yeah, that guy probably is a huge Lord of the Rings fan (but maybe not: buying shit requires only money, obsessing over it takes time). Now take a geek who loves Lord of the Rings just as much as that guy who owns every edition of the books (replace “book” with DVD or figurine or other relevant fan merch), has read them as many times, has spent as many hours discussing Tolkien and his fictional creations, but does not have the money for any of the merch or the special editions. Put them next to each other and watch the geek hierarchies fly. Fan1 owns all the things, therefore Fan1 must be a bigger fan than Fan2, who only owns one battered copy of The Two Towers.
This is a huge problem.
Nothing about a collection of Lord of the Rings paraphernalia tells us how much time a body has spent reading or discussing or loving something. And nothing about the lack of a collection speaks to a lack of passion or time or fervor.
If we say that our possessions define us, if we believe they have something meaningful to say about our geek status, then poor geeks can’t be real geeks. Then the less money we have, the less geeky we can be. If our possessions define us, then only geeks with large disposable incomes will have adequate tools for personal expression. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck that.
Without my library, I am still the person who has read and loved Codex Seraphinianus and Dhalgren, Borges and Cortazar. It might take a little longer to start a conversation about them without the visual crutch, but it doesn’t change who I am or how much I love the things that I love. Possessions can function as language, but not one that everyone can afford to speak.
Poor geeks, geeks who can’t afford a single game or book or movie, can be just as dedicated, awesome, and passionate as the geeks who own signed hardcover special editions of every book by whofamousever ever written. It is about what is inside our heads, our passions and our thoughts and our experiences, not about what we can afford to put on our shelves. If we define ourselves through products that require cash, we are giving the most powerful form of personal expression to those with the most money and withholding it from those with the least.
How digital books are changing everything—same old headline, new hidden benefit.
Though someone with a book buying addiction won’t do themselves any financial favors by buying digitally instead of physically, e-book popularity might help to shift this paradigm. If our possessions are invisible, in the cloud or on a hard drive, then their communicative aspect is muted. If our possessions are invisible, conversations and enthusiasm will have to replace product placement as identity markers. While I appreciate visual crutches, the absence of visible possessions might help rid the world of another few “fake geek” accusations.
Collectors gonna collect and lovers gonna love and asshats gonna wear their asshats and make monkeys of us all. Just remember: passion and poverty are not mutually exclusive. You are not your fucking khakis.