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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Arguing over culture is often futile

    Not a month goes by, it seems, when the country doesn't have some minor cultural trend to spar over. These "debates" can be fun or not. But in almost every case, fights over these passing fixations are futile.

    OK. Let's get specific. There's that recent skirmish over something called "bookshelf wealth."

    Never heard of it? Well, Architectural Digest called bookshelf wealth "2024's First Major Design Trend." TikTok is all over it.

    What is bookshelf wealth? It is arranging your bookshelf in a visually pleasing manner. For fancy people, that means amassing a "curated" collection of books placed just so. The intention is to advertise one's brainy interests.

    A related TikTok phrase is "dark academia." It refers to a subculture that venerates reading and writing." Typical decor includes overstuffed couches, sculpture and walls painted a murky midnight blue.

    Needless to say, there's been considerable blowback by people who are serious readers or claim to be. Books to them are holy objects with value far beyond the decorative. A yellowing paperback of "The Sound and the Fury" deserves more veneration than a ceramic horse.

    Some TikTok influencers address this objection, or try. "These aren't display books," one insists in a not convincing way. "These are books that have actually been curated and read." If she says so.

    Some widely circulating videos on bookshelf wealth show shelves laden with vases, candlesticks and black-and-white art photography — interspersed with a few book spines. "Embrace odd numbers," the instructions say. And "keep your shelves feeling as intentional as possible."

    One critic responded: "Bookshelf wealth doesn't mean you have books. It means you have built-ins." As proof that she reads, the woman supplied pictures of books piled on her floor.

    Libraries have become hoo-ha designations in upscale new houses. They imply that the owners don't spend all their free time frozen before the monster screen in the "media room." They also do quiet contemplation

    My favorite fake library was in the now-defunct Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manalapan, Florida, just south of Palm Beach. I was meeting someone there and thought, oh, a hushed library would be a nice place to hang out. The "clubby room" had carefully arranged books, all with leather covers in the same moss green. Closer inspection showed titles all in Dutch. I decided to wait in the bar.

    As you may guess by now, we're not here to discuss the merits or silliness of bookshelf wealth. We are here to argue against arguing about it for any purpose other than the recreational.

    If someone wants to arrange a bookshelf in a way to imply intellectual heft — or to display a bowling trophy — it's their bookshelf. As for those who don't read but want to portray a rich life of the mind, no one's stopping them.

    Kindle has complicated matters for readers who like to have physical books around them. An interesting thing about bookshelf wealth is that it promotes sales of the old-fashioned paper product. Serious readers can stick a finger in the eye of the bookshelf wealth aesthetic by topping a stack with a Big Bird plush toy, but they should know, that's posing, too.

    Given today's politics, one is not sure how long TikTok will be with us. But as long as it is, be aware that what TikTok features, TikTok mocks. There may be important concerns over whether the social media platform gives the Chinese government a tool to spy on us, but TikTok does one useful thing: It cuts silly cultural conflicts down to size.

    Thus, declaring winners in the bookshelf wealth debate is of no consequence, even to the winners. Everyone does what they want with their bookshelves. That's as it should be.

    Froma Harrop covers the waterfront of politics, economics and culture with an unconventional approach. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.

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