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Morris Lessmore and the cult of literary nostalgia

Some of you may have seen The Fantastic Flying Books of Morris Lessmore, which yesterday won the Oscar for Best Animated Short, or if you haven’t you may have encountered the iPad app based on the film.

With its nods to The Wizard of Oz and other works it’s pleasingly smart and literate, and while the iPad app is a bit cutesy for my taste, it’s a nice example of the things the medium can achieve (and my five year-old daughter loves it, so what do I know).

More interesting to me is the way the film embodies the growing vogue for literary nostalgia. Like the endless films featuring dancing books and films such as Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (which is interestingly engaged with the ways in which technology affects the imagination), it’s part of a growing tendency to sentimentalise and fetishise the physical book and the material culture surrounding it.

I don’t think the reasons for this sort of nostalgia are particularly difficult to discern. Literary culture in all its forms is in the midst of a series of changes that are fundamentally altering what we read, how we read it and the ways we access and trade in words and ideas. Unsurprisingly this process generates intense cultural anxiety, at least some of which is expressed in a desire for the certainties of the past.

It’s possible to see these effusions as harmless. Certainly the idea of an iPad app celebrating the magic and mystery of the physical book in the way Morris Lessmore does is so absurd it’s almost funny. But it’s difficult not to wonder whether this nostalgia is at least a little unhealthy.

Part of this stems from the way this culture of nostalgia focusses on celebrating books from the past. Its makers might be reading Franzen and Egan and Bolano but the books they namecheck are Dickens and Melville and Poe. Obviously I’m not averse to people celebrating the classics (hell, I think half our problem is we don’t celebrate them enough) but as the choice of them indicates (A Tale of Two Cities over Copperfield? ‘The Raven’ over Emily Dickinson?) they’re mostly celebrating books people (or at least Americans) are likely to have read at High School and College.

Again this wouldn’t be a problem if what was being celebrated was the books themselves, but I suspect what’s actually being celebrated is the idea of the books themselves. Nobody’s suggesting we actually engage with Poe or Dickens or Melville, they’re just suggesting we feel a quick inner glow at the thought of them.

Coupled with the fetishisation of the technology of the physical book and the library it’s a strangely pernicious brew. Because if we want books and reading to survive and continue to thrive the single worst thing we can do is turn them into Hallmark card symbols of past certainty. What we need to be doing is emphasising the energy and ambition of contemporary writers, and developing new cultures of reading. And call me cranky, but I find it difficult to see how sentimentalising the past does that.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Your point really resonates with me. When I speak with friends about books the discussion quickly turns to traditional versus ebooks and how they love the smell and feel of printed works. So we talk about that instead of what they read and why they like it. While I understand that reading can be quite a physical experience I always wonder why people put this above their decision of what they read…does that mean the cover is also more important than the content…?

    February 28, 2012
  2. This came home to me recently when I went to buy another copy of a favourite book on meditation, after giving mine to a friend. The bookseller unwittingly made a huge fuss over the book’s admittedly attractive presentation – all I wanted, either to buy, to absorb, or to talk about, was the contents!!!
    I think Ivor Indyk dealt well with this too: he refers to a character in a novel, a miserly bookhoarder who is in love with books’ potential rather than their ‘reality’. At Meanjin,
    I’m with your daughter on Lessmore though, it looked wonderful!

    February 28, 2012
  3. Very well put. The appeal to nostalgia is not the way to argue for the relevance of libraries or books. I happen to appreciate the cartoon, but it’s probably a sign that us folks who see a future for books need to get in the conversation, too.

    February 28, 2012

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