This article is part of The Volume Issue, The WALK’s Fall 2017 theme, which seeks to explore every aspect of the concept of “volume,” one of which is the “volumes,” or books, that can provide a refuge from the digital world.
few weekends ago I found myself wandering around a dreamy bookstore across from Central Park. French and English volumes abound the shelves of the Albertine, which is housed in a lovely beaux-art townhouse now occupied by the French Embassy. Perusing novels under a vaulted ceiling reminiscent of Starry Night was a delightful, unexpected escape from a world that seems to be driven by the pursuit of “likes” on social media.
The genuine pleasure I felt while flipping through my new acquisitions was a welcome departure from the uneasiness that often comes over me as I scroll through social media apps like Facebook and Instagram. Upon seeing the dose of artificiality that inevitably creeps into my news feed, I can’t help but feel that my generation, myself included, has developed an unhealthy tendency to glamorize life for the sake of social media. Travel seems like an elaborate photo-op rather than a chance to experience foreign sights and culture. Food seems to be valued not necessarily for taste or quality, but rather for its aesthetic appeal and “Instagrammability.” Social interaction seems to be driven by a desire for virtual recognition and validation rather than authentic relationships between people. Most notably, I’ve had many conversations with friends who, more often than not, feel burdened and overwhelmed by the phenomenon of “dressing for Instagram.”
I’ve always found fashion to be an important and effective medium for self-expression, but recently it seems to have been reduced to bait for “likes” and attention. More than once have I picked up a blouse, dress, coat, or sandal from my wardrobe and thought, “I need to feature that on Instagram.” In retrospect, it seems shallow and frivolous to have wanted to wear something for the sole purpose of being photographed in it. When did our lives become so oriented around exhibiting and glamorizing everything in life? When did we become so reliant upon social media for self-validation? What happened to dressing and doing things for yourself?
While I’ve felt disillusioned by the “Instagram Age,” I’ve also found that disconnecting from social media after years of being inseparable from my iPhone is not as easy as some might make it out to be. Instead, I have discovered that devoting some time each day, however little, to reading a good, old-fashioned book is a fulfilling, gratifying antidote to a culture saturated by social media. Though novels themselves may be grounded in other-worldly dimensions, the act of reading, reflecting, and turning pages feels familiar and undoubtedly real. Perusing the selection at the Albertine reminded me of the pleasure I once derived from enjoying a great novel, and encouraged me to dive back into the world I had left behind when I became obsessed with my iPhone.
If you, like me, are looking for an escape from social media, here are a few books I hope you might enjoy…
Call Me by Your Name by André Aciman
Set against the idyllic Italian countryside in summertime, this is a poignant story of love between young, kindred spirits. The novel’s indulgent and nostalgic portrayal of an all-consuming and indeterminate desire is affecting, to say the least. The impermanence of summer romance makes the trajectory of the narrative predictable, but it is exactly this quality that brings the emotional tension and anticipation of the main characters (a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old classics scholar, also male) to the forefront. A film adaptation of the book, directed by the Italian Luca Guadagnino, premiered to rave reviews at Sundance earlier this year and is set for wide-release in November.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I first read this book a few years back, but re-discovered it recently and enjoyed it even more than I had the first time around. The novel revolves around a group of classics students at a quiet, sequestered college in New England. It’s a detective story in reverse, so our narrator (a newcomer to the reclusive group) unravels the circumstances that prompted his enigmatic and erudite friends to commit murder before our eyes. Though melodrama abounds, it is also a forceful study of the darker side of human nature.
Compass by Mathias Énard
This is a tougher read, but one that delves into an interesting topic: the complex, ever-evolving relationship between East and West, more specifically “Orientalism,” and the Western world’s fascination with, and often appropriation of, the East. Énard’s own experiences in the Middle East resonate strongly throughout. The novel, written originally in French, contains many lyrical, philosophical musings on the part of the protagonist, an Austrian scholar of music, over the course of one reflective and sleepless night, but is also historically-driven, cataloging Orientalist composers and authors in nearly encyclopedic fashion.