Reflecting, briefly, on this recent trend of posterifying various selections of the “Great Works” canon, I think I have figured out the appeal of these things.
First, here is what I am talking about:
Litographs – a company that makes their bread and butter off posterifying and t-shirting various works of literature. The gimmick is the poster is an image made up of the text itself, as if novels were some form of concrete poetry. For a mere $24, you can get your own t-shirt, poster, or tote of your favorite novel from high school, copy-pasted from Project Gutenberg in glorious, nearly illegible default font (Calibri). But wait, there’s more! Now you can get temporary tattoos to represent your fleeting interest in books you haven’t opened since high school.
Between the Words — tagline: “exploring the punctuation in literary classics.” This ridiculousness is ripe territory for the interrobang (that is, why the hell would anyone buy this‽‽) Nicholas Rougeaux’s (“Designer, data geek, fractal nut”) website is a brilliant effort to divest humanities majors of their hard earned dollars by selling them posters of masses of punctuation from random great works of literature. So what do we learn from “exploring the punctuation of literary classics”? To quote Rougeaux:
‘Another interesting difference I’ve noticed is the use of double quotes, like those used in Moby-Dick, versus single quotes like those used in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This speaks of cultural differences: single inverted commas are more often used in British English, whereas double quotation marks are more common in American publishing.
In short, we learn nearly nothing.
As silly as I think these websites are, we have to hand it to Litographs and Between the Words for finding a peculiar niche market, namely, the market of people who think of themselves as literary. These posters are stand-ins for bookshelves. Rather than having shelves and shelves of books in your home that you’ve never read to indicate your literary affluence, instead you can hang one of these posters with all the authority and vapidness of Jay Gatsby’s library:
A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?” He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
He nodded.“Absolutely real — have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact, they’re absolutely real. Pages and — Here! Lemme show you.”
Taking our scepticism for granted, he rushed to the bookcases and returned with Volume One of the “Stoddard Lectures.”
“See!” he cried triumphantly. “It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me. This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”
He snatched the book from me and replaced it hastily on its shelf, muttering that if one brick was removed the whole library was liable to collapse.
(Chapter 3, The Great Gatsby — unclear if this selection is included on the Litographs version.)
The defamiliarization of the literary work is critical to the popularity of these posters. Rather than just, say, owning a framed book cover (which would require time, effort, and discretion to acquire a particular edition), or the book itself, the poster substitutes swimmingly because its peculiar way of defamiliarization implies that the owner has his or her own unique and peculiar insight / way of interpreting one of these oft-read classics. For just a few pennies under $30, you can purchase the ersatz equivalence to a St. John‘s Liberal Arts degree. Admittedly, this is a lot cheaper than tuition, or Mortimer Adler‘s colossal collection.
Full disclosure: months ago I bought the Walden poster and I love it.