- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

There’s a key moment in Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” in which record store owner Rob (played by John Cusack) turns to the camera and lays out his take on relationships.

“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” he says. “Books, records, films — these things matter. Call me shallow, but it’s the [absolute] truth.”

His point was that, in a relationship, it’s all well and good if someone is pleasant, and it can be annoying if someone has an abrasive personality, but the most important predictor of a relationship’s success is whether the duo occupies the same wavelength culturally.

There’s a certain wisdom to that statement (as well as an undeniable shallowness, as Rob freely admits). With the inexorable trend toward digitization of intellectual property like music and books, some are questioning whether we are in danger of losing the ability to signal these cultural attachments to others.

As James Wolcott put it in the pages of Vanity Fair: “How can I impress strangers with the gemlike flame of my literary passion if it’s a digital slate I’m carrying around, trying not to get it all thumbprinty?”

In the Internet age of iPods and Kindles and digital libraries, it’s fair to ask: Are we changing the way in which interpersonal relationships are formed? Is something lost by people reading their Kindle on the Metro, unable to project to the world the collection of David Foster Wallace essays they’re currently reading? Will bare bookshelves stymie efforts to get a better read on a person?

“What you own — what you choose to buy, especially in the realm of culture — says a great deal about you,” notes Lee Siegel, the author of “Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture and Commerce — and Why it Matters.” “As people’s lives become more transparent, with social networking and all of that, people’s tastes become more obscure because people’s cultural possessions are no longer on display.”

Perversely, the corollary to this is that it’s easier than ever to tell others just what we’re reading or listening to or watching. With the click of a button, a Facebook profile can be changed in any number of ways and broadcast to tens of millions of people. Want people to think you’re reading Plato instead of “Twilight: New Moon”? That illusion is only a few keystrokes away.

The blogosphere is no different. Amazon now offers a widget — a kind of miniature program one can attach to a blog — called “My Favorites.” With it, according to Amazon, you can “express yourself by recommending and commenting on products from Amazon.com. Let everyone know how you feel and what you like! Use this widget to showcase DVDs you own, products you recommend, your top picks for Valentine’s day, your favorite movies, music you grew up with — almost anything.”

Last.fm, a U.K.-based Internet radio station, offers a similar widget that will attach itself to a musical playlist and display in the margins of your blog recently played songs, most played songs, most played artists, or whatever one has played most in the last week.

These widgets, not to mention Facebook and MySpace profiles, are almost infinitely malleable. They can be manipulated to show just about anything, make people think just about anything. Then again, apart from scale, it’s not clear if that’s any different from the world we inhabit today.

“People have always done that, right?” queries Mr. Siegel. “In cocktail conversations, people will always say that they’ve read something when they haven’t read it.” He recounted the story of a celebrity (who shall go unnamed) who wasn’t quite what he seemed.

“I was shocked to look at [the celebrity’s] bookcases,” Mr. Siegel said. “They were mostly empty, and such books that he had were tattered copies left over from his college days. This was a guy known for culture in his realm, but he didn’t have any of it.”

Although that might be a glimpse into our cultureless future, it’s one that’s still a few decades off. With the digital revolution still in its earliest stages, bookshelves, CD racks and DVD cubbies are unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

“I think bookcases are never going to go out of style because people still like to have stuff,” says Nickie Myers, the interior arranger and owner of Yours by Design. She says she hasn’t seen a dip in the ownership of bookshelves during her house calls, noting that people have always gone out of their way to purchase hard copies of books and show them off.

“I think it was the same with my generation,” she said. “We went to the library, but just because we could get it for free at the library, it didn’t stop us from buying them. I think it’s the same thing now: We want to have something to show off. Yes, I do read the classics, or yes, I do have the latest really popular book.”

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