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David Balzer: how “curationism” influences our reading identities

David Balzer examines how the art world’s obsession with “curationism” came to influence our personal reading identities


(illustration: Jon Han)

The widely loathed, widely used contemporary action word “curate” can be traced back to performance. The adjective “curated” (as in “curated playlist”) is more than a hundred years old, used in the late 19th century in conjunction with the librarian-like practices of early museum curators. Still, it suggests an emerging fascination with modes, powers, and cultures of display.

The verb “to curate” – especially its passive construction “curated by” – emerged in the 1980s and ’90s; its origins are in experimental theatre and performance art. In the art world of the 1990s, the conceptual curator went mainstream. Curators were recruited by cash-strapped museums and tourist-courting biennials because of their ability to perform – essentially, to compel and attract audiences. Under the curator’s direction, institutions aimed for new relevance and popularity through, among other things, contrived radicalism, including controversial exhibitions and “relational aesthetics” – performance and installation art often requiring audience engagement. Into the 2000s, institutions renovated, using “starchitects” to attract patrons. Biennials gained the glamour and trendsetting power of major fashion shows. Such institutional performances were often consciously sexy, demanding the attention of media, donors, and collectors.

The publishing industry’s path runs parallel to the art world. In the 1990s, chain stores privileged bestsellers and magazines. Smaller, independent bookstores – once jumbled, labyrinthine spaces akin to pre-modern museums – fought back. McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, for instance, with its flagship Osborne Village location, offered what we would now refer to as a curated or “experiential” space. (The store founders’ daughter, Sarah McNally, who owns New York’s McNally Jackson Books, frequently refers to herself as a curator.) Updating 19th-century European salons and the café culture of the 1950s and 1960s, indie bookstores like McNally Robinson hosted readings, slams, and discussions. Non-book merchandise such as postcards appeared, touted as armour in this emerging culture war. The Largely Literary t-shirt collection bearing caricatures of famous highbrow authors was, at least in my 1990s high school, on-point indie attire.

Then, the inevitable corporate counterattack. Oprah Winfrey began her book club in 1996, the same year Heather Reisman founded Indigo Books & Music. In the early days of Amazon and well before it purchased the social network Goodreads, pop-lit culture succumbed to arbiter figures, parallels to star curators of the art world like Klaus Biesenbach and Hans-Ulrich Obrist. By the early 2000s, Oprah’s Book Club was mass-market curation, a powerful performance of cultural enlightenment and humanism. It dependably made or remade bestsellers, from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Literary prizes gained in importance, becoming lucrative, the jurying of books perceived to grant busy readers safeguard in a market that, while shrinking, had more books than ever before. (Times have changed: in a 1994 interview with Peter Gzowski, Alice Munro related visiting a Nanaimo bookseller after her debut collection Dance of the Happy Shades won the 1968 Governor General’s Literary Award. When she asked the bookseller if he stocked the book, he gave an affronted “no.”) With CBC’s Canada Reads and BBC’s The Big Read (founded in 2001 and 2003, respectively), a reality-television model emerged, with panelists and/or the public picking what they liked. The worth of a book, its potential as a bestseller, became a popularity contest, a veritable spectator sport.

Of course, now, the curator is all of us: self-conscious and desperate for an audience. Real-life ways of establishing consumer identity, including the home display of books, LPs, CDs, and DVDs, have fallen out of fashion. Independent brick-and-mortar book, video, and music stores continue to close. The internet flattened being; media mergers flattened content. In partial response to niche marketing, we began branding personae online, first via blogging, then via social media. This culture (or cult), which I call “curationism,” is predicated on anxiety and paranoia – a needy performance of singularity and power against the dominance of culture-business colonizers like Amazon.

One of curationism’s many paradoxes is its illusion of choice. A popularity contest contradicts the traditional understanding of curating as fine-tuned selection and arbitration. Making a purchase based on an email suggesting other products you might like means (basic) algorithmic software has done the choosing for you. Goodreads relies on Facebook-like programming, leading you toward certain users, products, and experiences. Readers on Pinterest pin photos of book jackets posted by marketing teams at big publishing houses. As curators, we are also inevitably curated.

Independent digital efforts are similarly ironic. The Bookshelfies Tumblr shows everyday book lovers in front of their carefully arranged shelves, which, like all selfies, look sort of the same. Instagram abounds with performative gestures toward reading, in particular book cover fetishism, in which the trendiest titles are placed next to each other in perfectly arranged decors, shot through the same gauzy-retro filters. The #FridayReads hashtag allows readers to share their favourites, but, like much on Twitter, can be redundant and lemming-like.

Today, reading is a subcultural identity. People list it as an interest on dating profiles as if it were akin to LARPing or needlepoint – as if any and all readers would automatically have something in common with each other. “Seeing someone read a book you love is seeing a book recommend a person” was a widely shared statement on social media this summer. I found it weird and perverse.

The curationist movement in contemporary reading means well. It is a protest against a recession-era capitalism that ignores the complexities of cultural engagement. But it has also become its own product, a mimicry of the genuine readerly identity to which it so hungrily aspires.

David Balzer is the author of Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else, published by Coach House Books.