Hipsterism: Unread Books

Is there anything more tedious than to hear people go on and on about movies you’ve never seen, albums you’ve never heard of or TV shows on a streaming service you don’t have?

This raises a question for me about this project — will anyone who hasn’t read Don Quixote pay attention — and especially for the book’s most tedious chapter, which may have been a triumph of sarcastic lit crit in its day.

Chapter VI has an amusing premise. People who care about Quixote have staged an intervention, but instead of denying him access to alcohol or drugs, they want to deprive him of the books that are fueling his Knight Errant visions. It starts out with this amusing conflict between women of common sense and men determined to over analyze a nonsensical situation:

The priest asked the niece for the keys to the room that contained the books responsible for the harm that had been done, and she gladly gave them to him. All of them went in, including the housekeeper, and they found more than a hundred large volumes, very nicely bound, and many other smaller ones; and as soon as the housekeeper saw them, she hurried out of the room and quickly returned with a basin of holy water and a hyssop and said to the priest: “Take this, Señor Licentiate, and sprinkle this room, so that no enchanter, of the many in these books, can put a spell on us as punishment for wanting to drive them off the face of the earth.” The licentiate had to laugh at the housekeeper’s simplemindedness, and he told the barber to hand him the books one by one so that he could see what they contained, for he might find a few that did not deserve to be punished in the flames. “No,” said the niece, “there’s no reason to pardon any of them, because they all have been harmful; we ought to toss them out the windows into the courtyard, and make a pile of them and set them on fire; or better yet, take them to the corral and light the fire there, where the smoke won’t bother anybody.” The housekeeper agreed, so great was the desire of the two women to see the death of those innocents; but the priest was not in favor of doing that without even reading the titles first.

The housekeeper and Quixote’s niece come up with practical solutions — either rid the books of their evil influence or destroy them. But the priest and barber cannot surrender their newfound power as the arbiters or literary taste and proceed to rate the various books, both in their demonic power and literary value — over the ensuing paragraphs.

They’re basically engaged in hipsterism. I admire Christian Lorentzen’s definition of a hipster:

Under the guise of “irony,” hipsterism fetishizes the authentic and regurgitates it with a winking inauthenticity.

I do wonder if there’s even an attempt at irony anymore in hipsterism. It seems more to me like an exercise in data supremacy. Just like some baseball fans who demonstrate their superior knowledge of the game by memorizing new and obscure stats, hipsters demonstrate their cultural supremacy via their mastery of art forms most haven’t given a moment’s thought.

Anyway, that’s basically how I perceive Chapter VI, it goes on and on about books that lost all their cultural value the minute Don Quixote was published. So perhaps Cervantes was giving them a Viking burial here.

Today, it’s a chapter you could skim or skip. And it’s fine to take a breather here, because we’ll be introduced to the book’s best character just a few pages after this one wraps up.