Chess books

by Rob Horning

15 November 2005


I was browsing those racks that sit outside the Strand bookstore on Broadway—I look whenever I walk by, but I’ve never bought anything. If you want something, where do you pay. Is it the honor system that keeps people from just taking the books as though they were left out for the garbageman, which for all intents and puposes, they essentially are? Perhaps I need to be surveilled, and goods need to be guarded, for me to feel comfortable with ascribing to them any value. It is the lock on my door that makes my stuff valuable to me.

While I was browsing I found a copy of Capablanca’s The Fundamentals of Chess, algabraic notation edition, and I picked it up and started flipping through it, as if such a book is even readable. That’s the beauty of chess books, and perhaps why I own so many of them, despite being a pretty lousy chess player. The fact that they are unreadable—full of chess notation and illustrations and discussions far too abstract for a novice like me without a chessboard in front of me—forces me to resist the temptation of actual reading the book and makes the book into a pure signifying object, something that can signal my interest in chess without my being led into foolishly wasting time reading about it. The impossibility of my consuming them as books allows me to appreciate them as decorative objects that help illustrate my interior life for others. They are my knick-knacks.

In the most recent Harper’s, John Berger argues that living in an “information culture” means that information, objectified data, has supplanted knowledge and wisdom—this culture “stimulates calculation and discourages reflection.” When I fetishize chess books, I am at one with my culture, disregarding wisdom about chess, useful information that might help be play better, and embracing signifying information, data that will help me manage the surface-level impressions I give off, the one-dimensional data about myself I perpetually transmit. The culture of information reudces information to just this, the calculation of how best to make immediate impressions, to make things as transparent and shallow as possible, in the name of convenience and of not slowing down our busy lives.

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