Reading by Osmosis You know ¯

    My sister osmoted The Mill on the Floss ,
    a marvelous book, and gave us a gloss:
    concerning a man named John Stuart Mill
    with terrible teeth that made him quite ill.
    Why¯oh, why¯wouldn’t he floss?

    My brother osmoted The Lord of the Rings ,
    a story of insects with thousands of wings¯
    or was that a book called Lord of the Flies ?
    Oh, well, we’re getting wise
    by learning the things that osmosis now brings.

    We’ll juggle the books Little Women and Men
    (they’re all about dwarves in a mountainy den)
    and throw in a copy of Watership Down
    (concerning a boat and some sailors who drown),
    and then¯we’ll run to the bookstore again.

Or so at least I said in some verses in FIRST THINGS called "Reading by Osmosis." (That issue is now available online, and you can see the whole poem here .)

Of course, I was kidding, kind of. But it turns out that maybe I shouldn’t have been. The phenomenon is too much even for the most frivolous of New York’s many newspapers, the weekly peach-colored rag known as the Observer , and in the recent issue, columnist Simon Doonan notes that books are the latest fashion accessory among the beautiful women of New York and Hollywood’s glittering classes. Or, in the distinctive headlineze of the Observer : "Books Are the New Black! Sylphs Tote Fat, Unread Tomes."

"This season," Doonan says, "it’s all about faking it¯i.e., carrying around the ‘It’ book but not actually bothering to read it. Improving-your-image-by-deluding-others-into-thinking-you’re-reading-something-meaningful is the new black. It’s the literary equivalent of the Live 8 concerts, where you don’t have to actually do anything (e.g., read the book or give to the poor)¯you just have to appear to care."

But maybe books are even better for the purpose, since they do¯when chosen carefully for the colors of their dust jackets¯accessorize beautifully with the latest fashion trends in clothing: "Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs suggests that you, the carrier, might be au courant with the latest twists and turns in feminist philosophy, to mention nothing of the fact that it looks great with this season’s black clothing. Meanwhile, the rich vintagey look of Mao: The Unknown Story , by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, works well with this seasons’ denim and velvet looks."

I admit to my share of reading by osmosis. There’s a category of tomes I call "Books You Know Too Well to Bother Reading"¯which is to say, the volumes that occupy such an iconic place that you never get around to opening them. A classic example is Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population , a book I sometimes think no one except Gertrude Himmelfarb has read, though everyone says they know what it’s about. In fact, the entire poem "Reading by Osmosis" is dedicated to those, like me, who know the names of many more authors than we’ve ever actually read.

But I confess that one thing I’ve never considered is choosing a book for how well its cover goes with my clothes. This takes osmoting literature to a whole new level. I think my own wardrobe goes best with, maybe, one of those creased and tattered 1960s covers that Scholastic Books used to put on children’s books, like the ones Charles Geer did for The Mad Scientists’ Club .

Meanwhile, the elegance of our FIRST THINGS Junior Fellow Mary Ruiz suggests she might wish to accessorize with The Penguin Classics Library Complete Collection , "more than 1000 of the Greatest Classics (Paperback)," which she will be able to get as soon as she comes up with the $7,989.50 (but with free shipping!) that Amazon.com wants for it. Our other Junior Fellow, the more casual John Rose, seems difficult to shop for, but the rich red of Martin Marty’s pocket biography Martin Luther might do the trick, providing crimsony accents to the denim look John has chosen. And for Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, the new black is, well, the old black¯worn, interestingly, with a touch of white at the throat. Surely there’s some book that goes with that.

Then there are all of FIRST THINGS subscribers. What book cover is right for you? (And please don’t say that the magazine is something you read only by osmosis¯although, with the brighter colors we’ve been using recently, I will say that the issues accessorize beautifully, darling, beautifully.)

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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