the death of books?

13 Jul

In the August issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott addresses the issue of judging book covers as a method of cultural snobbery. With the growing popularity of digital book readers, like the Kindle and even the iPhone’s book download applications, the ability to judge people based on their reading material is dwindling. Wolcott addresses this same phenomenon in terms of digital music and the lost art of the album cover, and we’re well past the point of no return on that artistic genre. Okay so for most new albums on iTunes, the digital booklet is part of the download, but how many people actually look at that thing?

The loss of the book to digitial formats though is greater than the loss of book cover art, or the easy accessibility to decide if someone is worthy of passing off your business card (because I know I’m not the only one who would reconsider giving my number to a guy based on his book-in-hand). The digitization of books signals a greater loss to the reading public. Perhaps a loss to our entire society (large jump, I know, but bear with me). Reading is one of the last free entertainment sources out there. While I prefer to own my books, there are vast swaths of the population that rely completely on the public library system for their reading needs — books, magazines, newspapers. All of it is free, if you manage to avoid late fees. I don’t think I could easily make the jump to a digital format for several reasons, not the least of which is that my ability to purchase books allows publishers to also keep providing books to libraries and schools. My love of reading was cultivated as a very young child and the disappearance of actual books onto a digital space makes reading more elite than it has a right to be. Kindles cost money, quite a bit of it actually, as do the book downloads. Wolcott wonders how the “highbrow will distingush himself from the masses” but I would argue that being “highbrow” in your reading is a bit of an invented concept anyway. Sure, you can feel supremely superior for reading Infinite Jest but so can the 15-year-old gangbanger sitting across from you on the Metro. Because oh guess what, that book’s at the library too.

Books as a method of snobbery is a tradition alive and well. I always glance – sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes not so surreptitiously – at other people’s shelves to see what they’re reading. Especially coffee table books. My friend Anna is famous for her love and collection of coffee table books, an impressive array that so pinpoints her interests -fashion, photography, art – it is the definition of this quote from the VF article:

Books not only furnish a room, to paraphrase the title of an Anthony Powell novel, but also accessorize our outfits. They help brand our identities.

I moved this weekend from my tiny studio apartment back to my parents’ house in the quest to eventually buy a piece of property, and I had the compulsion to immediately unpack and fill at least one bookcase. That was how I knew I was home.  But I felt that desire, not based on any desire for people to be impressed by my bookshelves, but because my books are part of my identity. The actual experience of cracking a spine, and turning pages, smelling the ink is far superior to the convienence that an eReader brings to the table. I’ll take a physical tome to a digital one any day of the week. I don’t care if it makes my luggage heavier or my purses get stretched out. Nothing replaces the feel of pages turning in your fingers, no matter how well the eReader simulates that simple act.

In 10, 15 years maybe I’ll feel differently. Maybe I’ll be a jet-setting traveler and will rely on digital books for my entertainment, but right now, I’m happy to carry around a real book with a real cover and real cover art. Culture snobs, judge away.


One Response to “the death of books?”


  1. eReaders: Changing my Tune? « a home between the pages - October 21, 2009

    […] when publishers start to phase out real books in favor of e-books? (I’ve written about this before, but I thought it needed […]

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