What do we value books for?

There are bookstores that sell books by the inch. In the 19th century, many households had faux bookcases, with no books, just the spines. Even today, I have an antique room divider painted with trompe l’oeil books. The New York Review of Books has over a hundred thousand subscribers. Are all those people reading it to decide what to read, or to convey the impression of being well-read?

Do we value books because of the knowledge they contain, or because of the status they confer on us as readers?

Over at Future of the Book, Ben Vershbow is speculating about what the ideal e-book will look like. There are some important ergonomic and aesthetic factors defining e-books, but I think the social factors might be the most important of all.

College students use textbooks as tools to help them get the grades they need to graduate. When they’re done with them, they sell the books. No one is impressed with a shelf full of textbooks. What they keep are “status books” like Joyce’s Ulysses or the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Encyclopedia Brittanica used to be a status book, but now people in the know just buy the CD — or use Wikipedia. Printed Brittanicas clog the wastebins of Goodwill stores across the nation.

How will a collection of e-books convey status? It can’t, unless it gives us the knowledge we need to demonstrate that status, or the means for us to give the impression of status. Since most of us read in private, an e-book reader has a tough time fitting the bill.

That suggests to me that the first successful e-books will be ones that convey must-have knowledge. In fact, they already exist: CD encyclopedias are those books. They just seem like a failure compared to the cash-cows that print encyclopedias once were. What will be the next successful e-genre? Probably not pulp fiction; even a cheap $200 e-book reader won’t compete with $6.99 Wal-Mart impulse buy. Maybe it will be the New York Review of Books.

Another possibility might be the e-coffee table book: a $500 tablet that takes a prominent place in the center of the living room. It could definitely be a conversation piece. If it was a dedicated e-book, unlike a laptop, it wouldn’t seem like invading your hosts’ privacy to pick it up while they’re in the kitchen mixing your martinis — just to see what the up-and-coming urbanite browses in her/his spare time.

In that case, the e-books themselves would have to be top-scale as well. They’d need to be professionally designed and produced, with informative text and plenty of pictures. But they’d also need to be accessible: as easy to enter into as flipping open a traditional coffee-table book. No complex navigation; just a touch screen and an easy way to flip from page to page. Scroll bars, the kind that work fine for computer windows, are too ungainly for e-books. What about some sort of external toggle wheel, or even the scroll wheel like on an iPod?

They’d also need to give their owners a reason to forego the standard-issue coffee table book. Some additional functionality, perhaps? Could they also be the control center for the home entertainment system? Could they tie into family photos and basic internet functions such as shopping and checking e-mail? Would they work as video phones? Perhaps they could also serve as visual art: a virtual koi pond, or a fantastic landscape.

Books are status symbols; e-books won’t take their place until they confer the same status.

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2 Responses to What do we value books for?

  1. Arethusa says:

    I actually kept my history text book from first year, even though I am not a history major. It covers, quite generally, respected pre-20th century Western intellectuals and it was written so well I decided to keep it. It’s, of course, the exception to the rule.

    I am personally not fond of e-books because, aesthetically speaking, they’re just so boring don’t you think? No nifty cover art (3D crap just doesn’t look the same), no interesting page textures (especially those faux parchment types), and no need for me to get adorable bookmarks; and they’re so intangible (scroll wheels? Say it ain’t so!). They are simply too utilitarian.

    I was remiss in answering a question you asked a while back (I’m sure you’ve forgotten) about the eventual demise of libraries and how professors ensure that their students are only employing so many online resources. They do include all online material, with the exception of journals and so forth that campus libraries may already have online. However if I found a text book online I could cite it and they wouldn’t know the difference.

  2. Pingback: Word Munger » More on the future of sustained narrative

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