Contents Unchanged: Don't Judge A Book By Its Packaging

Shortly after the new year, when it became apparent that Borders Books and Music would be shuttering its doors, my father wrote me an e-mail and reminded me that I might want to spend any unused gift cards I had laying around (these being a favorite of outer-orbit family friends and relations). Once the chain had sunk for good, they would be worthless. It wasn’t until months later that I happened upon a still-operating location here in Austin, and scoured the shelves with my roommate Peter.

I was amazed at how packed the place was and how thoroughly it had been picked over. Large signs throughout the interior announced that every article had been slashed by 60% off cover price, and that each bulk purchase would be cut by an additional 10%. Needless to say, the gift cards I had accrued over several years would stretch for miles, if only we could find anything worth reading. Our first few forays into the stacks for specific titles told us in no uncertain terms that a less discerning plan of attack would be necessary. We spent the next two hours slowly walking the Literature, Biography, Science Fiction, and Horror aisles. Anything that was 1) a classic 2) was written by someone we had heard of or 3) looked interesting got pulled from the shelves. Soon, I had a mighty stack of books tucked under my chin, and was thumbing through a horror anthology when I saw something on a nearby shelf that gave me pause. It was a copy of The Inferno, a book I had read excerpts from in high school and had always wanted to read in its entirety. Everything about this purchase met my criteria: a well-known classic, and one I had been meaning to get through for ages. Nothing about the work within the pages or the time it would take to plow through Dante’s epic made me hesitate. The problem was packaging.

Anyone who keeps up with video games might remember the “Dante’s Inferno” title that Electronic Arts released not too long ago (I haven’t played it, but it received middling to low reviews from what I remember): a sophomorically EXTREME blood ‘n’ guts romp that was loosely built around a plot that kind of had something to do with hell. This book I held in my hands was a “promotional” copy that had been printed to coincide with the video game release: the cover was plastered with shiny concept art from the game, glossy screenshots were buried within the middle of the binding, and above the title, bold font identified the book as “The literary classic that inspired the epic video game from Electronic Arts.”

Awful, right? I thought so. Then I bought it anyways. My reasons for doing so were wrapped up in the events of the previous few weeks, when I had suddenly, and without practical motivation, become a vicious proponent of eBooks and eReaders. As a  writer and a lover of the written word, I feel it is my duty to take up arms. Simply put, the case against eReaders is couched in arguments that are selfish, inane, pretentious, and dishonest.

In order to understand the true reasons behind the anti-eReader movement, it’s necessary to first look at what I understand to be a relatively new phenomenon: the transformation of books into talismans. Be forewarned, I am not a sociologist or a statistician and I don’t have any hard numbers to back any of this up, only my own limited observations and my understanding of the world that surrounds me and what people seem to agree on. That being said, there are a few broad observations I think we can make. The first is that people, on average, don’t read books as much as they consume television, movies, and music. When comparing book sales to album and ticket sales, and when comparing the popular reaction and spotlighting of authors versus directors, actors and musicians, it doesn’t seem like a leap of faith to assume that the average American spends more of their leisure time consuming media other than books. As a result of this, reading has, in its own sad way, become something of an unusual activity. One of my favorite headlines in The Onion once screamed “Area Eccentric Reads Entire Book”, and a popular survey that made the rounds on Facebook once invited users to check off how many titles they had read out of a list of 100 books compiled by the BBC (the survey always notes the low number “most” Americans have read, and respondents almost always post that they have read more than this number). This, in my opinion, has everything to do with the rise of other forms of media that require less time and money of their audience, two resources that are in heavier and heavier demand as time goes on, and less to do with most Americans being unread slobs, but I digress.

The point is, books, in their physical form, seem to have been given an almost mystical quality. A friend of mine from Los Angeles recently showed me a website dedicated to publishing photos of attractive men reading in public. In this case, the book has quite literally become a fetish object, imbuing these anonymous men with newfound status and a qualifier: I read, therefore I am interesting. Another friend in college once refused my offered loan of a title she wanted to read, claiming that books were “just too personal” to pass around in such a fashion. This same friend also claimed I “ruined” her copy of an Ibsen play by scrawling some nonsense in the inside front cover of the paperback.

My opinion has not changed in years, and, given the recent reactionary comments in my friend-circle towards eReaders, has only become more galvanized: books are collections of ideas and experiences bound within pages and covers. The most important parts of a book, in fact, the only important parts of a book, are intangible. Sure, there’s no denying the inherent pleasure of holding a novel in your hands or of beaming with pride at your fully stocked shelves, but ultimately, the physical form of a book is little more than dead trees smeared with ink. It is impermanent and wholly unrelated to the most transcendent aspects of reading, literature and art itself. What is shared between two people when they read or write a book has nothing to do with the binding, the print, or paper stock: all of this is useless window-dressing and the emphasis on such trivialities is inane. It is however, not without motivation.

As with many other forms of media, books, perhaps as a direct result of their niche status in terms of popular appeal, have become signifiers of cultural capital. Like it or not, in our modern world and certainly amongst younger populations, ownership of books makes a statement about one’s self to the outside world. What exactly this statement consists of remains open to debate, however the more cynical side of me guesses that individuals who make a stink about the alleged superiority of Books (traditional) versus books (eReaders) see themselves as part of the cultured elite: the few and proud who cling fast to valuable cultural artifacts as the very essence of culture crumbles in the wake of disconnecting technology. They find their identities, or at least parts of them, in rising up against imagined adversity, namely, the imminent destruction of the written word at the hands of eReaders. This logic hinges on the belief that as printed books go, so goes reading and writing in general. Thus, once the Book has been extinguished by the eBook, it will only be a matter of time before quality literature, and even reading as an institution, crumbles. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of why printed books will not die the universal death that some see on the horizon (though chain bookstores may be doomed), but I will reiterate that the pose being struck by book-toting, would-be academics worldwide is selfish and contradictory. eReaders do not spell the death of reading. Aside from their status as a luxury item, which is sure to dwindle over the next decade or so, everything about eReaders makes books and reading more accessible and widespread than ever before. These wondrous devices hold hundreds upon hundreds of titles at a time, and many works that have long since gone out of print have been made newly available in electronic format. Thanks to innovations like Project Gutenberg (http://www.gutenberg.org/), a dizzying array of masterpieces that might have previously been prohibitively expensive or extremely rare can now be acquired with the click of a button, and for free. To discount these truly astonishing advancements in accessibility, ease of transport and affordability is foolish and hypocritical. E-readers advance the cause of reading. The method by which one chooses to consume literature is a matter of taste, but to deride a wonderful and exciting new way to read and share books simply because there’s no more paper is staggeringly stupid.

The truth behind why some people have such visceral reactions to eReaders is a bit more depressing than many might surmise. Those who create their identities in books and use their book collections as cultural capital are not actually interested in the advancement of reading and literature. They have a vested interest in keeping reading firmly entrenched in the ghetto of eccentricity: an act reserved for the educated and culturally superior. In short, the cultural capital of books must be maintained. As technology advances, and culture is spread to more people more cheaply, the capital of that culture is diminished. To put it bluntly, many who deride eBooks as “the death of the written word” are in fact terrified at their identities crumbling once reading becomes “normal” and books lose their totemic status (of course, there is the very real possibility that printed books will create a new class of consumer comparable to modern-day vinyl enthusiasts, but that’s a different post).

Coming back to my adventure in the cleaned-out Borders, I realized that, considering my opinions on eBooks and eReaders, I HAD to buy this gaudy, cheap-looking edition of The Inferno, because it met all of my criteria for books that I wanted to purchase and enjoy. Would I have preferred a beautifully crafted, leather-bound tome with gilded pages? Naturally. But to throw away the opportunity to read one of the most lauded literary achievements in history for a great price because of bad packaging would have been ridiculous.

Image of Dante's Inferno
Author: Christos Gage
Price: $19.36
Publisher: WildStorm (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 144 pages

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Comments

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life October 3, 2011 - 4:22pm

Great column, John.

I personally still love physical books, but am not "morally" opposed to eReaders. I agree it is the content that counts, although I probably wouldn't have bought that ugly-ass copy of Dante's Inferno.

Ben Umstead's picture
Ben Umstead from L.A. is reading Speedboat by Renata Adler October 3, 2011 - 5:03pm

I greatly enjoyed this as my introductory piece to the site. Thanks very much, John.

Not only did you bring in your own experience but you tied it in nicely with the larger state of books. Like Josh, I'm not "morally" oppossed to eReaders, and appreciate your angle on the Book as a symbol of sorts that can cause all sorts of notions. Such potent stuff. That idea seems to go all the way back to the printing press when the western world in particular changed from those who "could read" and "couldn't read"; boy, oh boy did that set a particular kind of cultural image into play. Interesting that this conintues to be the case for books even as a shift occurs in how they are consumed and delivered. Never has this elite status of form been so attached to the many ways we've taken in movies/TV and music.

 

As for my preference of still preferring physical books... I just like that the book is just that one book, and not many. For the time being that still feels right to me energetically.

 

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing October 3, 2011 - 6:01pm

I had a similar experience when searching Amazon for A Song of Ice and Fire books by George RR Martin. I had been turned on to the HBO series and wanted to read the original material. Despite my introduction through the TV program, I initially bawked at the idea of buying the 4-book-set with the HBO logo and pictures of Sean Bean adorning the covers. However, frugality won out (it was much cheaper to by the packaged set with the gaudy covers than to buy each of the 4 books individually with more "sophisticated" window-dressing). I just finished A Game of Thrones and can honestly say that the book's packaging in no way diminished the reading experience.

Caleb J. Ross's picture
Caleb J. Ross from Kansas City, KS is reading on the toilet by himself October 3, 2011 - 7:46pm

I wonder, with ereaders holding thousands of books, will the titles themselves have to become more engaging in order to compete with other books in an ereader queue. Sure, more books may be purchased, but does that mean they are being read? Will the way that books are listed in an ereader library menu affect whether the book is actually read? Will there be more book titles that start with the letter A?

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Autobiography of a Corpse October 3, 2011 - 9:56pm

I have to say that a cover can catch my imagination, as well as an interesting title. And I have been known to discriminate over things like font and paper color/type. My favorite paperback edition of The Sun Also Rises is out of print so it has been a quiet hobby of mine to scavenge bookstores, yard sales, and libraries for that specific edition (I can't stand the new version's recycled paper that looks like newspaper and the smudged font style).

 

That being said, this problem has been eliminated by my Kobo Touch. I can change the font, style, etc.  

I'll also confess that I incur elation at the thought of large chains of anything (most importantly book or music stores) being dismantled. It is really an opportunity for independent and used book stores to shine. A good book store is a community, a place for like minded people to come together and proliferate good ideas.

Gareth's picture
Gareth from Melbourne is reading Franz Kafka October 5, 2011 - 12:17am

Awesome post.  I admit i've always had mixed feelings about eReaders and their trend but you've distilled a pretty good point - we can be a bit snobbish about our books (including me).  It's great thing to see more people read because of them.

carol's picture
carol from Bronx, NY October 5, 2011 - 5:20am

I used to work in academia, and the only significant objection I found against e-readers was if an aging professor could figure out the electronic gadgetry involved, but academics have been dependent on internet-based databases for researching for over a decade, easily. The only real objectors I've ever encountered, besides physical book stores, were from publishers (I worked in book selling too). They're the only ones afraid that the publishing industry will go into a faster-than-already-happening decline, though heaven knows why -- they carry such huge costs related to physical book inventory (including destroying unsold books) that selling e copies makes much more financial sense. The one only sensible objection I've ever heard was that reading comprehension went down with e-readers, though that was hearsay from an unidentified "study." Anyway, I think most people realize how the increased availability of books via electronic means actually aids significantly in self-education, one major reason I supported amazon's book discounting, although retailers complained -- though I do also enjoy browsing in a well-stocked shop too.

Adam's picture
Adam from Denver is reading books... October 5, 2011 - 12:52pm

Books as some kind of cultural talisman? Interesting idea. I remember once handing my wife a copy of The Bell Jar and being horrified as she folded the front cover all the way back before she began to read. I actually snapped at her for treating a book in such a way. Funny thing is I don't even like that book! Anyway, individuals that think eReaders are destroying the written word or the quality of adding comprehension are simply wrong. I love my books and I care a bit too much for my book collection, but I also love my kindle. Even as a person who reads a lot, I find myself reading more than I used to. People should be excited by the emergence of eReaders, not afraid of them...

John's picture
John from Brooklyn, NY is reading The Big Short by Michael Lewis October 6, 2011 - 8:21pm

Thanks for the read and comments everyone. It's very encouraging to see this column generating so much feedback and discussion.

 

Caleb and Carol both make interesting points about how eReaders fit into the publishing domain (or is it the other way around) and how they're going to change the commercial aspect of the book trade. I think really big houses that have been in the game for a long time and understand how the media world is changing are going to get wise and find ways to adapt. It's an exciting time to be alive, that's for sure. As far as reading comprehension goes, I've actually found that I'm much more focused when reading on my kindle...I wonder if it has something to do with coming of age in the digital era, and consuming almost all letters from a screen instead of a page. Food for thought...

 

Speaking of eReaders, Keith Rawson's interview with Daniel Woodrell (http://www.litreactor.com/interviews/a-conversation-with-daniel-woodrell) prompted me to check out the Bayou trilogy, which is available for the kindle (all 3!) for around 10 bucks.

miraculousmeaningless's picture
miraculousmeani... from Washburn, WI is reading your mind October 10, 2011 - 2:00pm

I used to run around with a backpack full of books. I'm always reading four or five novels at a time. I would always wince and leave one behind, wanting to travel lighter, and of course that's always the one I'd want to read when the time came. Hauling around an ereader is just so much more convenient. Plus, if I am talking to someone and think they might like a particular book, the odds have drastically increased that I might have it with me for them to sample. Another thing, I recall certain books (ie; my three-in-one Phineas Poe trilogy) making my wimpy nerd forearms sore as I rolled around reading the huge volume. Go-go-gadget kindle, no more sore arms, on that basis alone case closed for me...

 

Shea's picture
Shea from Ontario, Canada is reading The Eagle of the Ninth April 21, 2012 - 8:45am

Great article! I must say I love both my eReader and nice hardcover books. I don't see the point of things like print paper backs, news papers, or other disposable paper media, but I do like to collect my favorite works in quality hardcover. In this format they serve as art more than entertainment.

Another huge benefit of the eReader is the ability to look-up key phrases. As a student, I waste too much time trying to track down that perfect quote in print form. My Kindle allows me to find all the key passages I'm looking for in a matter of minutes, mark the page, and save notes.