The Secret Life of Books

This video made the social media rounds a couple of weeks ago. I thought it would be a fitting first post as we begin to think about where books have come from and where they are going.

While I love the use of stop motion and certainly get a kind of kid-in-a-candy-shop feeling from watching this, I can’t help but notice the subtle implication that these books come to life in spite of, or perhaps because of, the absence of readers. The intent may be to suggest that books are full of action and activity just waiting for a reader to discover them, but the implicit message, to my mind, is that bookstores are becoming a lonely place and that printed books (“real” books, as the title of the book in the closing shot says) need to be defended against the wave of digital publishing.

I found Janaka Stuckey’s recent post on the future of bookstores at the Poetry Foundation blog insightful on this point. He suggests increased specialization, an emphasis on community programming, and a closer interaction between booksellers and readers (through personal recommendations and in-store events) are the only way book stores can compete with Amazon. It’s not even more beneficial to publishers (like his Black Ocean imprint) to sell through mom and pop shops–Amazon kicks back a larger percentage of each sale.

The “Joy of Books” video subtly touches on this situation: at one point, we see a little brown moleskine turning the pages of a large hard-bound poetry book, a somewhat cute synecdoche for the reading audience Stuckey suggests is keeping bookstores alive: writers, and specifically poets.

Is the “joy” of books something inherent in their format–a material jouissance?
Is it perhaps in their content, which has historically been distributed in a wide variety of forms from the tablet and scroll to the codex and iPad?
Is it in the reader, without whose intervention the words stay locked in their covers, whatever form those covers take?

We’ll hope to consider some of these questions in the coming months.

1 comment
  1. “a somewhat cute synecdoche” : felicitous phrase, je vous félicite!

    But, yes, while the books have remained, the readers have fled — and the books need readers, the tree that fell unheard in the forest didn’t fall.

    I have loved books & bookshops since I was little — and since, as customer, browser, tenant, landlord, reader, writer, wanderer — even occasionally just to get warm, a well-stocked bookshop retains the heat of a small fireplace or “electric fire”, wonderfully, on frozen New England or European evenings, great insulation.

    But, as you suggest, books need readers. Take some encouragement, tho, from historian Le Roy Ladurie, who said at a very hitech conference, “We French are technology dinosaurs, but we are very congenial dinosaurs.” Books are a very congenial medium — as, too often still, hitech is not — I write this on a wonderful iPhone which however I do not yet love… maybe the iPhone 5 will come in colors…

    That congeniality will preserve the book format, I believe, for many of us if not for all. Not all of us are in love with content: that is just data — content is not “king” but more just quartermaster-sergeant.

    It’s the challenge of ebooks now to reinvent the congeniality of printed books, just as those very consciously reinvented that of manuscripts: long way to go still, on that… I’m struggling now with EPub files…

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