Romanticising books

In Slate (only available online), Mark Oppenheimer laments the impending move to electronic books and away from paper. His thesis is that people’s books will no longer be on public view and instead will be hidden on their devices so we won’t be able to tell much about them. Basically, just as we can’t tell what music people like — or more embarrassingly, liked — by looking at their CD collection.

This is a delicate matter. I can already hear some readers turning the page (perhaps a Kindle “page”), muttering that only an elitist jerk picks friends or lovers based on what they can be seen reading. Well, maybe. This essay is for the rest of you, the ones who freely admit to having been seduced by a serendipitous volume of Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John glimpsed on a potential girlfriend’s living-room shelf or by a spine-broken copy of Robert Lowell sitting atop that boy’s nightstand. Maybe that was your first time in the apartment, you had been reluctant to go, and now you wanted to linger a while …

Amazing. I’m willing to bet (and I actually have no evidence for this so I am going to stereotype) that Oppenheimer falls into the same class of people who lament all of the sharing of information that the kids today do on Facebook etc. Which, of course, brings me to my point. If you want a public display in the electronic age, you can still do it! For instance, want people to know what your taste in music or books is, get a sticker and put it on the back of your laptop or iPad. Better still use it as a ringtone.

Oh yes, or just read an actual book. No one forced people who want public displays to go electronic. The point is that apparently most people don’t want to pay in price and convenience for that particular public display. And Oppenheimer goes on:

And then came my bride. Early gifts from her: a paperback of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which she couldn’t believe I hadn’t read, and Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech. Oddly, I gave her Our Guys, by Bernard Lefkowitz, about the high-school gang rape in Glen Ridge, N.J. I’m not sure what I was thinking.

You can still give someone a book as a gift. You know a paper one. Chances are in the future they will cost more and be an even better signal. It would surely be more romantic today if your prospective partner is of like mind. The world simply hasn’t come to an end here. What has come to an end is Oppenheimer’s romantic ideas.

That said, there is a market opportunity for both music and books. What if you could upload easily your ebook and MP3 collections to some service that printed out a big big poster of a bookshelf with the spines showing. That way people could come into your house and see which way you leaned.

I’ll grant one thing, however, that it will be harder to have a book burning if that was your thing. It will be more expensive and it will be harder to get enough of the latest outrage in print form to demonstrate your anger. At best, you can all gather in a field with your iPads and have mass deletion! This is something, like Jerry Seinfeld’s observation that cordless (and mobile) phones took away the ability to slam down handsets in anger, that we will have to do without.

[Update: want to use your Kindle yet signal books you like? Try this or this.]

[Update 2: ok I stand corrected.]

5 thoughts on “Romanticising books”

  1. My prediction is that the last people on Earth who will be using hardcopy books are Orthodox Jews who won’t use electronic devices on Shabbat. Or some workaround will be thought up? But the Torah is still written on a parchment scroll a couple of millennia after books were invented….


  2. In so far as the kindle will hinder phoney signalling about which books you like, maybe that’ll help Oppenheimer avoid false positives in his search for “friends and lovers”. The relative value of a) actually having read the books, and b) being able to talk about them, would seem to have increased, making it easier for better potential friends and lovers to make themselves known, I would’ve thought? (Though as for me, I’d be wary of someone who likes Jamaica Kincaid!)


  3. On a tangent, my concern for e-books is a potential resource problem people will have.
    I personally have trouble finishing a hardcopy books as it is. I buy lots and try to get through as many, but I only have limited time to read. With e-books, I fear my tendency to buy lots more (and not wait for the shipping), and read fewer pages of the books I buy…
    Call me a pessimist, but I see this creating incentives for more books to flood the market (lower barriers of entry, bigger market by units sold) and potentially quality of the product decline over time. I realise the dynamic is perhaps similar to newspapers and blogs (in that it took a while for blogs to “professionalise”), so I’m bracing for a quality downturn before it gets all better again.
    Clearly the future, but interesting dilemmas I think


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