Printed Books Are Too Important to Die

leather bound library

A few months ago while reading through some random magazine (so I once again cannot find this article and what I am talking about comes from memory) I came across an article about a company that specializes in an aspect of the book trade that I never really considered: the development of custom libraries for high-paying customers. I don’t mean a personal book buyer who will go out and buy a few books that you ask for, I mean someone who will go out and develop (either through buying or some handiwork) a library fitting your very specific needs.

The examples I can remember include an architect who wanted a library in a model house he had built. He had a very specific vision of the house, though, so all the books had to be hardbound books with white dust jackets and a specific colour of printing on the spine. The book buyer had to buy dozens of books that were the right size and then wrap them all in a certain colour paper. In another case, the patron wished to have all the books in his library bound in a specific material, have the information on the spine printed in a specific colour, but also all be in English. (Just in case he actually wanted to read the books at any point, I suppose)

What I’m getting at with these examples is that I don’t think that the print industry is anywhere close to dead. Printed books are not something that can be entirely replaced by a digital counterpart.


Ron Burgundy

There are aspects of a book that go beyond simply the information contained in the pages. A book represents more than simply ink on a page. A book can bring back a memory, it can be given as a gift, or, like I mentioned above, be signed by an author. The book itself is something that can be used to decorate a room, or show someone’s status in society. Remember what Ron Burgundy says in Anchorman when he’s trying to impress a woman: “I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of mahogany.” Or think of the requisite scene in so many movies of the rich old man, sitting in an overstuffed chair in his library, surrounded by books on all sides. Books are used as status symbols; their presence lends an air of sophistication to a room or a house even in his day of mass printing.

In an article I wrote several months ago for this site I mentioned a panel I attended when I was at the New York City Comic Convention in October. At this panel it was the head of the DC Comics Digital Comics division talking to fans about the impact of digital publishing on the comics industry, as well as getting feedback from the fans on digital comic publishing. One person in the audience mentioned that to him (and from the feedback from the room, to many others) comic book were more than simply an information-carrying medium, they were fetish items.

They like comic books for more than simply the stories within, they like them for what the physical comic presented. It’s an extension of their personality and a way to show who they are. The comic collection they have in their home shows their taste in reading material and is how they present themselves.

This holds true for books, and it can be seen simply by the fact that an industry exists for the creation of custom libraries. While these libraries might not necessarily be there to be read or made up of books the owner knows and loves (but, as one of Cory Doctorow’s characters is fond of saying in Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, “What’s the point of a room full of books you’ve already read?), they are nonetheless rooms full of physical books, and people are being paid for these books. As much as I’m a fan of the idea of eBooks, a screen full of eBook titles will never compare to a room full of books.

The printed book is not going anywhere anytime soon. As long as there are people who appreciate books there will be publishers to print the books and stores to sell the books.

8 thoughts on “Printed Books Are Too Important to Die”

  1. The original article you read (I remember the part about all the books wrapped in white) was in the New York Times. It might have been the front page of the Arts and Leisure section. Did it appear in December? Maybe. A lot of bloggers picked up on this and ran with it, myself included.

  2. I remember that article. It was from earlier this month –

    And here’s another interesting one about the iPad. It seems it is already slipping from favour after less than a year –

    I agree with you, Matthew, printed books are far too important to die. I have a ‘thing’ about signed books and have collected quite a few over the years. Getting an author to sign a digital copy of an eBook at Adelaide Writer’s Week just wouldn’t be the same as the thrill I got when I met Audrey Niffenegger and had her sign my well-loved copies of her 2 novels. Of course, now I love them even more!

  3. The thought that the survival of books is somehow assured because they also serve as a decorative item is repugnant, and concerning, to me.
    It makes me wonder what sort of conversations shopowners are having with their clerks (let alone their customers). And what kind of thinking(?) could be going on in the heads of such booksellers.

    Operating a store while thinking it is okay to sell books as decoration would be my own form of hell.

    Ron Burgandy is a comic character portraying obvious ignorance and the foolishness of ostentation. If books are your status symbol – keep your mouth shut!

    Any brick and mortar bookseller not striving continuously to upgrade their inventory and improve all facets of their business operations to serve customers far beyond what they should reasonably expect is sucking the life out of this business – and failing the community they have put themselves in position to serve.

    • George, I don’t get the impression that Matthew was advocating libraries just for the status or look. My take was there are people who demand such things, as well as those of us who also read their libraries, so with both type existing, hopefully the printed book will not die.
      I also don’t see anything within the article advocating booksellers turn their customers on to a title because of the color of the spine. I believe, he was talking about the *publishing* of real solid books, to be available for readers and custom libraries, because a nook cannot give one the feeling of being in Sherlock Holmes’ inner sanctum.
      People who create complete libraries are not booksellers. They are designers that utilize books. No bookstore supplies books for that type of thing.
      I agree with Matthew that a book is far more than the words, thoughts, ideas contained within. They can be a sense of security, of comfort, knowing that you have at your fingertips well loved titles, and ones never touched, containing who knows what treasures.
      My husband and I collect crime fiction–I do it because I love to read, and because I love dust jacket art. My husband more for the art and sense of collection. I *will* judge a book by its cover, if it fulfills a need for my collection. I have hundreds of mysteries I’ve not read, and may never read, because the stories are quite honestly, god awful, lol. But the books themselves are gorgeous, lovely gilt boards, perhaps, or stunning Deco lines. The book morphs into something beyond what’s within, it becomes a piece of art, or a part of a great whole.
      Of course, heaven is when a book you absolutely adore is found in a decent dust jacket, first edition, and you can afford to purchase it. Every aspect of what makes the printed page perfect is aligned. And I am hoping that what Matthew believes will be true, that too many people love both the interior and whole of what a book is, to let it disappear.

      • Yes, Diane, I know people collect all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons … but books? … and for decoration?

        My mentor was in the books business for over 30 years and verbally attacked anyone who had the temerity to proclaim themselves a book collector – thereby killing two birds with one stone – shaking their high opinions of themselves and discouraging them from reentering his shop.
        I do understand some of his rage came from his passion for keeping good books in circulation to benefit as many readers as possible. Most people (although we know most people don’t read) still believe what a person does with the books they buy is up to them.

        Robertson Davies quotation might merit some consideration though -“To be a book-collector is to combine the worst characteristics of a dope fiend with those of a miser.”
        Robertson Davies quotes (Canadian Journalist and Author. 1913-1995).

        Ralph Waldo Emerson also had some interesting thoughts – “The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry. It was dead fact; now, it is quick thought. It can stand, and it can go. It now endures, it now flies, it now inspires. Precisely in proportion to the depth of mind from which it issued, so high does it soar, so long does it sing.”

        If books could pick their owners I don’t think they would end up on the shelves of collectors, do you?

        • I have to say, and please, no offense, but I’m quite happy I didn’t have that mentor. “shake their high opinion of themselves and discourage them from reentering his shop?” How unbelievably pious and intellectually superior he must have thought himself. What an hostile atmosphere the shop must have had, thereby defeating his own purpose-to enlighten the masses and cure them of their low class stupidity.

          Books are unfortunately, biodegradable. And if we are lucky, recyclable. They consist, at the moment, of paper. They can be considered ephemera. They don’t last forever. People read them until they fall apart, idiots throw them away, they’re victims of fire, flood, other disasters. Their numbers are decreased year by year. In time, most copies of a particular title have disappeared. And, for sure, if never kept, never collected in a condition still able to be read, society would never lay eyes on them again.

          Unless, the misers and dope fiends have in their craven habit, preserved the very books society needs.

          Where would the classics be if someone in their selfishness hadn’t kept them? Did your mentor really believe that readers would have handed off each printed item to another and another and another person, and that book would survive the centuries? As it is, some books are so rare, they must remain in museums, libraries, places where one can look, but not touch. And that is quite sad. If lucky, the manuscripts in question were reprinted and still exist in many forms.

          In the utopian bookshop owned by your mentor, were paperbacks allowed? And if so, did you and he ever do returns? Or did you with the highest morality, decline to ‘strip’ them because they would then be taken out of circulation?

          On the other hand, are the small amount of book collectors in the present really keeping books from being circulated? Really? With 50,000 books printed for a title, that then goes into extra printings, those who decided to keep a copy are denying others from reading it? Even if the printing is 1,000 copies, the general reading public is being deprived? Hardly. There are always copies of a title recently published around for anyone who wants to read it. A favorite of mine had around a 3,000 print run. I own 3 copies inscribed to me, my mother, my husband. I keep them in mylar, on a shelf, behind curtains to keep out damaging sun. And in doing this 3 sad souls are wandering around wailing because those copies aren’t being handed off to them? Uh, not even close. Click–amazon has 15 for sale, bookfinder 30, altogether who knows how many, and affordable.

          Your attitude, your mentor’s and Mr. Davies is elitist at best. And I really need to laugh at a writer who would prefer his books be passed on rather than bought new–thereby assuring the reprinting unlikely and capital for the next work of inspired literature nil. That’s if every copy of every book he wrote was sent along its way, used, to another and another and another reader until the entire world has sampled his brilliant thoughts and deemed them superior to morons who would think collecting his work is honoring that very brilliance. Also assuming his paperback reprints haven’t been stripped and thrown in the ash heap.

          Oh, yes, certainly it’s much nobler to have a work thrown away than collected, kept beautifully, and preserved for future generations, right?

          And, finally, a book couldn’t be ‘owned’ unless by a ‘collector’ now could it? The very term owned means it is being held on by someone, it has a permanence. So, I would guess that books wouldn’t pick any ‘owner’ by your definition, books would rather be nomads wandering the world from person to person. Hopefully, not left behind on the desert to dry to cinders in the heat.

          My ‘collected’ books told me they *adore* their home life on shelves. They are treated with the utmost respect, kept immaculate, protected from any dangers, and admired by visitors. They are immortal, preserved, loved, and yes, read. But even if never opened for the print inside, other copies of a particular title have been read, and read, and read, and the one on my shelf is not keeping them from being read forever, if they survive.
          My books know they have a better chance of being here for readers in the next few centuries, than the ones you and your mentor are so passionate should be ‘passed along’.

          • I do appreciate all the thought you put into this Diane but I do think my mentor would be considered more of an anti-elitist – and my shops are stocked to serve the wants and needs of the “everyman/everywoman”, their families and the community at large. Robertson Davies was known as a social satirist so including that particular quote in my previous remarks was not apropos.

            Sometimes there is no culprit – just someone on the other side of the fence.

  4. George,
    I wasn’t indicating I thought there were culprits hidden in the books shelves. I simply found your distaste, and your mentor’s distaste rather insulting. And perhaps a little shortsighted.
    However, you never addressed my question regarding paperback returns–are you comfortable stripping covers for returns, thereby consigning the interior content to a dust bin? If so, I can hardly understand why some people keeping various titles on their shelves, should be considered ‘full of themselves’ and chased from a store. What are collectors doing that’s any different than throwing perfectly good books away?

    I’ve no idea what you sell customers, but I have a strong feeling it’s not for the masses as I know them, lol, ladies who like a little escape from their difficult lives by reading romance novels, office workers needing something for the subway so grab the latest thriller, and the Oprah fanatics, demanding her latest pick. My impression of your stock are classics, poetry, intermingled with intellectual meanderings. Which all have their place and needs to be read, but not usually picked up the the everyman out there, all the time.

    At any rate, you’re right, we have vastly different viewpoints, and no one is a villain, as long as neither one or the other is treated in a unpleasant manner just because of their opinion and book buying, using practices.

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