The Book as Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction

For those of us who love the printed word, and tend to view each new sign of its decline in apocalyptic terms, Penelope Green’s article in the New York Times last month had a real Book of Revelations vibe.

Green’s piece describes a hot new trend in home design: filling vast interior spaces with “decorative book solutions.” Apparently, the rich and famous are now paying top dollar to have ritzy designers like Thatcher Wine – whose very name brings to mind some despicable Dickens villain – create custom-made “textual accents” for their Hampton villas and South Beach condominiums. Unlike traditional home libraries, most of these collections are not intended to be read. For one recent project, Mr. Wine wrapped 1,500 mass-market hardcovers – “titles by John Grisham and Danielle Steele” – in blank white paper, to be displayed in a condo’s spa room. His selections had nothing to do with literary taste: the books are simply “cheap, clean and a nice, generous size.”

To help us understand printed literature’s transformation into architectural accoutrement, Green refers us to marketing exec Ann Mack, who notes that “objectifying objects” is “a trend to watch.’” Explains Mack, “The more that objects become replaced by digital virtual counterparts — from records and books to photo albums and even cash — watch for people to fetishize the physical object.”

This, of course, is the great fear of Kindle-haters like me: that eBooks will turn printed books into the new vinyl records – curious relics of a bygone era, never used but only displayed with a hip retro irony. It seems obvious that once books become objects appreciated for their aesthetic rather than practical qualities – once form has been fully separated from function – once we all, like Ann Mack, “stack [our] books and turn them into legs for a coffee table” so we can “put [our] Kindle on top” – then the battle is over and book lovers have lost.

And yet, reading about Thatcher Wine’s wealthy, book-fetishizing clientele, I felt forced to confront an uncomfortable reality: my relationship with books isn’t really so different from theirs. My bedroom is lined floor to ceiling with volumes of fiction and history and philosophy and art. And sure, I plan to read all of them – but I haven’t yet.

Though I’d like to believe my passion for the printed word is the product of a deep-seated love of literature, the truth is I love my books as commodities; I objectify them as bedroom decor; I project myself onto them and hope that when people see them, what they will see is an intelligent young man.

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Since at least as far back as Martin Luther, reading has been a great equalizing force in Western society. With the invention of the printing press and the spread of books, literacy increased exponentially among the masses. And as the knowledge gap between aristocracy and peasantry narrowed, the potential for social mobility grew.

By a biased reckoning – namely, mine – the e-reader spits in the face of reading’s egalitarian tradition. The Kindle, a new and sleek-looking doodad, seems at first glance to be yet another commodity eagerly gobbled up by that loathsome late-capitalist creature: the soulless yuppie. One cannot help but picture handsome, clean, middle-aged white people pushing strollers around recently gentrified neighborhoods, Kindles poking out of their brightly colored tote bags as they saunter past local bookstores – which sit poised on the verge of financial ruin – and toward the nearest yoga studio slash organic tea emporium.

Yet this conception is misguided. E-readers have an undeniable populist appeal: Amazon sold over eight million Kindles last year (which is greater than the populations of Brentwood, Wicker Park, and Park Slope combined). In fact, Kindles and Nooks are relatively cheap and easy to use. Unlike physical books, they don’t take up valuable living space, or impede a transient lifestyle. And in an era where reading must compete with the distracting ubiquity of television, video games, and the Internet, there is evidence that e-readers are keeping books relevant for young people. Like the printing press, new e-reader technology has the potential to spur reading and increase knowledge for a whole new section of the population. Viewed in this context, an analog book obsession feels like stuffy, conservative snobbishness: anti-technology, anti-populist, anti-progress.

Physical books, meanwhile, have their own history of elitist trappings. Fetishizing printed volumes, which Ann Mack sees as a recent trend, has been going on since long before the arrival of the Kindle. For hundreds of years, books have been collected and catalogued obsessively by the pretentious, often pseudo-intellectual elite. This collecting has little to do with actual reading: books serve as an important marker of social status. Like the clothes you wear, the books you own can indicate varying levels of education, sophistication, and affluence. In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes a party scene in which one of Gatsby’s guests mocks the host’s impressive personal library:

“[The books are] absolutely real – have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard.”

After pulling a volume down from one of the shelves, he continues:

“See!… It’s a bona fide piece of printed matter. It fooled me… It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop too – didn’t cut the pages.”

This dig gets at the heart of Gatsby’s pretensions: he doesn’t care about being erudite but only about appearing erudite. Like Thatcher Wine’s clients, Gatsby’s books are not in fact meant to be read at all. They serve the same function as his beautiful suits and handsome car and monstrous mansion; they are commodities which show Gatsby to be a man of wealth and taste – a man of class.

To the Gatsbys of our age, the e-reader poses a threat. Unlike real books, e-Books are difficult to show off. Unless someone asks to see what’s on your Kindle, nobody is going to know what books you own. It becomes far more challenging to prove your erudition – unless of course you actually are well read.

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If old-fashioned books are status symbols, does that mean we should cheer their obsolescence? What, if anything, does the printed word still have left to offer us?

In 1936, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin observed: “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.” He noted that the uniqueness of a painting or sculpture – its specific history and tradition – gave it a power which was stripped from it by repeated reproduction.

But there’s a different kind of aura that mechanically reproduced books carry with them: not the aura of the words on their pages, but the aura of their reader. Although many copies exist of every printed book, each copy becomes unique once it’s really been read by someone – it has their markings and sweat and coffee stains all over it.

In a 2009 essay on the Kindle for the New Yorker, novelist Nicholson Baker notes that one of his biggest problems with digital books is their ephemeral nature:

“Kindle books aren’t transferrable. You can’t give them away or lend them or sell them. You can’t print them. They are closed clumps of digital code that only one purchaser can own. A copy of a Kindle book dies with its possessor.”

I can’t deny that part of my obsession with printed books is simply a materialist desire to own things. And I can’t fully escape my ingrained capitalist need to be defined by the things I own. At the same time, I do believe that physical books have value. Every good book – analog or digital – tells a story. But the former tells an additional story that the latter does not: it is a story of that book’s particular history; which is also a history of the person or people who have read it.

This quality of printed books – that their copies do not “die with their possessor” – has become especially important to me in the past few weeks. A very close friend of mine passed away. His name was Jim and he was a voracious reader. He first developed a love of literature during a particularly low period in his life. He was in prison, confined to solitary for a full month, and the only thing he managed to take with him was a copy of East of Eden. He read the whole thing cover to cover – and then he read it again. And again. And again. He would finish the last page and immediately turn back to the first. Reading that book, Jim said, he discovered beauty and truth such as he had not know before. Some people find these qualities in religion – my friend found them in literature. So he read East of Eden six consecutive times.

East of Eden – Jim’s Eden, his copy (which he actually ended up stealing from the prison library) – sits on my bookshelf today. It’s a complete disaster: binding taped; back cover ripped; edges smudged, stained, and frayed. The thing looks like trash. It’s unreadable. Yet the book is beautiful to me, because it contains evidence of all the truth and beauty that my friend found in its pages. Jim physically affected those pages just as they affected him; the interaction that took place between person and book still lives on in the latter.

Jim is gone. But the Eden on my shelf contains a narrative – one that’s related to but separate from the narrative Steinbeck wrote. It’s not “Jim’s story” – at the end of the day, people are not so easily defined by their possessions. But it is a story about Jim; and I am grateful to have it.

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Comments
15 Responses to “The Book as Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction”
  1. Steven Brent says:

    A very thoughtful and heartfelt post. But I think you’re worrying unnecessarily. All of the people I know who fancy outdated or moribund technologies and media have a genuine appreciation for these — in other words, it’s not always an ironic gesture or a badge of hipness to collect and listen to lp’s or to use a manual typewriter, to give a couple of examples. I’m speaking strictly of those in my demographic (40+), mind you; I don’t know what younger weirdos are up to. But I believe (without any evidence) that even the hipsterish distance affected by those who adopt these things as fashion do harbor a longing for more intimate connections with the physical world. Probably this is all a reaction to the increasing virtualization of not only services but goods. I love the hell out of my Kindle; it’s gotten me reading again — and I also treasure my printed books. It’s just that now the printed word is just one of many ways to read. The monopoly has been broken, and a whole new range of human expression has opened up. Those people who use fake books to decorate really are assholes though.

    • David Milton Brent says:

      I wonder about the generational difference here. It makes sense that for people who grew up reading books, the Kindle has become just another way to read – a new and exciting platform (if you read the Nicholson Baker piece linked in the post above, you’ll see this is basically the conclusion he reaches). But as e-Book sales begin to overtake print sales and physical books become scarcer, what will impel younger readers to consume printed material? Will they still “harbor a longing for more intimate connections with the physical world,” when they no longer have the nostalgic reference points that those of us who came of age in the analog era have?

      • Steven Brent says:

        As long as they have old weirdos from my generation (and yours, in turn) to foist our tastes upon them, books will not lose their allure completely. Think of how 60′s music nostalgia has persisted and will now outlive the Boomers — and that’s on the basis of probably less then 10 actually listenable albums!

  2. Erin says:

    You must read this New Republic article by Rochelle Gurstein. I’ve dined with her and I absolutely adore her. She really hits the nail on the head with this article. It’s very reminiscent of your own sentiments.

    All this to be lost for the sake of consumers who like the ease and efficiency of immaterial electronic “books”… But that is not all. The concrete, material presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them, we sometimes are pleased and other times shudder when we think of what a book meant to us then, what it has come to mean to us now, we are sometimes comforted to see the continuity of ourselves when we read our earlier marginalia, sometimes disconcerted by its now-alien quality…

    http://www.tnr.com/article/politics/75895/the-perils-progress

    • David Milton Brent says:

      Nice piece, thanks Erin. I love the Whitman excerpt on reading that Gurstein quotes:

      Who touches this touches a man,

      (Is it night? are we here together alone?)

      It is I you hold and who holds you,

      I spring from the pages into your arms—decease calls me

      forth. (Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

  3. Kids! Kids! Enough with the hand-wringing!
    Yes — there is a particular charm to the physical presence of the book, and David, your copy of East of Eden is a great example of the palimpsest quality the object can take on. But let’s be realistic: for many readers much of the time, the delivery method of the text is irrelevant. Or to use art-historical jargon, the device is “transparent to” the text. (That’s what mention of Benjamin gets you.)
    And there seems to be developing evidence that the e-reader is actually promoting reading among kids — granted, the class of kid whose parents can afford it.
    But think of the brave new world, even now in development, where the text can be garnished with interactivity in the e-book version. Check the Van Gogh Museum’s online edition of the artist’s letters, annotated not only in text but also with images, and imagine how rich that experience would be on an e-reader.
    Finally, my copy of “Leaves of Grass” resides on my phone. I downloaded it in the Long Beach CA airport, using the e-reading app called “Eucalyptus,” which delivers texts from the Gutenberg Project. Free.

    You really want to argue against free literature?

  4. David Milton Brent says:

    Point taken, Jonah: http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9187001/Forget_digital_tunes_analog_music_on_the_upswing

    I was unaware of this trend. It’s fascinating.

  5. David Milton Brent says:

    Although, to be fair: “vinyl albums represented just 1.2% of all physical album sales.”

    So let’s not get carried away just yet.

  6. Robert Peters says:

    This was beautiful and heartfelt. I love that you don’t vilify an Kindle User. Great article

  7. Robert Peters says:

    *A

  8. Kit says:

    Thanks David, I love this. (Especially the idea that “objectifying objects” is a trend. To watch.)

    Did you know that Benjamin was a book collector? Like, a fervent, crazed bibliomaniac? He has this great little piece called ” Unpacking My Library” (here’s some of it: http://www.idehist.uu.se/distans/ilmh/Ren/benj-bookcoll.htm). Benjamin reminisces about some of his best memories – happening upon lonely and abandoned books on shelves and “rescuing” them, buying them their freedom (to put them on his selves).
    Some favorite lines from old Walt:
    “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories”
    “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!”

    The idea of inheritance and transmissibility is really interesting, and it’s something I think a lot about with new technology — will we one day read collections of e-mails (or texts) between famous writers? Will our children inherit zip drives stocked with memories instead of discovering old shoeboxes of music and photographs? And, much has already been made of the eerie facebook profiles of the recently deceased with postings like “RIP girl xxxoo!”

    Speaking of Benjamin: Google art project! That stuff is crazy. (http://www.googleartproject.com/)

    You should write a book about this, purchase yourself a copy on a kindle, wrap the kindle in white paper, take a picture of it and… I don’t know, put it on your blog or something.

  9. Steven Brent says:

    One funny thing about the whole analog / physical vs digital / virtual dichotomy is that in a very real, materialistic sense, it’s meaningless and arbitrary. As everyone has more or less agreed here, the difference is at the experiential level. And as the barrenness of older digital technologies gives way to full-body, multisensual (is that even a word?) media, music, books, and other media will be far more tangible than they could ever have been in their previous forms.

  10. Brian says:

    David,
    Great piece. For me, it highlighted the interesting space that e-books occupy in the noisy debate about the effect of information technology on how we think and what we value. For someone who clearly loves the printed page, you give the Kindle a good bit of credit, but I still think you’re selling innovation a little short. There are many, many people out there who feel the way you do about real books, even among us Millenials, and so the Kindle’s successors are bound to incorporate more of the things that you love about real books. Consider the not-so-far-fetched capacity to use a stylus to underline and annotate (in your own handwriting), as well as the ability to add “sticky notes” or “dog-ears” near beloved passages (you may already be able to do this, but I don’t think so). The next-generation reader could save your personal touches, and perhaps a “used” e-book market would spring up to take care of the single-generation problem you raise. I grant you that these features aren’t the same as feeling a page worn by weather and beverages and finger oils. However, I think it makes more sense to imagine technology continuing to adapt to suit our needs, rather than preserving a grim and outdated picture of humanity having to cope with technology’s limitations.

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