Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Physical Book as Fetish Object

Don Share tweeted this excerpt from a longer piece about Andrew Wylie: “We spend 96 percent of our time talking about 4 percent of the business.” Wylie is talking about the current share of the market held by e-books. But it’s the statement which followed which interested me more.

“That 4 percent will climb slowly, and I think it will grow first for frontlist,” he continues. “I suspect that the trashier the book, the more likely it is to be converted to an e-book. You don’t have a desire to save James Patterson in your library. Those who want to keep a book for a long time will buy a physical book.”

This is a bit of a variation on an old (by internet standards) argument, namely that e-books are inferior by their very e-nature to print books. There’s something inherently better, I often read, about the print book, the smell, the feel, the physical act of page turning rather than brushing a finger across a screen. And I have no doubt that these objections to e-readers come from an honest place. But I can’t agree, and I’m going to use a relatively recent group of technology changes as an analogy to illustrate why.

Look at the way we access recorded music today as opposed to 10, 20, 30 years ago. 30 years ago, when I was nearly 12 and first starting to have actual opinions on music, vinyl was the medium of choice for most people. Audiophiles had their reel-to-reel tape players, but a good turntable was a must. Your other options were 8-Track tape; cassettes were just emerging, really, and besides, their sound quality was never their greatest feature. Vinyl was where it was at.

Within five years, CDs were starting to make significant inroads, and the debate was a hot one. Many people swore they’d never give up their vinyl–I was in high school and couldn’t afford to repurchase my vinyl collection in CD format (I couldn’t even afford to buy a CD player for another 7 or 8 years)–and there were major disagreements over the quality of the sound. Vinyl was richer and warmer, the vinyl experience was a fuller one, no one will trade that in for the harsher sound of the CD. They were wrong, in part because the people who weren’t locked into a particular technology, who’d gotten used to the portability of cassettes, and who were looking for more convenient ways to consume their media didn’t have the same emotional connection to the medium their predecessors did. And who buys LP albums now? Collectors and deejays, as far as I can tell–not too many other people.

I see a similar debate over e-books, and I think it’s going to end the same way, with physical books becoming something of a curiosity to most. If I were fifteen years old right now, and just starting to purchase my own books, I wouldn’t be looking at physical books. They’re bulky and they’re inconvenient and they’re fragile, just like vinyl was to me when I was 15. CDs were slimmer, were sturdier, were more portable, and .mp3’s were all that and more.

If I could afford to replace my current book collection with e-books (assuming everything I have was available in e-formats), I’d do it for two major reasons: 1) to free up space and make moving easier and 2) to make it easier to decide what reading to bring with me when I travel. In the long run, convenience and accessibility is going to trump whatever emotional connection I have to the format.

And what’s more, a generation is growing up right now which will never, for the most part, form that emotional connection with the physical object. Kids born in the next five years will, I predict, learn to read on an e-reader of some kind. Paper books will be curiosities to them, a throwback to an earlier age. They will become a sign of retro cool, will provide hipster cred, will move more into the realm of high art. Just as there are music snobs to this day who hold tight to their convictions about the superiority of the vinyl LP listening experience, there will be those who fetishize the paper reading experience, but they’ll be a small part of the population, and fewer publishers will produce work for that market.

And that’s not a bad thing for either group, I’d say. My early reading explorations would have been far different if I’d had access to more than what was available at the Slidell Public Library or the local bookstores. And if you’re a book artist, then making books rarer can help increase your profile, I would think. There are opportunities here for lots of people.


June 28, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Also, the more you move, the more you travel, the more mobile your life, the less practical paper books are. With a population that’s always “moving” in one way or another, the failure to invent ebooks would mean nobody reads books. Inventing ebooks means it becomes a possibility. Better, I expect we’ll see the ebook experience become something much more than an electronic imitation of page-turning. Ebooks will have the power, by virtue of the “e” to do things with graphics and sound that paper books (outside of Harry Potter land) could not. That’s the future.

    Comment by amy | June 28, 2010 | Reply

  2. The vinyl lp has two important virtues: warmth of sound that cannot be equaled by digital formats, sucking as they do natural ambient sound out of the recording and putting undue strain on the eardrums, and the popularization in the 1960s of the prolonged dance track, most resembling live performance, into play. It also heralded the idea of album as complete work.

    The compact disc, extended the idea of an album being a conceptual work of its own, rather than merely a collection of shorter singles, and it lengthened the format of singly recorded pieces, extending track times, allowing for a single piece of collected music to play without the player having every so often get up and turn the disc over to get the complete piece of work. The sixty to seventy minute cd has a far more lasting and impressionistic effect on the listener than lps with their 12-24 minute sides.

    The rise of mp3, digital media, has one advantage beyond storage, it allows the consumer the ability to cherry pick music, thus encouraging that an artist when putting out a collection make certain that all of the work is of equal quality. However, it heralds the end of the album as piece of conceptual work, limits the production of extended tracks, for who would sell a twelve to twenty minute minute piece for the same price as a five minute ditty, and the digital recording techniques, already in play with compact discs, layering tracks one at a time, precluding whole ensemble recording for all but the wealthiest of artists, have been written in stone, music as collage replacing real time performance.

    So I find it hard to analogize about this, except from the standpoints of storage and consumer convenience and secondary personal aesthetics insofar as how this revolution in media device will affect the actual product the way in which musical media has done so.

    Comment by CitizenE | June 28, 2010 | Reply

  3. When talking about music, one thing I thought I would miss about CDs are liner notes. I got to tell you, I don’t miss them one bit. Digital conveniences eventually overcome nostalgia. Speaking of nostalgia, imagine an eyearbook. What would you sign and how?

    Comment by Desmond LaVelle | June 28, 2010 | Reply

    • For contemporary collections of music this may be so, though I think that liner notes written by serious critics do have historical value later on, witness the liner notes from jazz albums during the 1960s, and in my case because I am interested in compilations of music by musicians from previous eras and outside the United States, I find the art table photography and writing documenting the artists’ work, biographies, their evolution, critical reception, and so on, invariably interesting and well worth the extra investment. But then, I sometimes write about music, so some of that is resource material I can make use of.

      Comment by CitizenE | June 28, 2010 | Reply

  4. Isn’t that what Facebook is? An e-yearbook that constantly updates?

    Comment by Brian | June 28, 2010 | Reply

  5. Some day people will say that the air you breathe in the under-ground shelters we will live in is as good or better than the natural outdoor air we used to breathe. Some day people will say that the indoor lighting in the shelters are better than Sun because the Sun is bad for you. They’ll say that the radiation resistance rubberized metal suits we will wear when we do venture outside are better than the old-fashioned cotton clothes we used to wear. I prefer air, sun, listening to music that is not compressed digitized bytes of information, and books which you hold in your hand and read page by page. That’s just me..If you’re still in to vinyl check out . We’re trying to keep the vinyl around for you.

    Comment by Roger Raffee | June 29, 2010 | Reply

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