Books, the idea: “Mere decoration”?

Posted by Rob Walker on June 3, 2010
Posted Under: The Designed Life

Former books "liberated," but still bookylikeish. Click for more.

“Are books on their way to being mere decoration?” asks the headline of this Sacramento Bee article. That of course is a running theme of this series. The article starts out by noting the item above, Antique Coverless Book Bundles, whose attraction is described by Restoration Hardware like so: “Liberated from their covers, stitched and bound with jute twine, the foxed and faded pages of old books become obj√™ts d’art.” Books, or the suggestion of books in a book-derived object, “really do harken back to an older time,” a spokesman for the retailer tells the Bee. “These add texture to a room; they add a sense of age to the room.”

Yes, a sense of age. This is another example of the book as raw material — though in this case not for artists, but on a mass-retail scale. Anyway, the Bee writer, Gina Kim, pivots:

Is this it, the epilogue? As the Kindle, iPad and other e-readers become increasingly popular in the digital age, dog-eared books are no longer simply a tool for transporting literary works. They’ve become decoration.

Surely books have served as decoration long before the Kindle and iPad appeared, but the point is related to my interest in the way the e-book limits what I guess I’ll call the signaling function of physical books: In an e-book future, might we dream up rationales for keeping physical and displayable books around us, filling or fascinating shelves, furnishing our rooms? Kim again:
Electronic chapters and verses can’t be displayed on bookshelves. So people are turning toward companies like Juniper Books and Half Price Books, which sell literature by the yard with the promise that multiple copies of the same book will not be in their shipments.

“What’s interesting to me is in spite of what everyone says about the death of books, people still care to show off that they own books,” said Edward Tenner, a research affiliate at Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

The best quote in the piece is this hilariously blunt assessment from a librarian in Rhode Island, describing the antecedents for display-only bookage: 19th Century mass-produced collected-works sets that added (“a sense of”) classy erudition to their owners’ homes:

You’re Joe Blow in the late 19th century America and you want a library like Lord So-And-So has but you don’t have the wherewithal to collect books and put them in their own bindings. So you buy the works of Washington Irving in sets. Did you read these books? One hopes, but generally speaking, they’re window dressing.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page. Tags:

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