Friday, January 7, 2011
If you're a frequent reader of antiquarian book blogs, and also enjoy being consumed with righteous outrage, you should probably head right over to the New York Times and read this article on the rise of the books-as-decor industry. There you'll find harrowing tales of casual book lovers, the kind with plenty of money but no time to build their own collections, purchasing dozens - hundreds! - of volumes, some of them rather old and valuable, with little thought to serious book stewardship.
Rows of volumes sawed in half to fit a shelf! Entire collections thrown together solely for the color of their bindings! And let's not forget Restoration Hardware, selling stacks of old books bound together with twine as decorative objets.
As passionate book enthusiasts, we should be furious, right? After all, we're already battling the Kindle and Nook, devices that dare to leave the printed word floating in cyberspace, displayed on a cold screen and surrounded by buttons. Why, we appreciate the feel of a proper book in our hands - the pages fringed in yellow, the rich illustrations, the leather bindings, the appearance of a stately row of books on a shelf...
Which begs the question: In the age of Google Books, are we really all that different from those collectors in the Times? Pretty much any book is available somewhere online, most of them - particularly the old ones - for free. We might be buying our books individually, with an eye toward subject as well as binding, but in the end the goal for many of us is a great-looking library. You can't really frame the conflict in terms of readers vs. non-readers, either; there are plenty of proper book collectors who rarely sit down and open a tome at the beginning, and this very blog wouldn't exist without a lot of skimming and perusal, not to mention some heavy Google Books usage.
So what this is really about, if it's about anything at all, is preservation. It's easy to imagine a wealthy fashionista, bored with the enormous library of antique books she only recently purchased through a decorator, tossing them out when they no longer match the wallpaper. If those are only a bunch of Danielle Steele novels, newly bound in matching covers, it's no great loss - but anything rarer is a hard thought to bear. Fortunately, it's a pretty unlikely scenario, and the forces of the market tend to keep the most valuable tomes out of the hands of bulk buyers. So let's try to keep the positive aspects of this trend in perspective - people are excited about owning attractive books, finding interesting new ways to show them off, and maybe - just maybe - cracking one open occasionally.