So we are supposed to judge the covers…

I recently stumbled across an interesting article in the New York Times.  I’ve lately been interested in the ongoing print vs. electronic debate in the book world, and this article offered an interesting answer to the question:

One line in particular stuck out.  “If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading.”  There are pictures in the article of books with beautiful, embossed covers, gilded pages, tasseled bookmarks.  It’s true that many of these features might make a book a beautiful addition to your shelf or coffee table.  However, for now at least, it doesn’t seem that many people take their decorator to the bookstore and pick up the latest Stephen King because their den needs some more color.  It seems to me that the pleasures of owning are intertwined with the pleasures of reading. 

Working on a paper the other night, I found myself on the floor of the library, going through volume after volume of the beautiful 1903 Library Edition of the Works of Ruskin, and I have to say that the deckled edges and thick, high quality paper made the experience infinitely more enjoyable.  I know the same thing goes for my books at home.  My “pleasures of owning” don’t come from the books’ physical beauty, but more from the way their appearance correlates with my memory of reading them.  I have a beautiful edition of Pride & Prejudice and I admit I liked it  better than my dog-eared paper back.  I like it better not just because it looks nicer on the shelf, but because the sky blue cloth cover covered in burnt red curling script makes me feel a little more Jane Austenian, a little more Lizzie Bennet curled up in a tree, when I read it.  

You’ll note that the picture at the very top of the page shows Jay-Z signing his intricate memoir.  Not having read Decoded I can’t comment on it or how it compares to the rest of the celebrity memoir wave, but it is interesting to see how gorgeous editions are no longer reserved for the classics.  I only hope that publishers are realizing that while we can judge books, and maybe buy them, by their covers, content will never cease to be important. 


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4 Responses to So we are supposed to judge the covers…

  1. rod smith says:

    I hope you get to see someday in Dublin THE BOOK OF KELLS and THE BOOK OF DURROW. They’re extreme examples of book beauty whose loss would leave our culture poorer (but, God forbid, maybe “cooler”). I have a suspicion even a Kardashian would recognize the shine that rises when an artifact captures (or just echoes) the threshold where our world meets The Other.

  2. Jon Salm says:

    I think this is a great point. In a world where everything is becoming digital, publishers need to give consumers a reason to continue buying physical, tangible books. This mirrors how vinyl records have been making a comeback in recent years as music distribution has gone mostly digital. While the numbers of vinyls purchased this year pales in comparison to its heyday in the 70’s and 80’s (See, it has risen in recent years. Premium books can be seen in the same way.

  3. kingp12 says:

    Chloe, this is a great article, and I love your synopsis of it (even though I know Professor Smith might not like it when we agree so much). It’s ironic that even with the enormous advancement in technology we are experiencing, and with the tremendous uncertainty as to the future of the book, we are, at the same time, experiencing a return to what the experience of owning and reading books used to be. The ability to hold a book in-hand does something to the memory of the book-reading experience as a whole. The distinctive feel of each individual book—the thickness, the texture of the pages, the size and shape of the font, even the scent of it—creates the literary recollection. Each individual book is a snapshot of that experience, just as a certain meal or a recognizable aroma might arouse the memory. External sensations should not be dismissed in the consideration of pleasure reading.

  4. Isabella Martin says:

    Like Jon, I also noticed the parallels between printed books and vinyl records. Vinyl has been really dressed up as well. It’s pressed in color, or swirls of color, accompanied by extra content, sometimes even one-of-a-kind artwork by the musicians. This has, at least for me, been fairly successful. I’m willing to shell out twenty dollars for an album if I’ve been promised extra content like artwork and free digital downloads. Books I think are a little different. It seems odd to me that so many people would be willing to pay so much more for a fancy book that they have never read. A lot of folks I know would only buy a dressed up version of a book if it were a special edition of something they already loved. If not, they’re more likely to head to the library.

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