Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Are e-books and unread, leatherbound classics the way of the future?

Anyone who knows me knows that I have two homes: the house I own and the local Barnes & Noble. It has comfy chairs, books to peruse, coffee, and is a place with clean enough floors that my one-year-old daughter can crawl around and explore without too much cause for worry.

Over the last few years, more and more of the space inside the store has been devoted to selling the Nook, Barnes & Noble's e-reader. Now, to get to the books or the coffee, one must pass through a phalanx of Apple Store-esque displays and proselytizing employees urging you to join the e-reader revolution. At first, I thought this was odd; it seemed like a bookstore would want people to buy books, after all. It seemed akin to attending a movie theater where employees at the box office urge you to go home and start a Netflix account instead of purchasing a ticket.

Of course, Barnes & Noble would not be pushing the Nook if it didn't see big profits in the future. Selling physical books at physical locations costs much more than selling a digital download, and with e-reader prices not significantly lower than that of physical books that translates to much more profit. As far as the Barnes & Noble is concerned, they would love it if the stores merely served as showrooms where visitors could browse and select which e-books to download, and that is direction they are trying to steer their customers.

Although I understand their logic, I think the chain is shooting themselves in the foot. Barnes & Noble hopes that visitors will wander the aisles, Nook in hand, and download whatever catches their eye using the complimentary Wi-fi. The problem is that people can just as easily wander the aisles, Kindle in hand, and download the same product, often for less, from or other competitors. Amazon, unlike Barnes & Noble, maintains no physical retail locations and can usually cut costs a little more and still reap huge profits. And for public domain books, free pdf's proliferate the Internet. How many copies of "Pride and Prejudice" or "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" do Barnes & Noble stores sell each year? Probably a lot. How many will they sell after everyone moves to e-readers, and can find a free download at Project Gutenberg?

The other potential downside of e-readers, from the sellers' standpoint, is the increased potential for piracy. As e-readers become more ubiquitous (as I'm sure they will, despite the grumblings of Luddites like myself), the publishing industry will have to face more and more of the problems that have plagued the music and entertainment industry ever since Napster came along. When the last Dan Brown novel came out a couple of years ago, its publisher proudly proclaimed that a new era of publishing had been entered because it sold more e-books than hardcover copies. What they weren't keen to publicize was the fact that within 24 hours of the book's release over 100,000 pirated copies had been downloaded for free. Despite whatever encryption they offer or how many people are prosecuted, there will always be ways to download a free copy of the latest bestseller.

Personally, I'm not going to be purchasing an e-reader anytime soon for reasons that are hardly unique. Like many bibliophiles out there, I love the feel of a book, the tactile quality of turning the pages and feeling the weight shift as I get closer to the end. I love the ability to scan ahead a few pages and know how much of a chapter I have left. For non-fiction books, I am an obsessive underliner and note-taker.

Most of all, I like having books on my shelf. This may be shallow of me, but I love having a collection of physical objects on display representing the various texts I have consumed. I love being able to scan across the titles and fondly recall my favorite books. I love being able to take an old favorite down from the shelf and flip through it, briefly reliving the experience of reading it before putting it back. And the OCD part of me loves organizing the books. Filmmaker and bibliophile Guillermo del Toro, in an absolutely fantastic lecture posted to youtube, summed up this impulse best: "We are animalistic creatures," he said. "We need talismans." Del Toro actually built a separate house just for his books (going into debt to do so), with seven libraries in seven rooms. "I'm a very, very organized hoarder," he explains.

Del Toro's library. As much as I love Barnes & Noble, I would rather hang out here.

Barnes & Noble, I think, is attempting to appease the talismanic nature of their e-book customers by ramping up their selection of "collectible" books. These include table after table of coffee table books, all on sale at bargain prices, as well as the Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classics Series. These leatherbound classics are all very attractive and look the way a 'classic' should- and that's what they're designed to do. And that's all they're designed to do.

I've paged through some of these books. The bindings, attractive as they are, actually make for rather difficult reading. Most of these are fairly thick books (which makes them feel more important), and the bindings are not very flexible which makes reading pages towards the middle quite uncomfortable. The pages are stiff with gilt edges and do not turn very easily. To get a comparison with other leatherbound books, I walked over to the Bible section and paged through some of the deluxe leatherbound Bibles. The Bibles were all quite comfortable to page through. They were meant to be read and used.

The Leatherbound Classics, on the other hand, are not intended for reading (or so I've concluded). They are intended to look good on a shelf. These editions call to mind Mark Twain's saying, "A classic is a book which everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

A true Jane Austen fan would rather have their own, easily readable copy of Pride and Prejudice than have to find it wedged in the middle of a stiffly-bound leather collection of seven Austen novels. However, someone who just read Pride and Prejudice on their e-reader and loved it so much that they want something to show for it might be interested in a leatherbound classic. They don't need to ever read it (that's what the e-reader is for) but there it is, on the shelf in its leatherbound glory, proudly proclaiming, "Why yes, I do enjoy reading Jane Austen. So much so, in fact, that some dog-eared paperback from high school English class just won't do. I admire Austen enough to purchase a collection bound in handsome Italian bonded-leather adorned with decorative endpapers, a ribbon marker, and other features which make this collectible edition a perfect gift or addition to any home library."

"I'm important. I have many leatherbound books, and my apartment smells of rich mahogany."

Similarly, for anyone interested in reading Shakespeare, Barnes & Noble has all of the plays available in very readable editions. According to their website, "Each edition provides new scholarship with an introduction, essays on Shakespeare's England and language, unusually full and informative notes, essays on Shakespearean theaters and significant performances, an interdisciplinary look at the work's influence on other arts, and an annotated bibliography for further reading." As fancy as that sounds, these are hardly the footnote-fattened tomes of the scholarly Arden editions; just basic editions of the plays with the sort of notes and preface you'd expect to find in any edition for modern readers. After all, its nice to have a footnote or two when reading a 400 year-old play, being as words like "fardel" and "bodkin" aren't heard as often these days.

However, if you are less interested in reading Shakespeare than in having Shakespeare attractively displayed on a shelf, then the Barnes & Noble Leatherbound Classic Series Complete Works of William Shakespeare is for you. This handsome edition features no footnotes, essays or prefaces, but that's no matter as its unlikely anyone will be reading it. That's what the paperback and e-book editions are for. The leatherbound edition is there to proudly proclaim, "Yes, I value Shakespeare enough to have a suitably noble edition on my shelf. Not just copies of his more popular plays, mind you, but his complete works, for those times when I might want to read The Phoenix and the Turtle, Timon of Athens or all three parts of Henry VI."

If I had to guess which of the leatherbound books were the least read, I would put money on either Gray's Anatomy or The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: A Tribute of the Nations. Gray's Anatomy has been through 40 different revisions and editions since its initial publication, but Barnes & Noble's leatherbound version is the original 1858 text. Therefore, it is definitely not for medical study, as the surgical field has advanced quite a bit in the last 150 years. It is, however a book of interest to students of medical history as well as artists (owing to the evocative quality of its creepy engravings). I'm guessing, though, that most who buy this particular edition just want to appear well-educated. Likewise, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, an 1867 compilation of speeches given by various world leaders commemorating the life of Lincoln, may be a must-own for the most die-hard Lincoln fans but is probably low on the list of Lincoln books that might interest a casual reader. But it sure looks good on a shelf, especially beside Dante's The Divine Comedy or Homer's Iliad (both without footnotes, of course). 

Of course, stacking your shelves purely with this sort of book makes it a little obvious that you're just trying to impress. For those who want to start a leatherbound classics collection but want to avoid appearing pretentious, Barnes & Noble has recently started incorporating more populist titles in the series. Some examples include The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglass Adams, Jurassic Park/The Lost World by Michael Crichton and Wicked/Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire. 

Mark my words, this is next.

Having a leatherbound edition of an airplane read like Jurassic Park makes the idea that one actually reads the gilt tomes on display seem even more probable. And I'm sure anyone who buys it has read the book- years ago, in a $6.99 paperback. The collectible Jurassic Park/Lost World exists to justify the unopened copy of Wuthering Heights sitting next to it. "Look how well-rounded my tastes are!" it proclaims.

Lest I come off as sounding too negative about the Leatherbound series, let me be the first to say that I fully understand the appeal. I have often been tempted to purchase the leatherbound editions of The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe since it seems so perfectly Gothic; and Grimm's Fairy Tales, since it reminds me of the books that you see being opened at the beginning of old Disney films. And I understand the desire to own a collectible edition of a favorite book, even if you never actually read that particular copy. For example, my wife and I are huge Agatha Christie fans, and have purchased several antique first editions as tokens of our fandom, which sit proudly on a display shelf, quite separate from our tower of well-worn Christie paperbacks.

I am also fully aware that this is hardly a new phenomenon. It is a tradition as old as books themselves. As books were expensive to produce, and with education being reserved for the upper-classes, books initially were quite the status symbol. I'm sure early book-buying involved a great deal of showing off.

The illuminated manuscript was the medieval way of saying, "My Bible is classier than yours."

As we get into to the modern era, books became cheaper at the same time as social classes more malleable, and affordable yet classy-looking leatherbound books became a great way of asserting one's societal aspirations. This perhaps reached its zenith with book clubs such as The Franklin Library, where subscribers were sent a new book every month from a series such as The 100 Greatest Books Ever Written.

The Franklin Library: the only reason your Grandma owns a deluxe edition of Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. 

I'm not against leatherbound books, nor even e-books. I am merely pointing out the trend I have noticed: that the more big booksellers hype e-readers the more they push "collectible" editions of books as well. The consumer is being increasingly pushed towards the dichotomy of the convenient-yet-intangible (e-books) and the tangible-yet-inconvenient (collectible books). I don't think that either will ever entirely replace the sort of tangible-and-convenient book that lines my shelves, but I do worry that the sort of book I love will become less and less available. The more e-books that are sold, the less cheap paperbacks will be printed. And the more collectible tomes that are printed, the fewer modest hardcovers will be available. As a stick-in-the-mud old-fashioned bibliophile, I find this cause for concern.

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