There has been a growing divide, ever since the Kindle revolutionized the ebook market, between two types of book lovers. On the one side we have readers who rushed into ebooks because they saw the benefit of carrying a massive library in a few ounces, and on the other side we have book lovers who value the ephemeral details about a paper book (its feel, smell, and presence).
The divide has been likened to diners who value the act of eating versus those who like the presentation of a meal, but now Literary Hub has a new take on this topic.
Yahdon Israel thinks that lovers of hardcover books have much in common with vinyl record enthusiast:
That same night I went to the Strand and asked, out of pettiness, if they had another copy of On Michael Jackson. I wasn’t expecting them to have it, but I wanted to prove that what had happened with my Nook would never happen again. If they did have it, I would own two copies of the same book. Much to my surprise, I was handed a copy of the book that looked nothing like mine. Suddenly, I began to understand what music lovers must feel like when, after spending hours digging through crates at hole-in-the-wall record stores, they finally locate that 12” vinyl they never thought they’d find: I need this.
Of course, you could buy a record like that on iTunes, or stream it on Pandora, Tidal or Spotify, but it’s a deeply satisfying experience to hold something in your hands that you actually went to look for. To know that few people will ever appreciate what you went through to get what you now have. That’s how I felt holding that first edition hardcover copy of Margo Jefferson’s On Michael Jackson. I need this. More than need, I deserve this. Of course it was true that the paperback had the same text, the same revelations on the inside—but sometimes what’s on the outside matters too.
It mattered to me that the hardcover’s sleeve was white with embossed silver lettering I could feel with my fingertips. It mattered to me that, if I wanted to, I could remove the sleeve and I’d still see the grooves of that lettering—not on the cover, but on the spine. And it especially mattered to me that this was a first edition. I may have been late to the party, but I hadn’t missed it altogether. …
He may be a luddite, but he does have a point.
Israel expresses concern for what might go wrong should he read on his smartphone as well as having been outfoxed by the security on a Nook, but he’s not wrong when he compares hardcover books and vinyl records.
Vinyl is to mp3s what hardcover is to ebooks. The content is fundamentally the same in each pairing, but it also differs in that the physical medium introduces imperfections not found in the digital copy (nor wanted, in most cases).
And Israel is also right in that some paper book loverswax rhapsodic in much the same way that vinyl enthusiasts talk about an original historic record.
But he is also wrong on the point that many true music lovers also build mp3 collections with multiple versions of the same song (original release, re-release, concert master, etc). So rather than being fixated on the physical, many music lovers are focused on the content.
And then there’s the simple fact that hardback books still have far more uses than simply presenting the content, Screens are still comparatively expensive and impractical when you want to display multiple books at once, so a paper book still has practical value.
His analogy is imperfect, and that’s a good thing. Israel sees paper books as having little value other than for their physical quirks, and if that opinion spreads then hardcover sales would drop precipitously.
Would you really want to live in a world where paper books were relegated to the niche hobbyist market the relative size of vinyl records?
According to Pitchfork, vinyl accounted for around $416 million in music industry revenue in 2015, out of an estimated $7 billion (according to the RIAA). That’s the highest it’s been since 1988, and the revival is largely being driven by marketing-driven nostalgia.
It would be terrible for us all if paper books were reduced to the same status; we would no longer be able to simply go online, and find any random book we wanted. Instead, we would have to accept whatever terms publishers offered and pay the prices they want for the ebooks they choose to put on the market.
And the world would be the poorer for it.
image by acidpix