Always Been a Soft Touch

I am shallow when it comes to books, and buying most of mine used hasn’t compromised my pickiness; it has deepened it. The aesthetics of a cover, of a spine, of a novel’s typeface, are important to me. An ugly cover; a brutalized spine or floppy, grubby corners; a big USED PRICE sticker on the back, below the final blurb; too much marginal notation from a previous owner; a clunky font; whatever, and I’m out. Indeed, the terrible covers favored by Vintage Contemporaries in the 1980s (see examples here and here) have led me into a half-decade-long project of replacing my copies. (Poorish young people end up with these dated designs when people who used to be young and poorish upgrade.)

Regardless of how well-kept or aesthetically pleasing a book is, I don’t care for hardcovers. Besides costing too much, they take up more space in your bag; long experience as a student using public transit taught me to hate them. Moreover, they don’t turn up nearly as much in used-book stores. And there is also something earthier and more democratically authentic about paperbacks. I like their portability both on a personal level and a philosophical one. They pass through a lot of hands, they make many people happy, or at least divert them, until they end up on some dork collector’s bookshelf.

Pretty archaic, huh? Print media. Wow. What with all the Internet and the technology, it must be dying out, that format.

Granted, most of the Digital Natives in my college writing classes prefer printed texts to digital ones (over and over, despite their general addiction to screens, for class they want something they can highlight and underline with a pen), and, granted, nobody ever seems to adduce hard statistics to prove that digital formats are anywhere close to universally favored by the buying public, but nonetheless one of the contemporary West’s favorite narratives is that printed books can’t compete with e-books, which are just too slick and easy to get. Print is dying, people don’t read print anymore, print is too expensive, print is old-fashioned, and despite whatever your teacher with his/her graduate degree in the humanities might tell you, print is, you know, dying. Haven’t you seen any TED talks or read a Thomas Friedman column? Print is dead, y’all. Long live digital things.

Leaving aside that it is historically stupid to believe that some new Technology is going to ecstatically solve every tedious efficiency the world presents us with, and leaving aside the fact that this is true even though humans, as a tool-making species, are always coming up with new technologies (e.g., the wheel and antibiotics), there is another gigantic, flashing reason to be skeptical about the extinction narrative: the enormous companies that produce e-books profit enormously from convincing people that only e-books are worth buying nowadays.

Always be on the lookout for the percentage. In other words, ask who stands to make money off of some “inevitable” trend. It usually turns out that some large player (or more often, a small set of players) has an interest in playing up the supposed inevitability:

Gerry Donaghy, book buyer at the largest indie bookseller in the US, Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, says that the major publishers have a compelling reason to perpetuate a paperbacks-are-dying narrative, for one simple reason: because paperbacks are the most common books to be bought secondhand. “Publishers have a vested interest in keeping the e-book dominant—it allows them to control the ecosystem, because there are no used e-book sales,” Donaghy says. A paperback copy of, say, Eat Pray Love, can be sold and resold ad infinitum, thanks to Amazon and your local used book store. But for multiple people to read that same book on a Kindle or Nook, each of them has to buy it for $10.

Read the rest of the article here. Or read a summary here: “Paperbacks will survive in many prominent genres and only die out if enough consumers buy into the corporate publishing industry’s greedy bullshit.”

Used paperbacks are a desperately needed form of cultural continuity (all those texts passing through all those hands); in a purely material respect they are more varied and interesting than the latest e-book download; they don’t need batteries, and they aren’t scared of dust or the occasional blip of moisture; they are usually cheap. That final factor always helps me make up my mind.

If you love post-middle-class America, buy paperbacks, even if you buy them from . . . Amazon. But, figuratively speaking, fuck your Kindle.