I work in a library.
I have worked in the same library for my entire college career. Therefore, it should surprise no one that I know this library pretty darn well. I even know the parts you hardly ever see: the collections room, the smells of the staff kitchen, and the gorgeous, rolling shelves of journals tucked away downstairs. Additionally, as a Research Assistant, it is in my job description to know exactly where to look for certain topics and, after 4 years of assisting students with the many of the same class projects semester after semester, I hardly have to think twice about it.
I know where the Tolkien shelf is located. Every time I go upstairs, my eyes flick up to the top shelf where a particularly bright purple spine catches my eye. It’s a biography on Mary, Queen of Scots. I’ve never gotten around to reading this particular volume, but for four years it has pricked my peripherals every time I pass whether alone or guiding a patron through the shelves.
The physicality of books has always been of interest to librarians, Romantics, and bibliophiles. It is an especially interesting topic in the “age of e-readers.” But is it the age of e-readers at all? Or do physical book actually hold more of a lure than ever before in a world of 1’s and 0’s?
“The majority of book Instagrammers I have come across are devoted readers. They’re often funding their reading habits on their own and running their blogs and accounts on the side.”
Bookstagram is the term of endearment for creators who post bookish content on Instagram. In an interview by Forbes, bookstagammer Hannah Doan Williams of Book Nerd Native says: “The majority of book instagrammers I have come across are devoted readers. They do this because they love books and unlike their “influencer” counterparts in the fashion and wellness spaces, they’re not getting paid big bucks by brands with deep pockets. Sometimes they’ll get an early review copy of a book, but they’re often funding their reading habits on their own and running their blogs and accounts on the side.”
Based on this testimony, it would seem like the love of books isn’t going anywhere after all. Another article, this one by the Guardian, boldly states in the title “How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’.” In this, they give readers the numbers: “figures published today by the Publishing Association show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17%, while sales of physical books are up 8%. Consumer spending on books was up £89m [over $125M in US dollars] across the board last year, compared with 2015.”
So what is it that has caused this unexpected turn of events? In an age of easily accessible digital information, what lure do books have in their limited, physical format?
Actually, that might be the answer right there.
E-books are as easy as Google. They’re fast and everyone can access the same thing, the same quality. And for those reasons, maybe they’ve lost their uniqueness. E-readers have lost the sense of novelty that accompanied their explosion beginning in 2012 and, frankly, they don’t look as good on camera. In an age where everything is at your fingertips, a unique bookish find is an adventure itself before you ever read its words.
In ancient days, only the most important works were recorded on pieces of rare and expensive paper and only the most valuable of those were Illuminated. Illumination was the art of decorating written works with gold leafing, powders, and other rich paints. These illuminations were at first limited to initial capital letters and the margins of works. However, later, the craft became increasingly blurred with that of illustration the purpose of which is not purely artistic. The relevant images are meant to assist in storytelling.
Illuminated manuscripts were expensive and precious items in the Middle Ages, and are even more so today as displays in museums across the world.
What the illuminators chose to highlight through their art gives us valuable insight into their cultures. What do our books say about us?
When I think back on the books I read growing up in the early 2000’s, none of them stick out in my head as having particularly interesting design elements to them. No one was all that interested in new editions or matching sets or hardcover vs. paperback. At least in my experience and the experiences of those friends I talked to before writing this post, in our growing up years there were really just two formats for books: heavy, clunk hardcovers, and paperbacks with broken spines.
But not today.
One need only spend five minutes under the “bookstagram” hashtag to see the explosion of design happening in the world of books. Endpages. Spines. Books meant to be read sideways or upside down. Shiny books. Soft books. Cloth-bound books. Embossing. Hidden surprises under the dust jackets displayed under the hashtag #nakedbooks. Sprayed and textured edges. Classics are being gifted sleek, new designs. The typography! Book subscription boxes like Owlcrate now send out novels wearing exclusive covers crafted just for their subscribers – never available in stores. And so bookstagrammers post more beautiful images of these books-turned-art-objects and publishers push for more creative designs and authors explore new formats for storytelling and so the cycle continues to spiral.
That same Forbes article I mentioned earlier also discusses how the visual online community may help in the actual selling of books.
“Bookstagrammers help in that they get images of your book cover out there (and they make them look so pretty!), and readers need to see a book a couple of times, in a couple of different places, before they are inclined to buy it. According to the marketing Rule of 7, a consumer needs to be touched seven times before they commit to buying a product,” explained author Brenda Janowitz whose latest novel, The Dinner Party, was released last year. “Bookstagrammers give that to authors, showcasing their work multiple times” (Forbes).
“Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books.”
“All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it” (The Guardian).
On a personal note, I love my kindle. When commuting back and forth to school every day, it’s a lot easier to throw that into my backpack than a heavy book (and since I mostly read long, fantasy books, this is a frequent problem.) However, I also adore this new age of books as beautiful art objects. Stories like the Illuminae Files (a scifi adventure told through a dossier of security camera logs, texts, emails, and other tech) would never have been told without this renewed exploration into the beauty of physical books.
Beyond this, however, I believe that there is a deeper reasoning for this return to the physicality of books. In fact, I believe it has traveled beyond books into other areas of our culture.
Social connectedness, nostalgia, and vintage are all key terms brands use to target Millennials whether the product is books or anything else. Millennials are, for the most part, under no delusions about the influence of technology and major corporations on the world. Having grown up in a world of smartphones, and widespread access to a world of information online, they are well aware of the ways they are being marketed to on every platform they engage with. Their parents were the ones who initially brought the first iPods, after all, back when Millennials were too young to even begin guess how much those young, new tech companies were about to change the world. Today, researchers suggest that this influx of everything “new” and “digital” is the very reason Millennials are so interested in the past. Our parents bought the first Kindles. And so, just like every generation before us, Millennials are looking for something different than what they grew up with.
The Boston Globe tells the story of “Generation Yawn,” which they describe as “a contingent of young, urban women (mostly), whose behavior is more reminiscent of their grandmothers’ — or great grandmothers’ — than their Gen X predecessors” (The Boston Globe).
They suggest that for a generation that is constantly surrounded by information and has been since birth when it was their parent buying in on everything new and chrome, the invitation to slow down through the use of vinyls over digital music, slow cooking over premade meals, and dinner parties over clubbing feels like an escape even when the “nostalgia” is actually heavily marketed.
“I think a lot of this is a reaction to the hyper-capitalist, speed-up 21st century,” says Emily Matchar, author of “Homeward Bound: Why Women Embrace the New Domesticity.” “I think the pendulum swings back and forth when it comes to what’s fashionable. What our parents liked is uncool, what our grandparents did is cool” (The Boston Globe)
The theory is that this swinging pendulum was given an extra push by the 2008 economic crash which happened just as older Millennials were coming of age and the youngest millennials were between 12 and 15 depending on how you divide the generations. The need to DIY was a less-extreme echo of the same movement that happened after the Great Depression following the technological, economic, and social boom of the Roaring 20’s. In hindsight, it’s remarkable how many of the same assumptions about credit and the economy were made in the 20’s and the early 2000’s, and how both led to some kind of crash, and how the generation that came of age during those crashes grew up very aware of money and the value of frugality. It is also worth mentioning how easily anything vintage/nostalgia/old school lends its classic beauty to Instagram photos and long text posts about slowing down and the popular discussion around self-care and soul-care.
From music, to food, to furniture, to clothing, to the way we do church, this “Generation Yawn” lifestyle is affecting every aspect of culture you can think of.
This includes, of course, books.
Associate Director of the NYArtbookFair, Max Schumann, “describes observing an new generation of artists interested in the book, as well as learning analogue print techniques such as letterpress and Risograph printing. He links this return to craft and physical book production to a disillusionment with digital media, which is commercially driven” (The Conversation).
Taking in all of this information regarding books, regarding culture, regarding marketing… where then do physicality and nostalgia find a place in the digital age? Is it truly a return to those old-school values long term, or will the children born by Millennials be more interested in sleek, new tech than ever before? Will Kindles make a resurgence? What can publishers expect from this new generation and what new formats will we use to continue telling stories?
I don’t have answers to these questions.
What I DO know is this: My fiance knows that when I’m upset or stressed, one of the best things to do is to take me out to a bookstore and let me wander for awhile, or to hand me my knitting needles, or spend time preparing a meal together. There is something comforting in that which is handmade and crafted to provide lasting nourishment for the body, mind, and soul.
There is, as every book lover knows, something magical about the smell of an old book – history’s perfume – or the way the heaviness of paper hushes a space like snow in the morning.
There is also beauty in the availability of digital books to connect readers and authors from all over the world and to expose us to stories we never would have encountered otherwise. I have learned so much thanks to authors whose books are not available in physical bookstores either because shelf space is expensive and they are independent, or they have not been picked up by an American publisher.
I don’t know if Instagram is “the new Oprah’s book club” (Vogue). But I do know it has thrown open the doors of the literary world and made me more aware of the value of slowing down in a world that audibly hums with business. To those lessons, I will give a respectful nod and say ”carry on.”