Are Print Books Becoming Objets d’art?

In Discussion by Dennis Abrams

The survival of print books depends on producing physical books you want to own as well as read. One fine example: J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s bestseller “S.”

By Dennis Abrams

S by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

“S” by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst could not have been easily replicated as an ebook.

Writing for Salon, Daniel D’Addario makes the following proposition: “As ebooks strip down and physical books class up, there’s one reason left to buy the paper kind: beauty.”

D’Addario points out that the New York Times reported that the promise of ebooks has largely fallen by the proverbial wayside: “A format that had originally promised all manner of functionalities was now fairly restrained, similar to an actual book – goodbye, public comments on books, multimedia elements and hyperlinks! Hello potential embedded author autographs, just like the signed first edition on your shelf.”

But at the same time, while ebooks are “stripping down to the bare-bones of what is actually book-like,” he makes the case that physical books are becoming “more sumptuous and fetishistic.” Cases in point? J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S (Mulholland Books), a novel that uses margin notes and inserted notes to expand on the centerpiece story “Ship of Theseus,” a production that Joshua Rotan, writing for The New Yorker called “The best-looking book I’ve ever seen,” as well as acclaimed modern classic, Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Random House), a box containing 14 different sized booklets, pamphlets, and bound pieces, to be read in the order the reader chooses.

It is becoming a divide, but also, D’Addario believes, a possible future for the printed book as “a luxury object.” As usual, it comes down to economics. Because ebooks are so much cheaper to produce than physical books and therefore cost less, “there is no compelling reason for anyone with an iDevice or e-reader to spend more money for a paper copy of a book other than aesthetic pleasure.”

And, as he says, aesthetic pleasure is what books are all about. But since the market has dictated that all books be available digitally online, and since customers are becoming more and more accustomed to reading on screens and using e-readers, “if a book isn’t immersive and incredibly visual, is there much of a point in seeking out a paper copy?”

“There are,” according to D’Addardio,” two sorts of books, though the categorizations will change reader-to-reader. There is the book one simply wants to read, and the book one wants to own…Spending a premium on a paper book so that one can be seen on public transportation reading it or in one’s home having read it as a vanity one has every right to pursue. But it is a vanity.”

The success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (Hatchette Book Group) is a perfect example of this, “it’s precisely the sort of thing one wants as a totem in the home and is aesthetically splendid as well.” (The fact that with a list price of $30 it has been sold on Amazon for as little as $7.50 hasn’t hurt either.)

D’Addario concludes by noting that along with The Goldfinch, “Its companions on the print bestseller list include S, the Abrams compendium that simply cannot be conveyed via an ebook, as well as works by reliably best-selling authors like Tom Clancy, John Grisham, James Patterson, and Mitch Albom, authors whose books are sold at Wal-Mart. Other authors would be well-advised to embrace the ebook; given how few bells and whistles the e-book bears in its now-successful attempt to evoke the physical book, there’d be little more work involved.”

So tell us, are print books becoming objets ’art? Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.