Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2014 Issue

Are Books Really “Dead?”

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Bookshelf Porn.

It is conventional wisdom these days that books are dead. By books, I refer to the printed version, not the electronic impulses that constitute the books you read on your Kindle or iPad. It is those copies made from paper and ink that are “dead.” Didn't sales of the electronic versions soar past those of the traditional ones at the world's largest bookseller, Amazon, long ago? Haven't traditional retail bookshops mostly disappeared from the landscape? Once conventional wisdom has placed its judgment upon you, there is nothing left to do but say goodbye.

 

And yet... Today we see a number of new high-volume sellers specializing in “books by the foot” or “books by the pound.” Wait! Don't hit the back button just yet. Hear me out. There is a business that goes by the name “Books By The Foot.” You can buy a foot of books for as little as $4.99. Or, you can select. If you like red books or green books or pink books, you can fill you shelf with your favorite color. Alternatively, you can select by size, age, or subject matter. You probably won't read any of these books, but if you select wisely, they will look very nice on your shelves.

 

Even the venerable Strand book shop in New York offers books by the foot. Their offering feels a little better as they create “libraries,” books compiled by subject rather than color. Still, it seems dubious that their buyers actually read them. Strand will even rent you these books, but again, this is not like a lending library for readers. It's for staging a model apartment or for use in a film shoot.

 

Then there are those who sell by weight rather than dimension. Market Fresh Books (“deli style”) of Evanston and Chicago, Illinois, offers books cheaply by the pound. These, actually, are more aimed at readers, being newer, used books, often paperbacks, that aren't going to command much of a price sold individually.

 

There is a website called “Bookshelf Porn,” and if you love books, you will love this site. It consists of pictures people have submitted of their bookshelves. There is something riveting and beautiful about a bookshelf full of books. You instantly understand why people buy bookshelves for their homes, and if they don't have books, buy them by the foot to fill up those shelves. Nothing can combine art and intellect quite like a book. What you can't tell from these pictures is whether anyone ever read these books.

 

I have heard that many people, particularly in tonier neighborhoods of pricey cities, consider book-laden shelves de rigueur. I did a little research to see how popular these book storage devices are. If books are dead, then bookshelves must be too. Tire sales will crumble if people stop buying cars. It's sort of what they call in market investing a “leading indicator.”

 

I went to Amazon and did a search for “bookshelf.” It returned 36,055 matches. “Bookcase” did even better, with 46,170 matches. Undoubtedly, if you dug all the way to the end, some matches are probably accessories or something other than true bookshelves. Nevertheless, that is a lot matches, and everything on the first few pages was legitimate. Certainly, some people buy bookshelves for other uses. Still, bookshelves aren't a good match for most other purposes. You can't fit many knick knacks on them. I have a receiver/amplifier on a bookshelf by my desk, but it hangs over the edge. All of these pictures displayed books on the shelves. That is obviously their primary use.

 

A similar search of eBay revealed 17,492 matches for “bookshelf.” “Bookcase” doubled it at 35,524. Wal-Mart dot-com, admittedly not the most likely place to find owners of tonier homes, offered 1,552 matches for “bookshelf,” 5,045 for “bookcase.” Even regular folks appreciate books. How can there be so many bookshelves offered for sale if no one wants books anymore?

 

That brings us back to that initial squeamishness we felt when the expression “books by the foot” was mentioned. Something doesn't feel quite right about it. No one buys a yard's worth of red books to read them. But, is this fair? Is anyone more honored in the book collecting field than the 16th century French collector, Jean Grolier? America's most famous society of bibliophiles is named for him. Is Grolier remembered because he was a great reader? No. He is remembered for the exquisite bindings he had prepared for his books. I'm sure Grolier read his books (actually, I'm not. I have no idea). Still, it is his decoration of them that has made Grolier the most famous bibliophile. His exquisite bindings were totally unnecessary for reading. They served only to make his books beautiful, works of art, like those bookshelves filled with books by the foot. What's the difference between a shelf full of books with fine bindings versus a shelf full of pink books, other than good taste?

 

How about the greatest of the fine, private press printers, William Morris? Is he renown because he selected for printing those titles which were the most interesting to read? Ever try to read Chaucer? Unless you are some Old English linguist, you won't have a clue what he is talking about. Nevertheless, the greatest private press book ever printed remains Morris' Kelmscott Chaucer. If you know someone who owns one, and you ask whether you can take it out to read, be prepared for some language you won't hear in a lending library. What it means is “no.”

 

The fact is, people have been buying and collecting books for reasons other than textual content for centuries. Even Gutenberg's Bible was far fancier than it needed to be for simple reading. Compare it to another famed book meant just for reading, the Bay Psalm Book, and you will notice a stark difference. Books are for more than reading. So, maybe we shouldn't be upset with the concept of “books by the foot.” Those aren't the first books that won't ever be read. Even so, they are a reminder of the role books have played in our lives, in our history, in our learning and intellect. They are a symbol, and the fact that the symbol we pick to fill our shelves is old books, rather than old televisions, computers, e-readers, and the like, is a statement. Maybe books aren't dead after all.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Published Half Plate Ambrotype of a North Carolina Confederate Officer. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two 19th Century Books Pertaining to Canada's Red River Settlement. $400 to $800
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two Books With Fore-Edge Paintings of British Architectual Landmarks. $400 to $600
    <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), "Torte a la Dobosch" from <i>Wild Raspberries</i>. $1,000 to $3,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990), <i>Pop Shop II,</i> One Plate screenprint in colors, on wove paper, 1998. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1756-1827), Twenty-Two Prints from the <i>Tours of Dr. Syntax</i>. $500 to $1,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.

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