What’s in a Book?

Now that there are so many different ways for one to read, what is a book exactly? Is a book an object or is it the story it provides? Is the package of the book irrelevant or is it everything—or is it something in between? Since the original Amazon Kindle was released in 2007—a full eight years ago—there has been endless speculation about the future of print. Would the printed book go the way of VHS tapes, we wondered, or is e-ink just a fad that will be quickly supplanted by the tried-and-true original? Perhaps books will wane and then come roaring back—like vinyl sales, which, according to Forbes magazine, have grown by 260 percent since 2009. With more than 50 percent of Americans now owning devices—e-readers or tablets—on which they can read books, will readers eventually choose the ease of e-books over the heft of a hardback?

There’s no doubt many of us have embraced e-readers—including me. I read tons of books on my Kindle and especially love that I can load it up with my vacation reading or download a book as I sit on the tarmac after discovering I’ve forgotten my book and have an eight-hour flight ahead of me.

But that doesn’t mean I—or we—have abandoned printed books. While there was an immediate rush on e-readers and e-book gift cards when they were first released, subsequent holiday seasons have not borne out the fears of printed-book doomsdayers. In fact, in 2014, e-books were only 25 percent of all book sales, the largest percentage of these sales being genre fiction—romance, particularly—and the smallest percentage being children’s books and nonfiction. This isn’t surprising; in fact it’s exactly as I would have predicted if you’d asked me to guess which books sell best digitally and which sell best in print.

There’s no doubt we interact with e-books differently than printed books, both when contemplating a purchase and reading the book itself, as well as when we’re done with it. The types of books that sell well as e-books bear this out.

Genre fiction, for example, is delectable and quickly consumed. Publishing insiders know that die-hard fans of genre fiction, especially romance, blaze through books at an unimaginable rate. It makes sense that e-books would thrive here. Readers can buy a dozen at once (usually for a low price) with one at the ready as soon as they are done with the last. My mother has Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries lined up and ready to buy on her Kindle (I think she’s on T). As soon as she finishes one, she just clicks on the next.

My mom isn’t worried that she doesn’t have A through S lined up on her bookshelf, ready to be perused again and again or loaned out to an equally mystery-loving friend. While she occasionally reads a book that speaks to her in a way that compels her to pass it on to a friend or to my sister or me, those tend to be nonfiction historical books that she thinks would have some meaning to us, or particularly resonant literary fiction.

On the other hand, the value of a printed children’s book is clear. Kids read books differently than adults. They flip the pages back and forth; they turn them upside down, perhaps adding their own scrawls to the pages. And they return to them again and again. I can’t count the number of times I read Goodnight Moon or the Pinkalicious books to my kids, or the number of times I’ve now listened to my youngest read Old Hat New Hat, or the number of times my ten-year-old has reread the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. One of my daughter’s—and my—all-time favorite books is Chronicle’s Press Here, which by nature must be manipulated, pressed, twisted, shaken, and turned.

Illustrated nonfiction, too, begs to be seen in print. Although I have no doubt that the publishing powers-that-be will ultimately figure out amazing, visually interesting enhanced digital books that will complement the traditional illustrated book, I don’t think the original will ever really go away.

Illustrated nonfiction books are often labeled coffee table books for a reason. Part of their appeal is in how they present you to the rest of the world. Who are your favorite artists? What music do you listen to? What architecture speaks to you? All a visitor has to do is look at the books artfully stacked on your living room table, or arranged on your bookshelf, to know you.

These are also the types of books that are rarely read straight through, but rather are returned to repeatedly. The book you flip through as you drink a lazy Sunday morning cup of coffee or the one with the image that you’ve turned to so often that it automatically opens to that page.

Of course, it’s not just the package that is important. Many years ago I worked on a proposal for a series of books created for interior designers. The idea was to take public domain collections and repackage them to meet the aesthetic of a homeowner—so classics clad in white to complement a spare and modernist room, or an ancient Audubon series where the spines of the books, when arranged together, would create a lush image of a bird. Maybe a collection of art books that, when the covers were assembled, would create an iconic piece of art.

But the project felt soulless because, although I’d love an edition of a much-loved book with a deluxe cover, the audience didn’t care about the story being told within the books. While I might get overly excited about a heavy paper stock or a surprise laser-etched cover, I need to be equally drawn to the story within. To me, it’s the full package that makes a book truly special.

A recent article in Vogue magazine described Instagram as the new Oprah’s Book Club, and it made me think again of the value of a book in print. In a mostly image-driven social medium like Instagram, the message of the plug isn’t contained in the words but in the picture of the reader and the book, the beautiful book cover, the book as a perfectly lighted still life with a pair of socked feet or a cup of coffee. It seems strange that an Instagram snapshot of a book would find more hold than a cleverly written tweet, but maybe not. If it’s the book as object that shows the world who we are, what better way to recommend a book to your friends than to post a photo of yourself reading it. And what better way to convey the value of a book than to create one in which the cover is as beautiful as the story it contains.