Creative destruction

My friend Scott McLemee’s essay this week at Inside Higher Ed concerns the etiquette of bookshelves. Is it hypocrisy to place books one hasn’t read on shelves where casual visitors to one’s home may see them? A Time magazine blogger has suggested that it is, while an American Prospect blogger has suggested, contrariwise, that one ought to display unread books with special prominence, because they represent the readerly self one is aspiring to. A bystander might suspect that neither blogger has written without irony, but Scott takes each of them at his word, and points out that guilt about owning unread books is “a kind of guilt that no really bookish person would feel,” because intellectual curiosity leads one naturally into byroads, some of which inevitably turn out to be dead ends. If you are an open-minded reader, you’ll end up with books you once intended to read but haven’t so far and maybe, now that you know a little more about yourself and about the books in question, shouldn’t.

Should you therefore throw them out? From the comments at the end of Scott’s essay, it transpires that an important and enjoyable perquisite to having a library of one’s own is deciding what belongs in it and what doesn’t, and that different people decide the question differently. I’ve never worried about displaying books I haven’t read. “Have you really read all those?” sounds to me like a question that only illiterates ask. I find the discussion fascinating nonetheless, because lately I have been Throwing Books Out.

This does not come naturally, but I have no choice. It’s a question of limits. A larger apartment is unlikely, in the foreseeable future, and I realized a few weeks ago that if I were to buy that one last bookcase that I’d been planning on, the feng shui of my study would abruptly become prisonlike. The stacks of books clogging my study floor have nowhere to go, unless other books exit. There have been half a dozen trips to the Strand in the last couple of weeks, and several totebags’ worth of books have been cashiered.

I used to think of myself as a kind of Noah’s Ark of books. If I hadn’t read a book, all the more reason to keep it, because probably other people didn’t want to read it either, and it was in danger of vanishing from human memory unless I saved it. Narcissistic and crazy, I know. I am happy to say that in my maturity I find it kind of liberating and fun to destroy my collection. Paperbacks of lesser-known William Golding novels purchased at the town library booksale during high school? Don’t even cart them to the Strand; nobody wants them. Just bale them up with last week’s New York Times, and try not to think about the fact that you carried these books around with you unread for more years than you had lived through when you bought them.

Also fun: Selling off scholarly books that one acquired out of a sense of duty and which one had excused oneself from reading but not from continuing to own. Can I say something candid about the poems that eighteenth-century America left in manuscript for the late twentieth century to rediscover and print in scholarly editions? Most of them are wretched. Also, there’s a limit to the number of sailor’s narratives that even the most hardened Melvillean needs to read. Such discards are tricky, of course, because there’s not only ebb and flow but also cyclicality to one’s interests over time. Or, anyway, to mine. This is probably why I’m a journalist and not a proper academic. I really enjoy forgetting. It has become almost second nature with me to kill Caleb Crain in order to become him. (I have killed the Czech translator, the science journalist, the literature professor. Who next?) So why not throw out his books? The trouble is that sometimes one is later tempted to revisit one’s earlier self, and it would cause expense and hassle to have to repurchase two dozen books about, say, the Anglo-American rhetoric of sympathy in the early nineteenth century if some day one were to decide that one had something else to say about it. But there are a few places that I will not be returning to, and it seems clearer each year what sort of places those are.

Of course, the professionally unjustifiable books are often the ones I can’t bear to part with: the paperback about dinosaur physics, say, or the three slightly different versions of The Week-End Book (a miscellany of poems, songs, games, bird descriptions, and first-aid advice) dating from 1928, 1955, and 2005. I hesitate to catalog too specifically the books I have been getting rid of, because if I do someone will emerge to defend them. That’s why I get money for them at the Strand, after all. I will say, though, that as with Scott, the selection process for me doesn’t have that much to do with how I want others to see me. The underlying principle seems to be the kind of work and play I am looking forward to.

Publishers invent whole new reason not to buy books

For several years, I owned two out of the four volumes of an edition of an important twentieth-century writer-philosopher, who shall remain nameless here because he is long dead and innocent of the crime I am about to describe. Recently, having been paid and feeling flush, I decided to buy the two volumes missing from my collection. Since Amazon and the publisher’s own website list the volumes as still in print, I elected to buy the books new. A portion of my cash was transferred electronically to Amazon; I waited patiently by my mailbox; and in due time, a brown cardboard box arrived.

But woe came to Brooklyn with that cardboard box. There was no trouble with volume 1. Like the volumes I already owned, its pages were fine in texture and cream in color, the binding was sewn, and the printing of the type crisp and clear. Not so volume 2. Its pages, by contrast, were bluish and flimsy, its binding was by glue, and the printing . . . Oh, the printing was the worst part. The illustrations were textureless, as if they had been photocopied, the ink was blobby on the page, and the type was filmy and inexact, so that the thick parts of letters were thicker than they ought to be, and the thin parts dropped out altogether.

It was clear what had happened. Volume 2 had gone out of print. And to put it back in print, the publishers had hired a print-on-demand service. Inside hard covers deceptively similar to those of the other volumes, the publisher had stuck a text block that was only a shoddy knock-off of what ought to have been there. But, reader, they charged full price.

I returned the volume to Amazon, after having selected from the drop-down menu “Product performance/quality is not up to my expectations.” And now I haunt the online booksellers, writing to them plaintive requests to take down the volume from their shelves before they sell it to me, and to answer me, Is the binding sewn? Are the pages clearly printed? Someday, I hope, I shall find the volume I am in search of, in its true form.

Bruised by the experience, I became alert to clues that I had not noticed before. Leafing through the stacks of books in my study, I recall the illegible numerals in a monograph from a university press, and indeed, it seems to have suffered the same changeling swap, sometime between its first and its second printing. In a bookstore, I pick up a paperback issued by a very-tony publisher, and selling for $20; the eye rebels against the out-of-focus type; it is printed no more carefully than a Xeroxed coursepack.

Publishers of the world, did you need to give your customers another reason to distrust you? If you are going to sell us shoddy goods, couldn’t you lower the price? Couldn’t you let us know? I do not like a print-on-demand title, but I do not mind it if I know that that’s what I’m purchasing, and if the price corresponds. But to farce print-on-demand slurry between prestigious-seeming cloth covers—who do you think shells out hard cash for nice editions? People who don’t care about books?

UPDATE (Feb. 20): The world may not in fact be coming to an end, it turns out. Last week, in response to an email that I sent around the time I wrote this blog entry, I received a polite and very informative reply from someone responsible for design and production at the university press in question. This person wrote that yes, indeed, the volume I had purchased was on lower-quality paper than its siblings, and the printing was digital whereas its siblings had had offset printing. In fact, he further explained, the printing on the objectionable volume was worse than digital printing usually is, because it wasn’t printed from “live” PDF files but from scans of an earlier printing. “This was not a good decision on our part,” he wrote.

There were a couple of pieces of good news in his message. Only about 300 copies of a print run of nearly 9,000 were flawed the way mine was; the bad decisions were part of a one-time stopgap measure. And the glue binding that I objected to was a “cold melt” binding, also known as a double-fan binding, that is in fact stronger and more durable than Smyth-sewn binding.

Are Americans spending less on reading?

As I explained in an earlier post, my review-essay “Twilight of the Books” appears in the 24 December 2007 issue of The New Yorker, and as an online supplement, I’m summarizing some of the data that I drew from, organizing the summaries by topic, and including links where I can. These are merely evidence in raw form and are probably a bit indigestible taken en masse. For analysis and discussion and hopefully a more pleasant read, please see the New Yorker article itself.

Yesterday: Are Americans reading less? Today: Are Americans spending less money on reading?

Before I give the summaries, I want to provide little context. As you’ll see, there’s some reason to think that publishing revenues have increased overall in the last five years. If one is trying to determine from this fact whether Americans have grown more or less readerly, however, it’s important to keep in mind several factors. First, the U.S. population has grown. Second, the U.S. economy has grown. And third, the average price of a book has risen (see below for evidence). In other words, it is possible that the publishing industry took in more revenue even as the average citizen read fewer books and the proportion of readers in the population shrank. In fact, that’s what I think happened. That’s why I made a point of looking at units, as well as dollars, and of dividing those units by the Census Bureau’s population estimates. (One last note: To simplify my own life, I’m linking to the data that I collected in late summer, but some government departments have released another year’s data since I did my research.)

  • The Book Industry Study Group has estimated that 3.09 billion books were sold in 2005, and 3.10 billion in 2006, for net dollar sales of $34.63 billion in 2005 and $35.69 billion in 2006. BISG projects that sales will be 3.15 billion in 2007, 3.18 billion in 2008, and 3.24 billion in 2011. Because of a change in methodology, the group’s earlier data aren’t comparable to the numbers it is collecting now. For comparison’s sake, however, they have recalculated what their new numbers would be under their old methodology, arriving at this series for unit sales: 2.36 billion in 2001, 2.37 billion in 2002, 2.34 billion in 2003, 2.296 billion in 2004, 2.36 billion in 2005, and 2.38 billion in 2006; and this series for dollar sales: $24.74 billion in 2001, $25.27 billion in 2002, $26.00 billion in 2003, $26.47 billion in 2004, $27.84 billion in 2005, and $28.60 billion in 2006. When the unit sales numbers are divided by the population estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau, it works out that there has been a decline in sales from 8.27 books per person in 2001 to 7.93 in 2006. When the old-methodology numbers for dollar sales are divided by the old-methodology numbers for unit sales, it transpires that the average price of a new book has risen from $10.49 in 2001 to $12.04 in 2006. Consumer books are a subset of total book sales, comprised of adult trade, juvenile trade, and mass market paperback books. Under the BISG’s old methodology, unit sales of consumer books have also stagnated: 1.54 billion 2001, 1.56 billion in 2002, 1.53 billion in 2003, 1.48 billion in 2004, 1.52 billion in 2005, and 1.53 billion in 2006. [Michael Healy, ed., Book Industry Trends 2007, {for-purchase publication} pages 10, 13, 204, and 207. The Book Industry Study Group is also cited in table 1118, “Quantity of Books Sold: 2004 to 2009,” of the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007.]
  • Slightly higher estimates of consumer book sales are offered by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, who see a very modest increase in net unit sales between 2001 and 2006. VSS estimates that per-person, per-year spending on books has increased somewhat, but notes that “Consumer book spending growth consistently trailed that of GDP from 2001 to 2006.” Like the Book Industry Study Group, they estimate that the average price of a a new book rose between 2001 and 2006. [Veronis Suhler Stevenson, Communications Industry Forecast, 2007 {for-purchase publication}, page 56, table ES.14, page 360, page 368, and page 374, table 13.11.] Note: Veronis Suhler Stevenson provided me with their report as a courtesy and for the purposes of reporting; since they make a living by providing data and since I didn’t end up having room to quote them in the final published article, I’m not publishing their numbers here.

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spent an average of $141 on reading in 1985, $153 in 1990, $163 in 1995, $146 in 2000, and $126 in 2005. The data are reported yearly. Those between the ages of 55 and 64 spent the most yearly on reading, $167. Whites spent more than blacks or Hispanics, and the Northeast and the West outspent other regions. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1217, “Expenditures per Consumer Unit for Entertainment and Reading: 1985 to 2004,” and U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Consumer Expenditures in 2005,” February 2007, page 3 and page 10.]
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released to the National Endowment for the Arts previously unpublished data about consumer spending on books (as opposed to reading generally). As summarized in To Read or Not to Read, the average spending by a consumer unit (household) on books went from $37.74 in 1985 to $57.43 in 2005; when the figures are adjusted for inflation to 1982-84 dollars, the spending dropped from $33.25 in 1985 to $28.59 in 2005. [Sunil Iyengar et al, To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, National Endowment for the Arts, 2007, p. 49, table 4C]
  • U.S. consumers spent an increasing amount on “Books and maps” between 1990 and 2006, according to the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis: $16.2 billion in 1990, $23.2 billion in 1995, $33.7 billion in 2000, $34.6 billion in 2001, $37.1 billion in 2002, $39.0 billion in 2003, $40.4 billon in 2004, $41.8 billion in 2005, and $43.4 billion in 2006. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1218, “Personal Consumption Expenditures for Recreation: 1990 to 2004.” Bureau of Economic Analysis, Department of Commerce, National Income and Product Accounts Table, “Table 2.5.5 Personal Consumption Expenditures by Type of Expenditure, 2005-2006.”]
  • The total amount that U.S. consumers paid for books, according to the Book Industry Study Group, was $49.15 billion in 2004, $51.92 billion in 2005, and $53.62 billion in 2006. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, table 1119, “Books Sold—Value of U.S. Domestic Consumer Expenditures: 2004 to 2009.” Michael Healy, ed., Book Industry Trends 2007 {for-purchase publication}, page 17.]

  • The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the revenues of the book publishing industry have been climbing moderately in the past few years: $24.98 billion in 2000, $25.83 billion in 2001, $26.93 billion in 2002, $26.06 billion in 2003, $27.90 billion in 2004, and $27.73 billion in 2005. [U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, tables 1107 and 1120. U.S. Census Bureau, “2005 Service Annual Survey, Information Sector Services,” page 20, table 3.0.1.]

Tomorrow (or thereafter): Is literacy declining?

UPDATE (27 Feb. 2009): For ease in navigating, here’s a list of all the blog posts I wrote to supplement my New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books”:

Notebook: “Twilight of the Books” (overview)
Are Americans Reading Less?
Are Americans Spending Less on Reading?
Is Literacy Declining?
Does Television Impair Intellect?
Does Internet Use Compromise Reading Time?
Is Reading Online Worse Than Reading Print?
I also later talked about the article on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show and on KUER’s Radio West.
And, as a bonus round: Does media violence lead to real violence, and do video games impair academic performance?

For Sale

Don’t worry, capitalism has not tainted the escutcheon of Steamboats Are Ruining Everything. No money was earned in the writing of this post. But since I have already wasted the time collecting the links, here are some books for sale on the web very cheap, including a couple that I’ve written about lately, a couple that I happily possess, and a few I still covet.

Because Soft Skull Press is being sold to Winton Shoemaker in June, they need cash now, for reasons I have not tried to fathom but which you may exploit, because David Griffith’s A Good War Is Hard to Find, which I wrote about last week, can currently be had for $9.

As semesters across the country end, university press publishers are hunkering down for the long sales-dry summer, to survive which a number of them cut prices. If you don’t have tenure or an equivalent salary, this is the time to buy hardcovers at the price of paperbacks. (All of the following are hardcovers.) The University of North Carolina Press is selling American Heretic, Dean Grodzins’s biography of Theodore Parker for $19.95; I posted a killed review of the book back in February (somehow that phrase reminds me of killed-virus vaccines). Students of Transcendentalism might also want to look into the University of Georgia Press’s white sale, where they can obtain the Complete Poems of the divinely mad Jones Very for $17.50, and the Selected Letters of Mary Moody Emerson, Waldo’s influential aunt, for $16.25. (At the University of Georgia website, you have to enter the special code “WS07” in order to get the discount.)

Meanwhile, Oxford will sell you the hardcover of Christopher Ricks’s Oxford Book of English Verse for just $15, and Yale will sell you Roy Porter and G. S. Rousseau’s Gout, a book I haven’t read but always wanted to, for $27.50, and Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861, a book I leaf through often, for $14.98. (With Yale, the secret code to enter is “YSALE”.) Finally, Labyrinth Books is offering many, many not-quite-new Library of America volumes for about $16 each. (These are the only sale books in my list that aren’t in fact brand-new.)

Pattern in Material Book Culture


I’ve threatened, at various times, to say unkind words about book design. But I realized recently that it would be better for my karma to say a few kind ones. In fact, there’s a lot of book design that I like, and it isn’t easy to choose which book to praise. It occurred to me that the purest selection would be of a book I haven’t actually read, so that any fondness I might have for content would be neutralized. And I haven’t actually read (not every page, anyway) Henry Glassie’s Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968), which, according to the back flap of the dust jacket, was designed by someone named Bud Jacobs.

As a rule I’m not wild about typographic covers, but I like this one, because the wood-block lettering nods to the book’s theme of handmade culture and to its time period. You know at once that this is a book about America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and that it’s a little nostalgic, but not fussily so. This is going to be a kind of playful remix. The size of the words corresponds to their importance: in descending order, Folk, Culture, United States, and Pattern. Also, no computer went near this cover. Every letter on it was manifestly kerned by eye and hand.

The page design for Pattern is a scholarly kind of beautiful. It geeks out, and it makes geeking out look lovely. The footnotes are at the feet of the pages, for one thing—not banished to the book’s end. This is important, because the notes are designed, as the author explains in his “Apology and Acknowledgment,” to “provide a loose bibliographical essay.” They’re a kind of anchor to the book’s text, which the author describes as an “impressionistic introduction.” The text meanders, while the footnotes march on, beneath, in an orderly regiment.


As a third design component, the book has many illustrations, one on nearly every other page, each of which comes with a leisurely caption, which in some cases amounts to a free-standing essay. In the layout above, for example, the caption discusses variations in stone walls, from New England to Kentucky, while the text focuses on the dogtrot house typical of farms in the Deep South, and a footnote directs the reader to descriptions of Alabama dogtrots in Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, among other sources.

Glassie’s book isn’t merely bibliography and synthesis, however. Some of the information comes from his own field work. He presents a photograph of a rabbit gum, a wooden box trap to catch rabbits. And he prints an interview with a man who used to “sting” fish as a boy; when he saw a fish swimming just under the ice of a creek, he would hit the ice with a mallet to stun the fish beneath, and then cut the ice and take the stunned fish out. An illustration displays the man’s sketch, from memory, of his fish stinging mallet, and a footnote assures the reader that “stinging fish is not a tall tale” by pointing to a similar recollection in print elsewhere. But I’m becoming distracted from pure design, so here’s another layout, which mixes line drawings, a photograph, and a caption to show you how to make a slingshot out of a coathanger, West Philadelphia-style.


There’s an index of fearful completeness, of everything from bacon-grease salad dressing to lobster pots. And one more clever touch worth mentioning, the book’s spine:



It’s a little hard to read, because the technology was no longer really up to spec for machine-made books in 1968, but Bud Jacobs seems to have tried to gild the book’s spine in the style of American books of the mid-nineteenth century. Jacobs stamped the spine with an indicator hand, the book’s title, and the press’s insignia. Back in the day, gilded spines were even more elaborate, in many cases, and the gilding was applied by hand. To the right are a few samples from the 1840s and 1850s, featuring a philanthropess, a waif, and a den of iniquity; a conductor; floral bouquets; the scales of justice; and an all-seeing eye.