Monday, February 22, 2010

Cafetaria: book-related brain snacks

I've written before about incorporating books into my living space as decor. My point in discussing the positive aesthetic of books-as-interior-design was to celebrate the presentation of books not just for their appearance, but for their contents. I want to display my collection not for its colorful geometric assemblage, or its connotation of intelligence, but for the personal resonance of each title.

So what better way to highlight the conflux of old and new publishing than to compare this idea, of using authentic books as decorative material, with the idea of using the opposite- imitation books- as decorative fooder?

Kate Spade's fall 2010 preview included, literally, book bags.

Each clutch resembles a classic text, with cover art designed in-house. Creative Director Deborah Lloyd imagines women collecting the purses to display them throughout their living space. Lloyd said of her inspiration, "We wanted to pretend we had our own publishing house." They, and the rest of literary society. With the gradual dissolution of traditional publishing, the means by which readers can obtain books have spider-webbed. There is no longer a linear progression from manuscript to publisher to bookstore.

I also can't help but note the metaphor of the book as an empty shell, created as fashion rather than with true literary quality. But as a gimmick, the bags are cute- disregarding Lloyd's statement, I can appreciate the project.

Another option for faux-books-as-decor, contrasting with my notion of readers turning their finely-curated book collections into interior decor, is Anthropologie's book wallpaper. The screenprinted paper is billed as a display of "towers of titles", the corny alliteration enough to insinuate the phoniness. But, again, taking the piece at face value and assuming it's not aimed at squeezing out its real-life counterpart- a physical bookshelf- I can avoid taking my literary inclinations too seriously, and laugh.

I only hope my peers, rather than buying into cheapened products like these, are doing the same.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tweeter: the generational reading gap

A few months ago at the gym I was reading Anna Karenina on the stationary bike. Not your typical recreational reading, I suppose- which prompted the elderly gentleman pedaling next to me to strike up a conversation. It turned out he was a classic lit lover himself, a retired Political Science professor craving intellectual stimulation. We talked books for 45 minutes and exchanged email addresses.

Since then we've had more literary conversations- both in person and electronically- which are mutually satisfying in their symbiosis of two bookworms, but also in their enlightenment regarding today's reading habits. He finds it fascinating that any Millennials ("Your generation only knows ten words"), subscribers to technology like Facebook and "Tweeter", would invest time in the world's literary canon. I, in turn, find it a fresh surprise to be able to connect on an even plane with a generational superior. Our tech-driven society is over the speed limit in the fast lane, Internet axons firing like fireworks to connect people, but when we readers really slow down, embrace traditional media, and make room in our brains and our lives for quality literary material, that's when the real engagement can begin.

Some statistics are hopeful: in a post entitled "Good News About The Future of Reading," GalleyCat cited a New York Magazine survey of 100 Manhattanites in which only 10% of interviewees hadn't bought books in the last year. And that doesn't mean that that 10% didn't read any. But The Guardian's Books Blog notes how "time for serious reading appears to be getting more and more pinched" as entertainment media enacts "the very theft of our thinking space". The word "reading" itself has shifted in meaning, from connoting a dedicated task to, now, a scattershot experience as our eyeballs flick from one piece of text to another.

Conversing with the old professor has made the value of true reading resonate with me even more in the context of my generation's loosening grip on traditionally published material. Operating in a workplace devoted to shifting text from print to digital has also heightened my appreciation for this old media. I blog, I have Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, God knows I email. But I also check books out from the library, get Barnes&Noble gift cards as birthday presents, and read print magazines.

I've grown up around reading- my mom used to read to me after tucking me into bed, our living room has always had stocked shelves, my dad's home office is a veritable library. So perhaps the contrast between my generation's reading habits and those of my elders is even more poignant for me, my job and personal inclination toward reading aside. In any case, I think society's efforts toward digital conversion, often focused on seniors' acclimation to computers and the Internet, should be focused at least as energetically on print conversion for my age bracket, encouraging adherence to quality reading. I've said it before, but: what a novel idea.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A strange case indeed

Today I finished the first complete book I've read in a digital format: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. I read it in Google Books. And I hated every minute of it.

As Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, says in a New York Times forum on eBooks,
"People read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent. Distractions abound online — costing time and interfering with the concentration needed to think about what you read. Reading on screen requires slightly more effort and thus is more tiring."
Each of these troubles came into play for me, totally detracting from my enjoyment of the material. I chose the title for its compelling storyline and short length, in an effort to fortify myself against the enemy. Didn't work.

I've acknowledged a resignation to the fact that I'll eventually buy an eReader. All technological innovations with staying power become mainstream and thusly lose their classification as an "innovation", easing into an assumptive part of our lives. I never thought I'd have one of those cell phones that lets you check email on the go- texting wasn't even prevalent until I went to college; never thought I'd have a DVR to record TV shows and movies- growing up, if you didn't watch a show real-time, you didn't watch it. That is unless you taped it on a clunky VHS, whose agonizing fastforward and rewind functions made it near impossible to find the segment you were hunting for, or else you miraculously caught the show on re-run.

Some day, quite probably, eReaders like the Kindle will be ubiquitous. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said of the Kindle's success in a Slate interview,

"The business is growing very quickly. [But] this is not just a business for us.There is missionary zeal. We feel like Kindle is bigger than we are."
Bezos goes on to say that he never reads "books on paper" anymore "if he can help it". Granted I didn't read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on a Kindle, but rather my computer screen. My reading experience consisted of scanning a table of contents and scrolling up and down. I could search for a word or phrase within the book if I wanted- but when have I ever recreationally read a piece of fiction and wished I had the capability of locating every mention of the main character's name, or the word "night"? Maybe students would appreciate that function, but my current perspective is that of an average reader. Even for my job as a publishing assistant I can't imagine having to parse a passage- we're concerned with the life of the material after its composition.

Beyond Google Books' reading enhancements, gadgets like the Kindle offer (pseudo)annotation, bookmarking, collaboration with other readers, etc. But "if i can help it" I still won't be reading another "book on screen" any time soon, even with the debut of devices like the iPad and the two-screen eReader enTourage eDGe, or any of the other products publicized at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in January- see a slideshow here.

This Christmas marked the first time Kindle eBooks outsold physical books on Digital reading is here to stay. But so are traditional readers like me. And I'm not moving an inch just yet.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cafetaria: book-related brain snacks

Something Up My Sleeve

My sister, after visiting me, pointed out that a lot of spots in Philly are pithily named: a grocery shop named Grocery, a bar named Bar, a flower shop named Orchid. Taking a page out of the succinctness book is... well, Book.

Designed by two bibliophiles in Minnesota, it's a book-like sleeve for digital reading devices. Books blog The Millions queries,
"Do you have an ereader but miss the look and feel of a gorgeous hardcover book? Do you want people to think you’re all about print when in fact you are riding the digital wave?"

I can't say the $89 price tag- handcrafted, 100% wool felt or not- is justifiable, but if I make the iPad/Kindle/Nook plunge I can do so with readerly pride intact, inasmuch as I'll be fooling neighbors with a clever disguise. There's a Twitter feed called CoverSpy that documents New Yorkers' reading material on subways and streets, in parks and bars. Each day, the prowling photo team posts real-time snapshots of such book covers, or else a standard image of a Kindle. With this Book sleeve, we can deceive the pesky CoverSpies and maintain the illusion of loyalty to traditional book publishing.

Another path to deception: the BookBook laptop cover.

The vintage leather-bound case by Twelve South is $79.99, $9.01 in the right budgetary direction but steep nonetheless. It's hand-distressed, akin to the manual labor applied to Book- it seems a lot of trouble is being taken with products like these to generate the artifice that we could accomplish by actually reading books. What a novel idea.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The white perimeter

From "Marginalia" by Billy Collins:

"We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge."

I'm going to avoid the term "neat freak". Also "OCD" and "anal retentive". But I like things neat. My files at work, both print and electronic, are organized into sub-sub-categories, and my apartment is always uncluttered. My mom got me in the habit at a young age of making my bed every morning, and that fastidiousness grew to translate into every other corner of my life.

I've gotten better. These days a little jumble adds welcome color. My bedroom desk is besprinkled with Post-its, an odd paper clip and stray flyers or tickets, and well-thumbed magazines are drunkenly accordioned on my coffee table. Gone are the days of the rainbow-coordinated sock drawer and the oh-so-ginger transportation of books to avoid creases or crumpling. I remember when a classmate doodled on my empty notebook page in middle school before the teacher started class, I flipped to a fresh sheet when the time came to take notes.

But when it comes to annotation- or marginalia, as coined in 1832 by the keen margin scribbler Samuel Taylor Coleridge- I've always been a subscriber. In an eloquent post on the Guardian's Books Blog, Toby Lichtig expresses his fondness for "defacing" books with the smears and scrawls that herald ownership of that book. He writes:

"I'm not just talking about highbrow jottings: notes and queries, references and witticisms, the literary art of "marginalia". No, in my library anything goes: doodles, numbers, addresses, lists, recipes and the ensuing food stains."

I wholeheartedly endorse Lichtig's contention: your imprint on a book connects its flesh to yours. Your jottings, relevant or not, and your "mutilation"- Lichtig talks about torn covers, bathtub-submersions- will be forever bound to your experience of the book. In the manner of the if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods commonplace: if you don't leave your thumbprint on a book, what does it matter if you've read it?

My annotative habits include underlining resonant quotes, dog-earing pages with provoking passages, occasionally scribbling a phone number if the open book on my lap is the only available writing surface. I, too, can claim responsibility for a coffee stain or two, a dirt smudge from a book riding around in my purse. Needless to say, neat freak or not, leaving traces in a book I own is an inextricable part of the reading process. Not all readers and writers agree:

But I'm with Lichtig, and Coleridge, and the herds of twitching-pen-armed readers eager to eat the books they read. I know eReaders like the Kindle have annotative capabilities- I made my friend show me how she organizes notes on the psychology journals she reads for her grad school program- but what does a computerized list of remarks have to tell me about who, or where, I was when I read something? Or my mood? Or what was going on in my life? The organic nature of reading a real book owes much to this practice of annotation, in my mind, and I'm not giving it up without a fight. Or, at the very least, a considerable price reduction.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Undercover with book covers

One of the greatest losses in the publishing shift from print to digital is cover art. An image on your screen, if a given eBook even has one, is not any more special than the myriad images on any device: app icons, desktop backgrounds, photos on Flickr, Facebook pictures. It's just a 2D, mechanized visual.

But book jacket design is an art unto itself. There are countless blogs and roundups devoted to cover art, and when the designs are good- they're good. They're clever, heartfelt and, above all, truly artistic. Book covers make the book. Even if a volume is clothed in unadorned cardboard-brown, like some old hardcovers I have, that starkness and adherence to historical publishing holds significance for my reading.

Imagine ideas like these below in palpable form, an integrated part of your reading experience as you crack open and close the book at each reading. Also... they're just cool:

Given the paradigm shift in publishing, the company Out of Print Clothing is preserving cover art in the form of wearable books. From their mission statement:

"Out of Print celebrates the world’s great stories through fashion. Our shirts feature iconic and often out of print book covers. Each shirt is treated to feel soft and worn like a well-read book. How we read is changing as we move further into the digital age. It's unclear what the role of the book cover will be in this new era, but we feel it's more important than ever to reflect on our own individual experiences with great literary art before it's forever changed."
Some examples of their products:

Preservation of original edition covers in a format that physically connects the art to the reader promises to salvage for posterity at least this one aspect of traditional publishing.

Magazine covers, I think, weigh less on my reading experience since on average they're driven as much by marketing as art. Celebrity photograph + catchy headlines + vivid color scheme, in some combination, = sales. Nevertheless, the Swedish company T-Post is getting on board with the wearable text concept, with "the world's first wearable magazine".

According to Folio, each "issue", delivered every six weeks, is a graphic T-shirt with a news story printed on the inside and a graphic artist’s interpretation on the front.

It's weird. But it's artistic, and it's inventive, and along with book cover T-shirts, it may be one of publishing's guardian angels. We'll take what we can get.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Judging books by their covers

"A home without books is like a room without windows."
—Henry Ward Beecher

The extent of my interior decorating acumen lies in duplicating Ikea displays. They might as well shoot the catalogue in my apartment. My mom does have a keen eye for décor, so in my various residences she's shouldered the burden of coaxing some semblance of tolerable furnishing out of the space. The layout of the living room? Her plan. Color scheme? Her suggestions. The arrangement of bedroom furniture? Hers. Left to my own devices, I'd be living in a hovel.

I will say that there is one aspect of interior design in which I consider myself adroit and I enjoy: the arrangement of my books. In my current apartment I have several bookshelves of varying heights and woods, plus another in the form of my kitchen counter (just cookbooks and cocktail guides), and my coffee table. Trinkets polka-dot each assemblage of books, from the green and white tea set a family friend gave me for graduation to motley picture frames to a painted wood Bahamaian seated man, legs hooked over the edge of a shelf. I haven't invested in any spiffy bookends yet, but I feel the itch. Especially after reading a DesignSponge blog post about them:

In June when I unpacked the cardboard boxes and rope-handled shopping bags and canvas totes I'd gorged with all my books, the collection was almost card-catalogued. Shakespeares together, Pulitzer winners bundled, Greek mythology collections in another row, art history tomes aligned. But over the months of settling in, these crisp classifications have lazed away. When I finish a book, I slide it where it works aesthetically, rarely paying heed to genre or author or award groupings. Browsing is more fun when haphazard anyway. I just love the idea of living with books, appreciating them for their appearance as much as their content, like a bright bowl of juicy oranges on a clean white countertop. Books are also good conversation pieces. Often I'll end up loaning one or two to a visitor whose eye is drawn to a particular title, or who asks for a recommendation.

Turns out I'm not the only one who takes pride in their books-as-décor. Ideas abound.

The Strand Book Store in New York offers customizable books-by-the-foot libraries organized by subject. The options range from cliché antique leather:

to miscellaneous dollar paperbacks:

Part of the spice of my book collection is in my personal curation- these are books I selected, pored over, annotated, hold dear. I wouldn't pay to have someone stock my own library, but at least it brings physical books into people's homes. Another concept that accomplishes that: the British architecture firm Levitate's bookshelf staircase.

Unnegotiably being installed in my first house. Clever bookcases are indeed another brushstroke on the books-as-décor palette in differentiating a living space from dreaded carbon copy Ikea displays. Another example (although more negotiable than the staircase...):

Or the more austere:

The uniformity of these inwardly-faced spines is visually pleasing but the whole point of displaying my books is in presenting (okay, bragging over) the titles themselves. But what about when my collection inevitably outgrows my square footage? True, I've been reading more library books lately, and I'll eventually cave and give eBooks a test run, but I'm still welcoming physical books permanently into the masses, be they my own purchases, gifts, or sly appropriations from my mom's book drawer. I may have to resort to this:

Or else build my own bookshelves.

However I continue to enhance my book display, I'll relish the art. Hopefully before I reach the point of legitimate bibliomania, like New Jersey's Irving Leif, a 62 year old book collector about to be evicted for owing rent, desperate to save his $1,000,000 rare book collection. If I win the lottery this year: Irving, you know how to reach me.