In Defense of Shelfworthiness

According to Will Baude of Crescat Sententia, my definition of “shelfworthy” (as described here) is a “theory of book-bigotry.” He goes on:

In some technical sense, Nate is only defining a term, so quarrelling with him seems needlessly antagonistic, but because of the notion inherent in the term (and reinforced in his comment) that one ought to shelve ones [sic] books [bookshelves?] only with books that look and feel good, I feel obliged to take issue.

Needlessly antagonistic? Bien sur! Where would we bloggers be without others nitpicking our views? Ultimately I don’t think Will and I actually disagree very much, but I’ll take up the gauntlet anyway, in the spirit of needless antagonism.

First of all, the subsequent discussion by Will (and others) has drifted into talk about the pros and cons of hardcover vs. softcover. This is a fine topic to discuss, but my definition only made a claim about mass market paperbacks. I very deliberately left trade paperbacks out of it, because they are the big Grey Area when it comes to shelfworthiness. The fact that they’re of varying sizes, and that there’s usually more room for interesting design on their spines, means that TPs can very often be shelfworthy, though not always. I’m less likely to buy one than a hardcover, all else being equal, but the fact that they’re cheaper means that they outnumber hardcover titles on my shelves just like everybody else’s.

Anyway, Will’s argument centers on a book’s usability, best summarized here:

No question, books are made to be loved and used, but that use isn’t—or shouldn’t be—limited to sitting on a shelf and looking pretty. Ease of transport, minimization of cost, minimization of storage space—these are all real constraints that true book lovers deal with every day. Cloth-bound hardcovers aren’t always the most aesthetically pleasing books, and aesthetical-pleasingness should not be the only concern aside from content.

And he’s perfectly correct. My purchasing bias toward shelfworthy books is motivated by an impatience for the future.

When I left boarding school in Jos, Nigeria, oh-so-many years ago, I could fit everything I owned into a long military duffel that, with some difficulty, I could sling over my shoulder. It was an incredible feeling of freedom, of being unbound from material constraints. My possessions have only increased since then, making life an ongoing struggle against accumulating too much stuff. To say that that makes me anti-materialist would be a lie: it’s the space that stuff takes up that gets me, not the number of items or money spent. I seriously dig miniaturization. I consider the iPod to be one of the triumphs of our technological culture, and I am eager—even impatient—for the device to come along that does for books what the mp3 player has done for music.

The important part of a book is its text. The actual physical structure is secondary—indeed, it exists as a particularly ingenious mechanism for transmitting that text to the brain. Right now, nothing can even come close to the book for the job of text-transmitting. By contrast, reading on a computer screen is abysmally difficult. eBooks, as they exist today, are only slightly better on readability and still not up to snuff on portability or durability either. But, in time, we’re going to have an electronic reading machine that’s the book’s equal on readability, portability, and durability—and will be able to store your entire library inside it, to boot.

Now, I like the musty smell of books, and the tacticity of their pages, and all the other things that people who oppose the very concept of electronic books talk about. I like them exactly enough to want to keep shelves full of books even after a real electronic book—one that you can curl up on the couch with—comes on the scene. But my criteria for the ones I keep will be based on physical aesthetics and nostalgia value, not portability or efficiency. Hence, shelfworthiness.