The New Respectable Nonbooks

One reaction to the turmoil that electronic books have wrought on the publishing world is the availability of ever more emphatically “physical” books. Historic typefaces are revived to adorn their covers, and irregular spacing sets out the long frontispieces.

We have long been used to such books appearing in the stores around Christmas. These are high-concept books that are primarily commodities. All they need is packaging, bulk, and a price tag. The way they work is to suggest that beneath the joke of the title can run to the ridiculous length suggested by the size of the book.

These are books that fulfil every criterion for being a book, but especially those that make it a commodity. Strangely, their value stops upon sale. These books will never be read, never be lent, never be passed on, never re-sold. Although they fill box upon box at second-hand bookstores, no one ever buys them. Buying one of these books second-hand would be missing the point.

The electronic equivalent of these books does not, and cannot, really exist. There would be no difference between sending a novelty e-book and simply sending notification of the title since most of them had less content than a well-maintained Tumblr.

The all-year equivalent now is a new generation of books that seem intended to confront the ephemerality of the electronic text. Quality paper, heartbreakingly beautiful typefaces. They also seem as unlikely to be ever read as those Christmas nonbooks. As if to say, if you really wanted to read a book you would get the electronic version. This is the same principle that held for those leatherbound series of classics, like The American Library. The more prestige they oozed, the more the gold-leaf and leather-binding tried to suggest a well-read household, the less convincing they were. You always knew that a library stacked with yellowing, dog-eared, paperbacks was a stronger indicator of literary interest.