Gutenberg Books

Despite the greatly increased prevalence and importance of e-books, I believe certain types of texts will continue to be published in their original, physical form. These are books whose materiality constitutes an important part of  their content. I’m going to call them Gutenberg books, even if some of them are not movable-type printed books. In my mind, they include

  • Artsy books: photo essays, artist’s book, display books (e.g. those meant for the coffee table), gift books (books for the office mates, bosses, and acquaintances whom you hope to impress), and books to be indelibly marked from the experience of using them (cook books fall into this category. The more stains a cookbook has, the better chops it confers on its owner/chef). As an owner of both a Kindle and an iPad, I nonetheless have the paper & ink copies of a couple of books that fall in this category:  Schatz and Orstein’s Athlete, Uri Buri Fish & Seafood Cookbook, Ming-Ju Sun’s Japanese Kimono Paper Dolls (should I be a bit embarrassed to admit that yes, in fact, I have cut out the dolls and dresses from this book and played with them when I was younger?)
  • Books for which the typeset is important: one advantage of ebooks is that they allow the reader to adjust the sizes and fonts (on some devices) of the text. However, this wrecks complete havoc on books for which the typeset is content as well as format. Garfield’s Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Loxley’s Type: The Secret History of Letters, Kurt Cobain’s Journals are some examples that come to mind. These, I think, are Gutenberg books, and will stay as such, no matter the drop in prices or advances in technology of e-ink, e-readers, or e-books.
  • Textbooks: this may be a controversial inclusion, but I feel that the reading of textbooks calls for so much flipping back and forth, so much doodle in the margins, so many arrows pointing in so many directions that a print version is called for. As I head back to school (this month!), I will let you know if I should change my mind.

I think a rule of thumb for whether a book is a good candidate for e-reading is to ask whether you can imagine listening to such a book being read aloud. If you think the answer is “no” because some aspect of the book will be irretrievably lost, then the book is probably a Gutenberg.

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