Books Still Furnish a Room

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Consumers are buying bundles of old, worn-out, spineless books as room decor. A new Sacramento Bee article tries to make sense of this trend. Does it reveal the marginality of the printed word in the age of the web and the tablet, reduced to a bundle of "text blocks"—in the phrase of curators who focus on the evolution of bindings to the exclusion of texts and printing? Does it reflect economic hard times that many buyers can afford no old books with their covers intact? Or, as I suggested (as one of the article's sources) does it reveal the continuing aura of printed paper? People buy vintage vinyl records, but to play them, not to mount them on their walls, except of course for the album art, a collectible in its own right that already vanished with the CD. There are even quite a few ways to reuse old encyclopedias.

What intrigues me is that some unique copies of books of great interest to future generations might be preserved in this marketplace, to resurface in the 22nd century's successors to Antiques Roadshow and Pawn Stars. This is what happened to fragments of texts used in medieval bookbinding (see samples from the Yale Law Library).

Meanwhile doomsayers of the printed book, whether elegiac or dismissive, should heed the sidebar of the Bee article. Recession or no, sales of printed books continued to rise by a respectable 7 percent during 2009 alongside the much more rapid expansion of electronic books from a smaller base, confirming forces that were apparent six years ago.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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