From reader to consumer and collector

Monday, September 13, 2010

Lisa Jardine of the BBC argues that our relationship to books has changed from treating them as things simply to be read for knowledge to items we want to own. We go to libraries less because we want to build one at home. It's not enough to read a free copy on loan. We want to hang on to the books we read because we are proud of our choice to do so:

Might it be that those who love to read, and who used to make the weekly trip to their local public library, nowadays prefer to hold on to what they have read? Book buying has enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past 20 years, and new kinds of booksellers, including online retailers and supermarkets, have successfully brought serious books to the attention of new kinds of readers.

Jardine places particular interest on the appearance of books and their utility as status symbols, especially beautiful, reissued hardcover versions favored by the Oprah book club crowd. But she is at a loss to explain how this translates to people dumping physical books en masse for e-books (which of course, don't have covers and can't serve as hoity-toity decoration at home).

To finish her thought, the ownership/consumer theory works for e-books too. What better status symbol than a Kindle or iPad these days? And the way readers tend to purchase e-books satisfies a slightly different consumer impulse, that of the collector. After all, people who read e-books buy more books in general. This is partly self-selection. Those who go to the trouble of buying a gadget specifically for reading are already into books. But Amazon, Apple, et al have also made it extremely easy to buy books on a whim too. I know I buy a lot of books now on impulse now; in fact, I did it just this morning after reading about a book in a news article. Nonfiction and current events are particularly susceptible to this impulse.

So I think repositioning the reader as a consumer/collector is a perfect explanation for why e-books are popular in the context of Jardine's argument. It's the same reason Americans amassed shelves full of DVDs they never watched. Most people don't watch a particular movie more than once, but owning a copy is important to signal that they are the type of person who watches certain types of movies. Books, often read only once, work the same way. Readers could always amass a personal library to cultivate an identity, but now it's cheaper and eaiser than ever to do it.