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Book as Symbol: Perennial as Spring

iStockphoto - photog is Hammondovi [1]

Convenience comes at the cost of a grave loss: that of the book as a symbol, as an artifact of learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude. While this loss may seem trivial, a simple matter of changing times and customs, the symbols we are losing permeate society and have long been shaping the fortunes of publishing.

 François Joseph de Kermadec [2]Publishing needs to build new symbols for the digital age [3]at O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change

What do you think? As we watch the book transition into its fraught future, will the eventual scarcity of traditional volumes mean we can no longer recognize an image of that rectangular thing as a symbol of “learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude?” Or will the book as a symbol spring eternal?

Rest easy. With what poor wings I have, I am Unboxed today, fond Writer, to welcome in the spring for you, and with confidence. Take heart. Tra-la. Season’s greenings.

With some care and Campari overnight, I have set today’s post to move at 7:02 a.m. Eastern. That’s 1102 GMT. And that’s 1:02 p.m. atop Mount Olympus, kalomesimeri. It is the moment of the Vernal Equinox for this troubled year in the Northern Hemisphere.

A little punctuality is the least I could do, really. You feel better already, don’t you?

Of course, I’m a lowly, ham-handed follower of Hermes, the radiant son of Zeus and Maia. I’m all too good an example of the astrologically ordained contradictions with which he, like me, is zodiacally saddled. Hermes protects thieves as well as our poetry, commerce as well as our games. No wonder they put him in charge of the Gemini Department. Wait, am I coming or going?

FTD Logo [4]But I’m never sorry when he turns up in nothing but a helmet and those winged sandals to deliver the spring’s flowers, are you? FTD got that right. On the front porch, these are the moments that separate your friends from your neighbors.

My bouquet is redolent with reassurance. I think our articulate colleague François Joseph de Kermadec [5] is incorrect. I think I know why. I think I can pull this off.

First, let’s have a couple more lines from this wonderfully elegiac post. Not the same smart idiom of tech-excellence we usually find at O’Reilly Media [6], by the way—the good de Kermadec’s mercurial phrases elevate the discourse:

François Joseph de Kermadec

The talismanic value of books extends beyond the frame, as evidenced by our everyday vocabulary, photo galleries of beautiful libraries and our general tendency to keep fetishising the book in contemporary home decor. After decades of encasing “fine books” in glass-fronted cabinets, it could be argued that, for a sizable part of society, the book is first and foremost a symbol of status and a reassuring promise of humanity.

Yep verily, say we. But when de Karmadec comes to the crunch to tell us that publishing now is “visually nude, providing a needed product still, but deprived of the strong emotional triggers that make up much of its strength,” I think I feel a less chilly draft than he does. And not just because I live in the South.

Sony Reader [7]
Sony Reader

I confess, I found switching to digital reading alarmingly easy. Many Ethers ago, I got myself an early Sony Reader. It looked good on me. True, getting a book into it required something close to divine intervention but once it was on there, I found that I became just as immersed in reading it as if it were on paper. I was unwittingly practicing for the day Le Printemps-Bezosian would bud out with the Kindle and I got one of the first of those, too. I’m now on my third, a tablet model.

I’m even a little sorry that de Kermadec writes, “Nor do we pile up Kindle Fires on our occasional tables to subtly hint at our learned civility.” I love my Kindle Fire almost more than I love de Kermadec and I might recommend that he occasionally speak for his own occasional table. But I won’t. We are having a happy column today. God knows we’ve earned it.

So yeah, no. I’m all for what de Kermadec is going on about when he writes of promoting “newer symbols” to highlight what’s important to us, “including the evergreen qualities of intellectual superiority.”

But unlike frère François, I don’t think we’re going to be giving up the book. Not as a symbol.

So let’s be serious. I know, I’m one to talk. But I’m helped, as I am so frequently, by the toga-ed researchers of Bowker [8], who are today convening their annual Books and Consumers Conference in London. They’ve already begun hurling new facts and figures at our heads like bolts of you know what. Thanks to a release yesterday of a preliminary graphic, I can give you a warm-up.

Copyright Bowker Research | March 2013 release [9]

The quick read: The blue sections you see on the tops of these three Bowkerian columns show the expansion of online book sales in the States from 2010 to the end of November 2012.  That gives us about 44 percent of book purchases, by volume, in the United States in 2012 happening through e-tailers, up from 25 percent in 2010. The message? In America, the industry! the industry! is conducting close to half its sales online.

Who’s sorry now? Chain booksellers. They’re represented by the dark-orange sections at the bottoms of the three columns. Their share has dropped from 32 percent of book sales volume in 2010 to 19 percent in 2012. That’s a 13 percent loss of market share.

Our friend and colleague at Bowker, Jo Henry, is quoted, saying, “It is clear that the ebook format has really come of age in the U.S.”

Say on, Jo Henry, the ebook era has come of age in the States, and it’s happening in many other parts of the world, as well. And no, I won’t put us through more of the ways we know that.

I will remind us all, however, that print books are still everywhere. Fear not. There’s no need to run screaming out into the daffodils and trample the tendre croppes.

But many of our best people in forward-leaning conferences are talking to us these days about “the networked book.”

Just yesterday at Milan’s IfBookThen [10] Conference, digital author Kate Pullinger [11] was picked up on twitter by many folks remarking that even our ebooks aren’t yet jacked into the Ether. eBooks, she reminded us, are like portable bits of the Web, but they don’t carry all its advantages. Not fully hooked up.

And in that vein, what de Kermadec gives us is a chance to consider not the loss of the book, but of the book-as-symbol. And there, I think he’s right to consider it, but he’s overshooting the mark. We’re surrounded today by symbols that have long outlived their original prototypes.

Such as?

Caduceus [12]

Well, speaking of my man Hermes, have you found yourself reaching for your caduceus lately? Its symbolic deployment today is usually confused with the Rod of Asclepius and its rituals among the pines and cicadas at the Sanctuary of Asclepius near the great theater at Epidaurus in Greece. The Asclepian rod had one snake. Hermes’ caduceus had two. Either way, did you just remember a doctor appointment?

Ccross [13]

How about this item? A Celtic version, in this instance. Thankfully, the cross is not used today in most places for archaic purposes of torture and execution. I can tell you as a minister’s son that it still packs a punch. Remember Amanda Hocking? Holding off vampires wasn’t likely what ancient Aryans or even some hieroglyphic-era Egyptians had in mind with their iterations of it. But the cross’ eventual nod to the scriptural crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is what it has signified to millions for millennia.

Crossbones (PSF) [14]

Does the fact that most of us (I hope) don’t come into contact with human skulls or crossed bones on a regular basis mean that the symbol has lost its potency for us when a poison is around?

Air National Guard [15]Look at this great Air National Guard patch for the 927th Communications Flight. See that sword? How frequently do we send our fighters out into battle with one of those things in their field kits? And yet when you see this, do you understand you’re in the realm of military symbolism?

Mosaics found at Hadrian's Villa, now at the Capitoline. [16]And in case you haven’t made it to the theater lately, masks just aren’t the rage they used to be, except when you have a director with a concept.

If anything, I find we badly overuse the traditional book as a symbol.

Vladstudio 's Library Wallpaper, a detail [17]
Vladstudio ‘s Library Wallpaper [17], a detail

Have you noticed how many sites of folks connected to publishing have some version of the endless-bookcases wallpaper as a blog background?

The best of it, mind you, may be quite artfully conceived, as in the thumbnail excerpt I’ve made here of Vladstudio’s Library Wallpaper [17].

Periodically, even the cat pictures give way to people’s rapturous exchanges of photo galleries picturing strange or beautiful or silly (lots of silly) bookshelves [18].

This is the fetishizing impulse de Kermadec writes about.

You may remember a video passed around last year, The Joy of Books [19],  lots of volumes jumping up and sashaying around to music in a nighttime bookstore, Type Books in Toronto.

The Joy of Books video from Ohkamp [19]
The Joy of Books [19] video from Ohkamp

Many people were ecstatic with this video, 3.5 million views’ worth of ecstatic. It’s made by the folks at Ohkamp, and represents a huge amount of work.

I found it creepy. And I found it even creepier that publishing people went so crazy for it. The person right next to you might be imagining a shop full of suddenly animated books right now. I name this creepy. Now that I think about it, that may be when the Campari started.

But while not a fan of fetishizing the book, I’m also not interested in seeing it end its long life as a symbol.

I have some traditional books that are very important to me, chief among them my grandmother’s complete Shakespeare with a soft suede binding. And I have an amazing code-of-conduct manual from The Citadel in old Charleston. It tells you precisely when, how fast, and for how long you will stand, Cadet, when a lady enters the room.

But I like how author Frank Rose [20] closed IfBookThen in Milan, telling the audience, “A book is (more than) a book when it becomes a world, a living work of art.” He’s right. As soon as you read it, whether in ink or pixels, if our writerly job has been done well, then that thing is no longer a book, a dead-tree composition that can be tricked up to  go bouncing around on Canadian bookshelves in videos.

It’s the story it carries. Container is submerged to content in a kind of literary sacrament.

So I’m starting off this warming season in the Northern Hemisphere with a rose for de Kermadec—it’s a worthy exercise he touched off, thinking through whether a symbol can survive its artifact’s transformation.

And just how “visually nude,” as he terms us, are we in publishing today? Do we need to hustle out cover our nakedness with some new symbols?


Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli, Anderson [21]
At the Emperor Hadrian’s second-century villa in Tivoli, he modeled this reflection pool on one at the Alexandrian resort Canopus. Photo: Porter Anderson


The first time I visited the big reflection pool at Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, outside Rome, I knew without being told that the guy with the shield in his left hand is Mars. And did that shield not tell me what he symbolizes? As if I’ve ever hoisted a shield, except onstage. Put a book in Mars’ right hand, and you’re showing me a military strategist.

I say our symbol will survive the morphing modes of digital delivery.

So as I started by asking, what do you think? As we watch the book transition into its fraught future, will the eventual scarcity of traditional volumes mean we can no longer recognize an image of that rectangular thing as a symbol of “learning, poise, wisdom and moral fortitude?”  Or will the book as a symbol spring eternal?

Main Hermes image: iStockphoto | Hammondovi

About Porter Anderson [22]

@Porter_Anderson [23] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [24], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [25] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [26]