Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Value of Books

These are strange days for the publishing industry. The way books are published, sold, bought, and read is completely changing, and the oily-faced chief exec of Amazon is being, for lack of a better word, creepy: trying to cut out publishers entirely, devaluing the concept of "a book" by pricing ebooks so low. Amazon has seriously slashed our mental image of what a book is worth—we just aren't willing to spend real money on books anymore.

When you read the Yelp reviews of my favorite independent Chicago bookstores, there's always a handful of bitter Yelpers complaining about how expensive the books are at Myopic, or The Book Cellar, or Unabridged Books. These disillusioned readers love to moan, "Why should I buy my books here, when I can get them for 75% cheaper on Amazon?" (Why did you walk into a brick-and-mortar book store then, dude?) We don't think of books as something that should = a significant amount of money, and we feel oppressed or even repulsed by the idea of dropping multiple dollar bills on reading material. We won't spend $30 on books. We won't spend $20 on books. We might not even spend $10 on books. Because that's like two and a half caramel macchiatos.


Like most literarily-minded people, I couldn't wait for Jefferey Eugenides' new book, The Marriage Plot, to come out. The second I saw it in the window of Unabridged Books, I ran inside to buy it. I was so ready to get my hands on that book. I was the ideal customer, a book publicist's dream: I saw the ads (yup, ads—Eugenides has a billboard in Times Square, so let's not, like, mourn the demise of fiction or the irrelevancy of the novel just yet, okay?), I read the Paris Review interview, I talked about it with all of my friends, and I was ready to buy on opening day.

I threw open the bookstore's door, I blew inside, I picked up the shiny hardcover and—OMG. A hardcover version of The Marriage Plot at Unabridged Books was $30. I think I turned to my boyfriend and said something like, "How am I supposed to spend $30 on this? I can't afford that! I'm a writer!" (I know, I'm the antagonist in my own essay. Me and Jeff Bezos.)

I bought The Marriage Plot a month later, at Powell's in Portland, because they were selling it for 30% off. So that was nice. I read the book in a week, buoyed by expensive coffee.

Now, sitting alone in my window seat, watching the rain pummel the delicate violets, I wonder: Why wouldn't I spend $30 on a hardcover novel—and not just any hardcover novel, THE hardcover novel, the one that everyone is talking about, the one that got a BILLBOARD IN TIMES SQUARE? Why? Why?! WHY?!?! I'm the girl that's like, "OMG, I love Goodreads, you have to read more Marquez, oh this quote on my fridge? That's Neruda, gah I love literature, why doesn't anyone read The Bad Girl so we can talk about it? Yeah I own several Fitzgerald biographies. Are you, like, illiterate?? OMG, my new Paris Review is here! How do we feel about Glimmer Train?" ANNOYING, I KNOW.

Here are some things I've recently spent $30 on:
  1. Takeout from Indie Cafe. (I didn't finish my crazy basil rice.)
  2. A candle. (Okay, it was a really fucking fabulous candle.) 
  3. Two rounds of drinks at Hopleaf
  4. Ingredients to bake a raspberry-chocolate-truffle cake.

I spend $30 on ephemeral, yuppie, indulgent things, without thinking twice about it, but to see $30 as the cost of a book—a book, a book, the thing that keeps us a little higher than the animals (and a little lower than the angels, maybe, since we're all so self indulgent?)—to see a $30 sticker on a book makes me pause, turns me off, doesn't fit with my concept of the “worth” of a book. A book does not = $30 in my brain.

The only people I know who spend real money on books are poets. And my boyfriend, who is a bass player and a real artist.


A beautifully-done book is a piece of physical art—embossed cover, heavy paper. It's a piece of design work—the cover art, the typesetting, the jacket flap. It's a lot of editing work: conceptual back-and-forth between the author and the editor, line editing, copyediting, proofreading. More proofreading. Last-minute proofreading. A book put out by a major publishing house is drama and anticipation and literary gossip; a boook put out by a small press is a labor of love and a statement of faith.

A book also involves a fair amount of work on the part of the person who—what do you call them? Oh yeah, the "author." But I mean whatever.

A new, beautiful book is worth more than whatever discounted price you're paying for it.

Stop telling yourself that it's good to buy books as cheaply as possible because you're a reader and the more you buy the more you read, or whatever.

Please don't buy books on Amazon. Just don't. I don't care if that's where the future is headed, blah blah blah KINDLE FIRE. It's creepy and offensive to artists and it devalues your artistic taste. Reading full-price books is so fun (you can feel righteous and cool at the same time, which is a pretty rare feeling these days). Just go to a bookstore and drop some petty cash. You'll have a great time, I promise. Some bookstores even have entire porn sections! Food porn, that is. (Just kidding—Unabridged Books has real porn. And might I just say—yikes.)

$30 should be nothing for a book. $30 is kind of expensive for unfinished Thai takeout, but not a book.


  1. I so know what you mean. I will drop a hundred dollars if I have it at a bookstore..then I berate myself for buying the books from Barnes and Noble..I should be buying from the independent!!!!! Gaaaaarrrrggghhh

  2. You know, I wasn't really a book person until I started my MA program. None of the books one my reading list (and there are a lot of them) are available on Amazon, and so I constantly have to spend $50 - $100 on an individual book. I don't mind, though - they're all so beautiful. Also, I just bought a first edition of "The Sleeping Beauty and Other Stories" illustrated by Edmund Dulac for $10 at a library in Cape Cod. *elation*

    1. YESSS. see? artists are willing to spend $$ on books! also, first editions are kind of addictive--WANT ALL OF THEM. can't afford any of them. :(


You are truly great.