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Back in April, The New York Times noted an Instagram trend: NYRB Classics were popping up everywhere. The imprint, issued by the New York Review of Books, “specializes in reissuing volumes that have fallen out of print or been otherwise neglected,” the Times reported, yet the books have now “become design objects and totems of intellectual status.”

What attracted people to this relatively obscure set of books? Their design. Their dimensions (in photos shot from above) are identical, their cover layouts are standardized. But their spines are varying, seemingly random, colors. Arranged together — for instance, on a shelf — they are chaos within limits, and perfectly Instagrammable.

This was, by all appearances, unintentional. The NYRB Classics line didn’t set out to be an Instagram favorite; they’ve looked the same for ages. But that reversal of intent might now be occurring elsewhere in the publishing world as, more and more, book jackets are designed with social media in mind.

Of course, books aren’t off-limits as Instagrammable objects. Aesthetic appreciation of books might be more worthwhile than fetishizing other consumer products. Yet, literary purists are likely depressed by the idea that book covers could be designed to be purposefully displayed as totems — that is, as reflections of the reader’s taste and style — without an awareness of the words inside. After all, whatever happened to not judging a book by its cover?

But maybe all is not lost. Maybe sharing book covers on Instagram isn’t just about projecting intellect or lifestyle. Maybe books — as objects used to display one’s taste — are fundamentally different from furniture or clothes. Maybe there’s more beneath the filter.


W e are not the first generation to spend time arranging the books on our shelves for public display. As far back as the 16th century, members of high society in Britain elaborately embroidered book covers as an alternative to leather binding. In the late 1800s, the craft underwent a revival.

“In a variety of publications, from magazines to histories of bookbinding and collecting, middle-class Englishwomen were encouraged to ply their needles within an explicitly patriotic historical tradition,” Jessica Roberson, an Ahmanson-Getty postdoctoral fellow at UCLA, wrote earlier this year in a review of a spate of late-19th century book embroidery histories.

Why did book embroidery become stylish again?

By the end of the 19th century, Britain was in the midst of a technological explosion. The industrial revolution changed more than just the way goods were manufactured and distributed; it also marked a significant shift in how information was produced and traveled. Advancements made in printing, which exponentially increased the rate of pages that could be produced per hour, coincided with the expansion of railways and the creation of the telegraph, marking “an irreversible acceleration in the pace of commercial and everyday life.”

In some ways, expanding access to information has been great; in others, it’s done irreparable damage.

Some, like John Stuart Mill, believed literature was suffering. In 1867, he wrote that it was “becoming more and more ephemeral,” and “more and more a mere reflection of the current sentiments, and has almost entirely abandoned its mission as an enlightener and improver of them.”

The rise of book embroidery in this context, Roberson writes, suggests “the Victorians saw a return to intimate connections between individual hands and books as an antidote to the emerging mass media.”

Is something similar happening now?


Neil Postman, renowned media critic and theorist, had a theory about information overload. In his book Technopoly, Postman theorized that the technocratic society of the late 1800s was one in which machinery and tools were still subservient to humans. Traditions co-existed, albeit uneasily, with technology. This technocratic society “did not entirely destroy the traditions of the social and symbolic worlds,” Postman wrote. “Technocracy subordinated these worlds — yes, even humiliated them — but it did not render them totally ineffectual.”

On the other hand, today’s society — an effective technopoly — goes a step beyond. In a technopoly, people believe in the calculable and quantifiable. Human thought and subjectivity are subservient to objectivity and advanced scientific management. In a technopoly, technology is deified, and “culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfactions in technology, and takes its orders from technology.”

A technopoly, in other words, is “totalitarian technology.”

Analog books give us something more than just information. They give us a sense of time and place, which these days is rare.

Within a technopoly, the defenses against information break down. In eras prior to the technopoly, information was hemmed in by a number of factors, including social institutions. But now, Postman argues, those social (read: human) institutions (the Church, political parties, schools) that once controlled and interpreted information — and thus gave information meaning — have either been abandoned, broken down, or become subordinated by technology. Something has changed. As Postman writes:

Technology increases the available supply of information. As the supply is increased, control mechanisms are strained. Additional control mechanisms are needed to cope with new information. When additional control mechanisms are themselves technical, they in turn further increase the supply of information. When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquillity and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures.

Technopoly was published in 1992. Whether, in the 26 years since then, the destruction of traditional social institutions has been a net positive or negative is fodder for another essay. It’s difficult to weigh the net value of nearly full democratization of information via the mobile internet and platforms like Facebook or Google. In some ways, expanding access to information has been great; in others, it’s done irreparable damage.

But Postman seems to have been correct in his central thesis: Boundless information is destabilizing.


A few years ago, many debated the demise of print books. “The change has come more slowly to books than it came to music or business correspondence, but by now it feels inevitable. The digital era is upon us,” Michael Agresta wrote at Slate in 2012. Some very interesting — or at least well-designed — books might survive as artifacts, he argued, but “the paratextually unremarkable, unimaginatively designed rows of paperbacks and late-edition hardcovers that line most of our shelves” would, he predicted, end up in “the same place most manufactured objects go eventually — the scrapheap.”

This isn’t exactly what happened. Instead, after reaching a peak in 2014, e-book sales have dropped off, while printed book sales have risen (at the same time, audiobooks have also sold well). Just seven percent of Americans Pew polled last year said they read e-books exclusively, versus nearly 40 percent who said they still only read print. Perhaps even more surprising, while only 65 percent of those aged 50 to 64 polled by Pew said they’d read a print book in the prior 12 months, 75 percent of those aged 18–24 said they had. As it turns out, people — even young, presumably digital natives — still really like to read real books.

Why?

Research suggests that when we use e-books, we’re less likely to absorb what we read. That’s one explanation.

But analog books give us something more than just information. They give us a sense of time and place, which these days is rare.

It’s easy to lose your bearings in an e-book. From title to title, there is no discernible difference in your hand. They lose their weight, and thus their impact. Did you read that passage in this book or was it the last one? They open at odd pages, sometimes the table of contents, at other times the first chapter, with little obvious rationale, the decision having been made at some point by the publisher — not you. You may never even see the cover.

It’s also difficult to know how much progress you’ve made. The book you’ve opened may be short or it may go on forever; either way, there’s no immediate way to tell. There’s no real beginning, and no end, because they’re measured not by pages but bits. E-books, like all the data in which we’re constantly immersed — or, rather, that inundates us — feel fleeting and transient, just a stream of information. Data. Boundless data.


The change which is thus in progress, and to a great extent consummated, is the greatest ever recorded in social affairs; the most complete, the most fruitful in consequences, and the most irrevocable,” Mill wrote.

We might say the same of our own era, a time in which any number of things we’d once believed to be permanent are suddenly in flux. Politics, family, work, trade, manufacturing, money, transportation, the arts, communication, journalism, climate. The list goes on. Like the Victorians believed — mostly correctly — there is no going back. And we feel slightly lost.

So, like the Victorians, we look for a more familiar kind of literal connection — one still untouched by our ephemeral technopoly. We hold a book and, even more than generations before, find new appreciation in its cover. In a world where few controls still exist against a relentlessly accelerating, meaningless and irreversible stream of information, books are finite. In our world of unlimited data, their front and back covers give us limits. They mark a start and a finish. They give information meaning.