Books as Luxury
To avid readers, books are, by definition, decadent. They are a treat, inspiring and special pieces of our lives. An evening lost in pages is an indulgence of time and a soak in imagination. Of all the volumes in the world, the millions, what would the most luxurious of publications be, then? Is it how they are made, the words written inside, the story and context of the object? To question what makes a book more valuable and unique than others is to question the notion of luxury itself.
Coco Chanel described luxury as "a necessity that begins where necessity ends." Today luxury can pertain to the material consumer goods are made of: gold, chinchilla fur, fine chocolate. It can reference the craftsmanship involved in the creation of an item: trunks by Louis Vuitton, a painting by Mondrian, Venetian glass. Luxury can also be about story and context, which may or may not encompass those first two variables. Brand names aim to tell us a story of craftsmanship and thus, why something is desirable. We seek details, whether from an individual, from our own experience, or from a company, that tell us why an item is paramount, is worthy. In an item's story, history or provenance we learn what we need to determine its worth. We find ourselves in the midst of that phenomenon Chanel describes as the end of necessity: desire. We seek satisfaction in the items we surround ourselves with. Our belongings, particularly those in our home, tell a story about our lives, and so we measure value in how an object might contribute to that tale.
Books take a meandering path through the luxury landscape, different than couture, decor, cars or homes. What makes something extraordinary, decadent or special changes with a culture's economy, technology and availability of resources. Coffee, sugar and pepper were once rare pleasures enjoyed only by aristocracy. Over the centuries trade routes expanded, availability rose. A middle class emerged that could attain and enjoy small pleasures. Today we find these ingredients on every grocery list, a must-have rather than a splurge. Similarly we can buy used books for $1, can buy paperbacks at the grocery store for $6 or so.
Like pepper, paintings, porcelain, books were once incredibly rare, precious things. They were one-of-a-kind objects, pieces of art, protected and hoarded, certainly not made for the beach or just anyone's bedside table. They were valuable for the education it took to produce them and to read them, for their unique ability to preserve our stories, for the hundreds of hours it took to hand write them. Today I can access certain books for free, and millions of others at a cost, at the click of a download link. I can have my own words printed and bound as a book on demand. I can buy used copies of perfectly awful books and incredible literature alike, and have them delivered to my door. Until the 19th century owning a book at all (and even knowing how to read one) was strictly a privilege of the wealthy. As literacy, spending money and a cultural value for reading trickled down to the masses, the story of the book as an object to own changed entirely. As the value of ink on bound pages, of the words themselves and of specific copies of specific books changed, so did the need and desire for those things.
As literacy continues to increase worldwide, as digital access to the written word extends to every corner of the globe, so does contemporary publishing and the sale of books, new, used and rare, expand. For every taste, interest, style there is something fantastic depending upon your tastes. We still measure luxury the way we could centuries ago: by material, craftsmanship or story. These measures hold true, though the standards of each shift about.
While the value of story, of an object's context or provenance, is changing dramatically (and will continue to do so with the times), our gauge of material and craftsmanship would be at least somewhat familiar to Renaissance royalty or Jazz Age oil barons. The internet and the global marketplace have created an expanding quality and variety of fine paper, leathers, fabrics and handmade endpaper design. The accessibility of bookbinders from around the world allows us options of gorgeous, extravagant books. One Italian publisher of gold-plated tomes still lists Popes and contemporary royalty in their list of satisfied customers. One can have books sewn with French silk thread, end-papered with Japanese marbling and illustrated with original paintings in Rome. For an aesthetic that extends from one volume to a wall full of design, books can be covered in matching or coordinated art that make their spines register as decorative wallpaper. Or perhaps you prefer 500 volumes in a tartan fabric to juxtapose the upholstery? We're straying, here, from the luxury of materials and artistry because even in 2017, the potential for how books are perceived on a shelf continues to change. Quantity alone, and certainly quantity with visual impact and drama, is yet another well to tell a unique story. It carries us back to the question: what makes particular books special? Is it these very tangible, visual qualities, or is it what a book means -- to everyone, to those who know, or simply to you, the owner?
The most valuable books in my library are perhaps the copies of picture books I read as a child, or a beloved novel that is rather beat up from a backpacking trip. I also find value in cultural history, though. Holding first editions of fine literature is a treat: the concept alone stirs the imagination: the first time great words existed in print. One can't help but think of the hopeful author, the unknowing first readers of a treasure, the shelves it has sat on through the decades. These are the stories that make rare books valuable. Here is where we find the most expensive books in the world, and to some, the history of them makes them the height of luxury. After all, the only thing better than a collection of the best books written in the English language is first editions of those books gathered together in one room.
Rare books are a treasure -- one there is enough to say about that I'll save it for another day and here stick to books originally created with extravagance in mind (rather than coming by extravagance later in life). Downloadable books (or at least devices to read them on) were intended to be an upgrade -- and yet it's a challenge to feel decadent holding even the priciest Kindle. After years of industry dread that the eBook would kill print, the eBook market has more or less plateaued. Digital reading has helped us realize what it is that we value about holding a book in our hand. What it is I won't say here. For each of us it is different. As the publishing market breathes a sigh of relief that consumers do actually want to flip through some paper and cardboard to enjoy a story, it has also stayed nimble and begun to capitalize on what is special in those physical objects: graphic design and other physical features that compliment the content. The variety of printing and presentation expands every year. So far, no one seems to have run out of clever ideas as they seek to write, print and present books in unique, special ways for any and every interest and taste.
Luxury and art book publishers like Taschen, Rizzoli, Assouline and boutique luxury presses have pounced on the notion (born in the rare books field) that scarcity is what creates value. Mass-produced coffee table books go for $45-75, but a limited edition, numbered book, beautifully done, starts around $500 and can go upwards of $20,000. It's tempting to compare these pieces to fine art, but their lasting value is unknown; Major Auction houses have not yet touched them in their rare books market. Yet clearly the publishers see demand in making their titles special and limited: Taschen, for example, currently lets you narrow their Limited Editions list to those with "Few Left." Only 75 copies were printed of this photographic title (a link that will surely soon be dead once it sells out) on the Rolling Stones. Signatures of all of the band members must be the feature that makes for a $10,000 price tag. Taschen has two dozen special editions on the market right now from $10,000-$25,000.
Assouline has collaborated with Chanel to create volumes with quilted leather covers like a Chanel clutch. A racing book is covered in rubber tire tread. One on the Terra Nova Expedition to the South Pole (1911-1913) features waterproof pages. Louis Vuitton now publishes a series of travel guides to go with their luggage. Several of Taschen's volumes come in custom gold-plated cases or with their own stand made of precious materials, or perhaps a limited edition print by the author.
While it's delightful to look at books being presented and treasured like diamonds or couture, we can also look to mainstream publishers to put out special (less than $100) editions of fantastic books. I hope we continue to see an increase in creative projects that take book design to a new level. There are companies that will continue to bind classics in leather and gilt, or create interior-design-worthy special editions of Austen and Tolstoy. There are oddballs like the Little, Brown-produced unique, illustrated editions of Malcolm Gladwell's greatest hits. This is a set that has a unique look, if not a polished one. The extra value of it is in the design detail, from the font to the texture of the paper, which would resonate with a certain demographic sure to overlap with Gladwell's most loyal readers. (I'm not a huge fan of The Tipping Point or his other works. But the look and feel of this set, just the combination of elements there, simply delight me). Persephone Books in the U.K. is one of the publishers mining long-forgotten literature, seeking to bring new attention, with fresh branding, to out-of-print writing from decades past (in their case, little known female authors). Here stories that had lost their value over time are made interesting again with the tool of aesthetics and context. Such books are all tools with which readers can declare, on their shelves, that they love words and treasure them. By choosing an upgraded "package" of design encasing these pages, we are able to show our browsing house guests the value we know in a story or a resource.
The physical book has traveled the path from precious treasure to everyday, forgettable item and made its way back to center. Now it fights to keep its place at the table there. It is both ordinary and extraordinary, though it can be hard to recognize as either at times. Whether we maintain our $1 dog-eared copies or invest in a thousand-dollar version of the same, how we feel about the books on our shelves is emotional, practical, intellectual, and yes, sometimes a bit vain.
There are voices saying luxury has died with globalization. On the contrary, it thrives, so long as there are things that we value aside from our needs. It is how we define, see, measure quality and beauty that will shift with tides of culture and time. To see it you must pay attention to what is valued, what is unique, what is special to the tastemakers, and more importantly, to yourself. Luxury today is personal, above all else. It can no longer be identified by shininess or whether aristocracy is in the proximity. Value is found in the story of an item: what does this object mean to me? If it's in my home, what does that say about my life? That isn't a quantifiable value. It is something completely different to all of us.
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