A Maryland bookseller will outfit your bookshelf with books of any description — liberal history, musty old tomes, or just “green.” What are the moral implications of treating books as objects and not content?
Politico describes Books by the Foot‘s business. Its clients vary. Some are set decorators for movies and plays. Others are people with stately homes hoping to impress visitors with the look of their libraries. And of course, in the COVID era, many clients are building bookcases as backgrounds to be visible when connecting on Zoom or appearing as a talking head on CNN or Fox News. It’s not a coincidence that their warehouse is near Washington, DC.
I revere books. In my bookcase, you’ll find hundreds of books I’ve read; I could tell you off the top of my head when and where I bought them (and, in some cases, how the used bookstore smelled). There are also lots of books I’ve been involved with as an author, ghost writer, editor, or just a friend of the author. There are also, I admit, hundreds of books I bought because they looked interesting, but that I’ll never get around to reading.
Like the other authors and editors I know, I find the existence of Books by the Foot confounding.
On the one hand, I know that every book in their warehouse was written, edited, and published by actual people who cared about content. Somebody spent hours on research. Somebody copy edited those books to find the errors so the author could fix them. Somebody laid out the pages; somebody else created indexes for them. Somebody chose what image to put on the dust jacket, what what color to use for the hardcover boards, what font to use for the text inside, and what type of paper to print it on. Somebody undertook a book tour to promote those books, or did an interview about them on C-SPAN. A book is not just a book, it’s 50 or so cubic inches of densely concentrated effort and inspiration.
But once it’s manufactured, a book is an object. It’s red or blue or day-glow orange. It signifies — that the reader values historical accuracy, or needs a confidence boost from a self-help title, or is willing to plow through dense text to gain insight. Or, maybe that they just like swords and dragons and damsels in filmy gowns.
In some sense, a publisher or author doesn’t care whether you read the book, only that you bought it. Thomas Pikkety’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was a bestseller, but at 816 pages, I doubt most people read the whole thing, even if they pretended to. The author and publisher didn’t have a problem cashing those checks.
I’ll admit to some ambivalence a while back when I visited my company’s San Francisco office and saw that a valued colleague was using books I’d written and edited to prop up her monitor to the correct height. She’s since risen to become a senior executive at the company, while I’m not there any more. In truth, I’m sitting here typing in my home office staring at a monitor which is propped up by two books I edited while at that same company.
Books by the Foot would like to reassure you that they’re not exploiting the work of authors, because the books would otherwise go to waste:
A lover of books who professes to never want to see them destroyed, [Books by the Foot owner Chuck Roberts] described the service as a way to make lemonade out of lemons; in this case, the lemons are used books, overstock books from publishers or booksellers, and other books that have become either too common or too obscure to be appealing to readers or collectors. “Pretty much every book you see on Books by the Foot [is a book] whose only other option would be oblivion,” Roberts says.
Moral recommendations for partners and customers of Books by the Foot
I have no problem with Books by the Foot’s existence or mission. They’re filling a need, and their work doesn’t hurt authors or readers. Used books, like used clothing, are better repurposed to help people than as trash in a landfill.
If you’re an author, you need to get used to people mistreating your creations. I’ve seen my books in the trash, and I’m okay with that. For every copy that’s dogeared and annotated and referred to over and over, there’s another copy that’s just taking up space. My job was to create and promote the best possible content, which I did; the rest is out of my control. In the end, it’s a hard fact that no one loves a book as much as the author does. Authors must accept that and move on.
But what of the buyer of Books by the Foot? What of the person who is treating our hard work as just set decoration?
I can’t demand that anyone who purchases Books by the Foot must read what they buy. All of us have unread books; there is no shame in that.
Instead, I hereby decree that all buyers of Books by the Foot must intend to read the books they purchase.
This ensures that each time they look at that the books they bought for show, they must consider whether it’s time to read one. If they don’t take a book down and read it, they should certainly look at it and consider when they might read it. They should think about that every time they appear on Zoom or in a TV live shot or as they watch people visiting their home admire their library.
This constant consideration of books bought for show that must at some point be read should create a continuous low-level feeling of guilt.
And that is quite appropriate for the buyer of Books by the Foot.