A book in a vending machine. This is a thing that exists. Image by Jochen Jansen.


I want to preface this post by coming out against the term “ebooks”. There are a number of reasons why I’m not crazy about it – anything with “e” at the beginning of the word to denote “electronic” strikes me as a bit Information Super-Highway-esque at this point – but also because it discursively separates one medium for books from another and, in my opinion, contributes to a culture that subtly delegitimizes one as compared to the other. Ebooks are books. Period.

However, it’s so entrenched in the language at this point that I think I pretty much have to use it anyway.

That said, last Tuesday I went to a bookstore for the first time in a while.

My experience is not unique – that of visiting bookstores only infrequently at this point. The collapse of Borders and the slow downward slide of Barnes & Noble is damning evidence of that. The store I went to – Books-A-Million in a local mall – is another largeish chain along the same lines, and it looks as if it’s succumbing to the same patterns: less and less space given to actual books and more to calendars, greeting cards, and other vaguely book-related products that admittedly share the feature of being words of a sort printed on various kinds of wood pulp.

There are not a million books.

Basically, if you’re someone who buys into one of the cultural assumptions that supports and maintains the idea that print books are somehow more legitimate than ebooks – that print books are more real because they are more fundamentally sensual – Books-A-Million is still not a place where you would probably go in order to get that sensual experience. This is worth noting simply because in the ebooks vs. print books debate “bookstores” are often presented as monolithic things that are all basically the same and basically up against the rising tide of ebooks in the same way. This isn’t true across the board, but it’s often true, so I’m going to run with it for a sec.

One of the other things that maintains the legitimacy of print over digital – related to the above assumption re: sensuality – is that there is greater cultural value in print books. As I’ve written before, this is in part the result of the idea that it requires a higher level of quality to get into print – something that is true in some ways but increasingly not so in others. Print has greater cultural cachet than digital, but it doesn’t stop there; just as not all bookstore spaces carry the same prestige, not all forms of print do. Trade paperback, I’d argue, carries higher levels of prestige than mass market paperback, hardback carries higher levels of prestige than both. Dust-jacketless hardback with embossing – in most cases – carries higher prestige than hardcover with a paper dust jacket.

And of course the spaces themselves in which one goes to experience books are laden with differing degrees of cultural capital. Independent bookstores tend to be more prestigious than chains. Independent bookstores with lots of antique shelving that’s high enough to need those cool rolling ladders tend to be more prestigious than a little hole-in-the-wall used bookstore. You stand in these spaces, a hardcover first edition in your hands, surrounded by whispers and wood and that fantastic old book smell, and you can think Aha, I am a Cultured person in a Cultured space and I am Experiencing Books.

By the way, all of these rules apply to libraries. The grand central ones are clearly more impressive than the tiny provincial branches. I mean, just look at them. Bonus points for the ones in old universities.

All of this is to say that print is not monolithic in nature. There is an enormously complex system of hierarchically valued cultural capital built up around not only print books but the spaces in which those books are found, consumed, and experienced. The experience of books in its purest and most complete form is the result of the conjunction of the physical artifact of the book and its physical surroundings.

A recent essay in The New Inquiry on the declining prestige of physical galleries as places to experience works of art – in favor of the experience of art via digital media – got me thinking. The piece points out that the prestige associated with the presentation of art has historically been dependent not only on the art and the prestige of the name behind it but on the physical features of the physical space in which the art is viewed – something into which the digital experience of art is beginning to encroach, though with mixed success:

Artists have the ability to create vast social networks online, promote themselves and their artworks, and use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr to share images themselves. Further, while galleries restrict how, when, and where their represented artists show their work to keep demand high, the attention economy rewards artists who produce and share frequently, encouraging artists to be productive and prolific…Artists can be more effectual than the gallery in cultivating attention and connecting with their audiences. Yet the gallery continues to have the upper hand in connoting value within the art market, and the white cube continues to be the quintessential marker of art-world status.

The “white cube” is central here. It is the presentation that we associate with the experience of viewing art: when we think of a “gallery”, that’s probably what we all think of. It serves not only as background but as carefully constructed space – sound, lighting, even smell all come into play. What the TNI piece discusses are the ways in which, with the increasing consumption of art through screens, the “white cube” is becoming merely a backdrop for a photo of art that is then encoded as a JPEG and put on a website. But the general aesthetics of the “white cube” remain as a reference point that everyone can easily identify:

Though Contemporary Art Daily showcases exhibitions from a huge pool of galleries, photos on the site become almost indistinguishable from one another, save for the art. The white cube retains its place in the documentation image: Each photo has a white-walled backdrop and minimal accompanying text, mimicking the aesthetic of white-cube galleries. Situating works within a simulated white cube maintains the illusion of prestige and credibility traditionally conveyed by the gallery space. Only now, the gallery-cum-backdrop contextualizes the work not within physical space but within the democratized playing field of the Internet, while specifying the images’ art-world context.

What’s especially noteworthy about this essay is the recognition that there are sensual aspects to the digital experience of art, simply that it is a differently sensual experience. It is an experience. This is significant, because one of the things that the discourse around the experience of art and the experience of books in digital forms implicitly rejects is the idea that such an experience even exists. How can you experience something that isn’t tactile?

Of course, one vital sense is still used in most forms of this experience: vision. Additionally, ebooks are tactile in that pages are often “turned” by swiping a finger across a screen. Highlighting and notes are also done with hands. The book is touched, just differently. And for those who can’t or prefer not to experience digital books visually, there are audiobooks, which introduce the nuances of an entirely different medium – vocal tone, level, balance, possibly music. It’s still a book, though. It’s still sensual. It’s still an experience. It’s still an experience that is, at least in part, physical.

It’s also worth noting, though, that the ways in which the experiences of books and art in digital settings are constructed ape – at least in part – the familiar traditional experiences of them. The white cube is still there. We still turn pages. What I wonder is what experiences of books and art might look like divorced from those more traditional forms, whether such a thing might even be conceivable. Along with that, I wonder what a system of cultural capital built up around these digital experiences and forms might look like. Just as we often see what we identify as the “physical” as monolithic in nature, we see the digital in the same ways. Ebooks aren’t yet old enough to have such a system built up around them, but there probably will eventually be one; it’s sort of what we do with things. What will that look like? What will it mean? How will we define the experience of digital books and art?

First, of course, we need to get used to the idea that there’s an experience to be had.


Sarah produces words for digital experience on Twitter – @dynamicsymmetry