May 12, 2004

To pick up from below, I prefer reading decent quality paperbacks to reading clothbound books. They weigh less, so I can hold them open with one hand. On the shelf, their spines are often easier to read than a non-dust jacketed clothbound book (and though I like the design of dust jackets, I think I'd rather decorate my wall with them than read a book with them on.)


Books by their covers

08:50 PM

With the unfortunate agreement of Amber Taylor, Nate at Polytropos expounds a theory of book-bigotry.

shelfworthy: Visually pleasing on the shelf, based on shape, texture, and spine. Mass markets are almost never shelfworthy, and clothbound editions (especially with the dust jacket off) almost always are. Unless Iím picking up something to read on the airplane, I only buy shelfworthy books anymore.

In some technical sense, Nate is only defining a term, so quarrelling with him seems needlessly antagonistic, but because of the notion inherent in the term (and reinforced in his comment) that one ought to shelve ones books only with books that look and feel good, I feel obliged to take issue.

First, a minor point of agreement-- Nate is absolutely right to criticize dust jackets. They are terrible, usually terrible-looking, and slip around needlessly while you're reading the book. Abandon them. But what of the notion that one ought to judge one's book by its cover?

All else being equal, yes, absolutely, prettier books are better than uglier ones (although not all paperbacks are ugly; I still snatch up any Robert Heinlein pulp novel from before about 1970 when I see them on the shelves). But most of the time, all else is not equal. I used to disdain used books. When I developed my book-buying addiction in college, I realized that while I liked used books less than pristine editions, I didn't like them so much less that I was willing to pay the price. For most people, most of the time, there are just so many more books to acquire that the luxury of clothbound hardbacks simply isn't worth it. Better to buy more books. Like Heidi Bond, I am of the "let thy bookshelf runneth over" school.

But even more so, books have many purposes. It's much harder to read a clothbound in the shower (a skill I am slowly perfecting) or even just to read it with one hand while walking to and from campus. It fits less well in the backpack, it takes up far more space on the bookshelf, and costs more to ship when you have to ship hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books home at the end of the school year. (A task I don't relish repeating next month).

Amber Taylor in her (GRR!) comments makes another defense of the hardcover book:

The mass market paperback is just not as durable as the hardcover (or, to a lesser extent, the trade paperback). A book should be able to survive being slept with, tossed in a knapsack, being propped open while you do other things, and of course many thorough readings of a beloved story. At the end of it all, you should have a venerable text full of memories and associations to keep for many years, not just a cracked and puffy paperback coming apart at the edges.

This is a more sensible defense of the hardcover, although I think the facts just aren't as absolute as Amber makes them out to be. Of my copies of Ada, my most loved, most used one is the paperback, so much more easily carried and cared for, and a little bit of scotch or packing tape applied every few months keeps it decidedly intact and memory-packed.

Similarly, when I sleep with books, its the hardcovers (whose covers snap or catch on things and eviscerate the book) that suffer far more than the paperbacks. So long as you're dealing with a paperback of slightly higher quality than your average John Grisham novel, you can avoid the puffiness and spine-flaking that Amber laments.

No question, books are made to be loved and used, but that use isn't-- or shouldn't be-- limited to sitting on a shelf and looking pretty. Ease of transport, minimization of cost, minimization of storage space-- these are all real constraints that true book lovers deal with every day. Cloth-bound hardcovers aren't always the most aesthetically pleasing books, and aesthetical-pleasingness should not be the only concern aside from content.

UPDATE: Amber Taylor adds:
Edit: Do not misunderstand, I am the proud owner of many a paperback book. They provide less risk when reading in the bath, and are easier to snuggle up with in bed, and, more importantly for nearsighted folk, to hold next to the pillow. However, the ease in shipping Will mentions highlights one aspect of paperbacks I find unappealing: their transience. A softcover has less sense of permanence to it; a beloved and battered paperback held together with tape and prayer exists at the margins, in a constant battle to keep itself together. The weight and solidity of a hardcover emphasize that it will always be there for you to enjoy.

There is something to this. A very well-loved volume of e.e. cummings poetry sits on my shelf that multiple people have fallen in love over, and if it were not such a durable hardcover it might well not have lived this long.

But there is something deeply good about that battered and beloved paperback-- especially its ability to follow you everywhere at the drop of a hat. (Ada comes with me on nearly all plane flights and trips.)

At the risk of anthromorphizing beyond all sense: The durable and stately hardcover is the permanent and dependable friend who you must often be parted from, but who you know will always be around when you need her, and whose mere presence on your shelf fills you with a sense of security. The beloved and battered paperback is the slightly flighter but fiercer companion, ready to follow you on exciting adventures at a moment's notice, to slip into bed with you with ease, but who takes a little more effort and energy to keep up, and whose possible loss is always hanging in the future.

There's nothing inconsistent about loving both, of course, but a preference between the two can be quite revealing.


When a reductio stops being so absurdum (UPDATED)

04:47 PM

So I finally start reading something by Jane Ginsburg, one of the most cited scholars on the more-copyright side of things, and I find myself about as scared as I would have guessed. For the curious, the article is "From Having Copies to Experiencing Works: the Development of an Access Right in U.S. Copyright Law." In it, the good professor asserts that access rights--the right of an author to control each and every enjoyment of her work--are inevitable, wonderful, and possibly Constitutionally mandated.

Now, there's a lot that could be said on the subject, from the more scholarly to the more paranoid, but one particular passage struck me as deserving of comment. In discussing whether there ought to be any "fair use" exceptions to access rights, Ginsburg notes that "on the one hand, the 'market failure' genre of fair use should fade away in a world of perfect price discrimination and direct enforcement of copyright controls."

Let's take a step back for a second. Apparently it's standard stuff to invoke price discrimination as better than no-price-discrimination when dealing with monopolists--see here for an interesting critique of the too-casual use of this--but still, one would think that the phrase perfect price discrimination would give an author some pause. With perfect price discrimination, each consumer gets charged exactly what she is willing to pay, thereby transferring every bit of consumer surplus to the monopolist; PPD is a world in which the monopolist gets everything, and the consumers are left just about indifferent between having been involved in the transaction and not.

Now, sure, More's Law (if some is good, more is better) may well mean that this produces more creative work (although it may not--artists' labor supply curves may well be backward-bending as they get paid beyond a certain amount). That said--exactly how does the production of a new creative work qualify as the promotion of "useful arts" when the public derives zero utility from it? How useful are we really talking, here?

I wonder whether we're going to get to the point where this is actually a typical and acceptable argument to make. I'm picturing the future RIAA head testifying before Congress: "Well, of course, strictly speaking, our access rights are designed to minimize the net utility consumers derive from our creations, and yes, in an ideal world, drive it to zero--but really, when you consider redistributive taxation and demand externalities, plenty of it trickles back down to the public!"

UPDATE: One thing about the IP debate is that it sometimes seems that all the interesting points have already been made. I just came across James Boyle's website, which has an astonishing amount of great stuff on it, including his 500-page Materials on IP coursepacket; give it a look. At any rate, he has some trenchant remarks on price discrimination in this article. Best line:

The popular definition of chutzpah is the child who kills his parents and then throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. The economic definition of chutzpah is the industry that demands a legalized monopoly, and then, once given it even though the evidence was weak, insists on the state's aid in price discrimination, the better to wring every last cent of consumer surplus out of their customers."



03:19 PM

No blogging yet today because I've been arguing with friend of Crescat Ben Glatstein and puzzling over legal conundrums.

1: Given the current reading of the "necessary and proper" clause of Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, what kinds of things would be "necessary" but not "proper", or "proper" but not "necessary"? (Repeat this exercise for whatever reading of the "necessary and proper" clause you think is the correct one.)

2: Should and when should people be allowed to opt-out of bankruptcy laws? Obviously part of the point of bankruptcy is that it is a restriction on the freedom of contract, but it could well be sensible for people to volunteer for slightly stricter wage-garnishment or other terms in exchange for lower rates of interest (or the ability to get a loan where they otherwise would not). So is there any way to sensibly extend flexibility to those who desperately need it without bringing the bankruptcy system down?

3: What is the point of the Treason clause in Article 3 Section 3 of the Constitution? On the one hand it restricts the term "treason" to a very narrow set of crimes, and then it also says that for this very narrow set of crimes there is a high evidentiary barrier. What is accomplished by this?

All thoughts welcome.


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