January 2011
Theo Schell-Lambert

The Depthless Bookshelf

Selling the Uncomplicated Ease of Virtual Reading

Discussed: Marketing Readers to Readers, Raw Bookstuffs, The Shared Space of Eeyore and Ted Kennedy, Free-Floating Signifiers, Waterproof Kindles, Reading for Success, The Booklikeness of Books

It’s still a new thing to have book-shaped readers for reading books—new on all sides. For readers (the people), what feels new is obvious. And for reader-makers, what probably feels new is that devices have gotten so fine, have retreated so far back into the quotidian world, that they now have a reason to share real estate with the grungy objects they outmoded. They cover everything, so they cover books. (And, hey, remember books?)

The advertisers for the iPad, Kindle, and other reading devices are in a strange spot, forced either to sell readers on readers (who thoughttheywere the readers) or to tell everyone else why books are grand. And they have responded, in a sense, in kind: with a series of strange spots. Apple runs an ad on its website starring the reading experience (a mom reads Winnie-the-Pooh to her child, and we see some mommish titles socked away for later). In Amazon’s stop-motion TV commercials, twee pop plays as silent Kindle-holding characters are swamped repeatedly—almost worryingly—by costumes and high jinks: raw bookstuffs. And in the New York Times Book Review, newsprint ads struggle to cobble together the resolution to show just how legibly this electronic device renders print.

One theme is common to all the ads: No one can grip either device naturally. The actors handle them more like scrolls (certainly Steve Jobs does, in his initial presentation of the iPad, as he pulls up Ted Kennedy’sTrue Compass). And for Jobs and the rest, the reading looks oddly oracular. They peer at the devices formally, expectantly. It is as if the e-reader will not so much behave as a book but predict the future of books.

They peer at the devices, and the devices peer back. In the iPad’s world, everything has been turned to greet us. “The iBooks app opens to a beautiful bookshelf,” the mom’s voice announces in Apple’s web ad. Too dark to be pine, the shelf appears to be made of walnut, and her description is fair: there is nothing not beautiful about it. But it’s also a strange platform: it looks to be no more than a few inches deep, and—as if to accommodate that design flaw—all the books are facing out. Fully frontal, they appear a bit abashed; they are grudging conscripts in all this. It’s as though they’ve been forced to trade their slim, sidelong seduction for a kind of literary flashing. “Good morning,” they seem to say gloomily, much like Eeyore, whose words are intoned at the beginning of the ad: Winnie-the-Pooh sits on the top left of the beautiful bookshelf.

Also resting on, at, or in the top left of the sylvan screen are Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded and Ted Kennedy’s True Compass. The latter is apparently a popular choice. It’s certainly an intriguing one, directionally speaking. A book about the late senator facing his fears, facing his past, facing Hyannis Port on a beam reach.

True Compass is also a book about mortality tinged with hope, I’m guessing, and as such Jobs’s choice feels coded with a claim about books: they’re sort of dying, but their best days are ahead. Finally able to shed their physical forms, they can live on as icons—quite literally—totally weightless and a snap to move around this strangely cool, flat, and crowded bookshelf. Weightless and, of course, in the case of all of the books in the ads, which range from Stephen Coonts’s The Disciple to J. A. Jance’s Trial by Fire, quite spineless.

We can’t help but translate these ripe symbols—yet where do we file the translations? These titles signify, but without further depth to the family (which lacks even a proper den for its shallow bookshelf), the signifiers float free. We have no real characters, just their taste: these bobbing, lost symbols. And then we open the New York Times Book Review, and there is a full-page ad for the Kindle, featuring the first page of the first chapter of Dan Brown’s latest best seller,The Lost Symbol.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Theo Schell-Lambert is currently working on a novel and a screenplay. He also writes a column for GOOD. He lives in California.

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