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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part IX: Insulated Niches
Sacred Books

by Craig Stark

#140 18 January 2010

Question: Does the content of a book change if its format changes? At first glance, the question might seem ridiculous. How could the content of a book possibly change if you read it first, say, in print format and then on a Kindle? It's still comprised of exactly the same words, right?

Well, it might depend on what we mean by "content." In this context it could mean several things, and here are two applicable Webster's definitions to consider:

1. "the topics, ideas, facts, or statements in a book"

2. "essential meaning or significance"

Two very different things, wouldn't you say? If we use the first definition to answer the question, it's perfectly reasonable to conclude that topics, ideas, facts and statements would survive the journey to digitization more or less intact. But essential meaning or significance? It seems to me that these things may not be as transportable - that is, since "meaning" and "significance" have as much to do with who is doing the reading as they do with the author's efforts, isn't is possible for them to change as the reader's experience changes?

I'll concede that the change might be slight from a printed book to a Kindle, but consider how different the experience of listening to an audio book would be. For one thing, it's more difficult to "re-read" a passage in an audio book, and if you didn't grasp something the first time through, you'd be less likely to stop the tape or DVD, rewind, and listen again for clarification and more likely to venture into what followed laboring under a disadvantage. Also consider that the person vocalizing the book will bring his or her own idiosyncrasies along and inevitably impose a somewhat altered meaning on it via how it's being read.

Those of you who have been around the block once or twice may recall a ca. 1960s book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in which author Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "the medium is the message." McLuhan asserted that, as media change, there's a symbiotic effect between content and format that will alter one's understanding of the content.

Do you buy this? Consider another example - The Holy Bible, more specifically, for purposes of illustration, The Lord's Prayer. You first read the passage in a print Bible - and let's say this Bible is bound in top grain morocco with silk moiré endpapers, India paper, etc.; I'm sure you get the picture. Then you listen to Led Zeppelin perform it as a song (as many others have done), using precisely the same words. Will the meaning change?

It could change dramatically, I'd say, because the experiences would be dramatically different. I deliberately chose the Rock format largely on the basis of one potentially disruptive element - noise. Typically, excessive noise (with obvious exceptions) isn't associated with forms of worship; quiet contemplation rather is. And I would assert that it's no accident that most Bibles feature quieter elements than most books - supple leather bindings that can be held near noiselessly in one's hands, quiet color tonality - blacks, dark-blues, maroons, etc. - and India paper is both thin and rag-based, as opposed to pulp-based. (Compare the noise produced by turning a page in a Bible to that of pulpy paperback.) Even the fonts are often serene. And don't forget that the act of reading itself is more often than not a silent endeavor!

What I'm getting at is that the format of a print Bible is far more conducive to inviting one into prayer or interior quiet than a Led Zeppelin performance. In my opinion, it's also more conducive to this deepening movement, perhaps significantly, than an e-version. What this means for booksellers, of course, is that print Bibles - and by extension all sacred texts in print format - are far, far from going away and present yet another attractive, long-term opportunity for us.

But there's more to be optimistic about, and for this I'll pose another question: Do you treat (printed) sacred texts with more reverence than other books? Many people do. Apparently some people even feel guilty if they drop, step on or otherwise mistreat them. Idolatry is generally a no-no in most religious traditions, but in essence worshiping a material object is idolatrous. And if you've ever seen the elaborate rituals associated with handling, disposing of, etc., sacred texts in, among others, Islamic, Judaic and some Christian traditions, you'd be hard put not to sense at least some idolatry in them. But as long as idolatry is afoot to any extent, what we have is a context where the format of a book has value as format, further solidifying the print Bible as a viable commodity for who knows how many decades to come.

Like any other niche, buying and selling Bibles requires some know-how. If you're short on this, issue #12, "Bible Mania," of the Gold Edition will help get you up to speed. Purchase it here.

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