By Jake Davis

Old books! They smell so great! And they’re amazing aide mémoires! My old copy of Ulysses is not so easily coaxed into Wordle manipulation, but it’s got sand from Costa Rican beaches in the splitting glue of its spine, buttery fingerprints on its pages from being read while I ate croissants, and lots of embarrassing underlining, circling, and marginal “insights.” 

When you read other people’s old books, you get a similar window into their habits and states of mind. Another example from my shelves: an edition of Beckett’s short prose contained a handwritten note from one stranger to another. I know nothing about them—well, not nothing: one wrote with an exceptional hand and could doodle well. The other was named Tom.

But marginalia’s serendipitous discoveries are made possible only because modern books, codices, are more than merely the information they contain; they are also objects. With eBooks, objecthood becomes problematic. Insofar as they “exist” at all, eBooks are hardly objects. They’re an arrangement of bits on a storage device, hardly dissociable from the device the presents it. And, as we now know, eBooks can be taken from you without someone breaking into your apartment. Notes and highlightings you make on your device aren't really yours to keep, either.

None of this is new anymore. Neither is there much to be done about it, on the broad scale: eReaders and eBooks are here to stay. And the medium is not even a bad one, in and of itself. If we could resolve the privacy issues (when pigs fly), or deal justly with the monetization of your “private” habits (pigs don’t absolutely have to fly for that one, though it is unlikely), some of the data produced could be interesting to future historians studying the tastes of eReader users. Hint: as of today, Kindle-types really liked these sentences, and you can bet that Amazon is keeping records on it all.

But whither the trade in used books as the dominance of the codex withers? The pass-along book trade has never been popular with publishers. It has been seen as a loss of profits, quantified in a way much like the ridiculous amounts estimated to be lost on account of music piracy. (Protip accountant dudes: if consumers don’t have the money, in aggregate, to complete sales “lost” to piracy, those sales weren’t gonna happen in the first place!) So don’t expect a pass-along feature to be built into eBooks any time soon. Which means used bookstores will have to come up with a way to save themselves.

Perhaps they are doomed to employ twee, quirky efforts like Record Store Day. Perhaps we’ll see a Codex Day in the future, when small-run, high-value editions are acquired by ostentatiously self-fashioning consumers.

Perhaps (we might hope) said consumeristas will even leave sticky fingerprints all over their new objects.

Image: flickr user andy54321