The moral conundrum of Books by the Foot

A Maryland bookseller will outfit your bookshelf with books of any description — liberal history, musty old tomes, or just “green.” What are the moral implications of treating books as objects and not content?

Politico describes Books by the Foot‘s business. Its clients vary. Some are set decorators for movies and plays. Others are people with stately homes hoping to impress visitors with the look of their libraries. And of course, in the COVID era, many clients are building bookcases as backgrounds to be visible when connecting on Zoom or appearing as a talking head on CNN or Fox News. It’s not a coincidence that their warehouse is near Washington, DC.

I revere books. In my bookcase, you’ll find hundreds of books I’ve read; I could tell you off the top of my head when and where I bought them (and, in some cases, how the used bookstore smelled). There are also lots of books I’ve been involved with as an author, ghost writer, editor, or just a friend of the author. There are also, I admit, hundreds of books I bought because they looked interesting, but that I’ll never get around to reading.

Like the other authors and editors I know, I find the existence of Books by the Foot confounding.

On the one hand, I know that every book in their warehouse was written, edited, and published by actual people who cared about content. Somebody spent hours on research. Somebody copy edited those books to find the errors so the author could fix them. Somebody laid out the pages; somebody else created indexes for them. Somebody chose what image to put on the dust jacket, what what color to use for the hardcover boards, what font to use for the text inside, and what type of paper to print it on. Somebody undertook a book tour to promote those books, or did an interview about them on C-SPAN. A book is not just a book, it’s 50 or so cubic inches of densely concentrated effort and inspiration.

But once it’s manufactured, a book is an object. It’s red or blue or day-glow orange. It signifies — that the reader values historical accuracy, or needs a confidence boost from a self-help title, or is willing to plow through dense text to gain insight. Or, maybe that they just like swords and dragons and damsels in filmy gowns.

In some sense, a publisher or author doesn’t care whether you read the book, only that you bought it. Thomas Pikkety’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was a bestseller, but at 816 pages, I doubt most people read the whole thing, even if they pretended to. The author and publisher didn’t have a problem cashing those checks.

I’ll admit to some ambivalence a while back when I visited my company’s San Francisco office and saw that a valued colleague was using books I’d written and edited to prop up her monitor to the correct height. She’s since risen to become a senior executive at the company, while I’m not there any more. In truth, I’m sitting here typing in my home office staring at a monitor which is propped up by two books I edited while at that same company.

Books by the Foot would like to reassure you that they’re not exploiting the work of authors, because the books would otherwise go to waste:

A lover of books who professes to never want to see them destroyed, [Books by the Foot owner Chuck Roberts] described the service as a way to make lemonade out of lemons; in this case, the lemons are used books, overstock books from publishers or booksellers, and other books that have become either too common or too obscure to be appealing to readers or collectors. “Pretty much every book you see on Books by the Foot [is a book] whose only other option would be oblivion,” Roberts says.

Moral recommendations for partners and customers of Books by the Foot

I have no problem with Books by the Foot’s existence or mission. They’re filling a need, and their work doesn’t hurt authors or readers. Used books, like used clothing, are better repurposed to help people than as trash in a landfill.

If you’re an author, you need to get used to people mistreating your creations. I’ve seen my books in the trash, and I’m okay with that. For every copy that’s dogeared and annotated and referred to over and over, there’s another copy that’s just taking up space. My job was to create and promote the best possible content, which I did; the rest is out of my control. In the end, it’s a hard fact that no one loves a book as much as the author does. Authors must accept that and move on.

But what of the buyer of Books by the Foot? What of the person who is treating our hard work as just set decoration?

I can’t demand that anyone who purchases Books by the Foot must read what they buy. All of us have unread books; there is no shame in that.

Instead, I hereby decree that all buyers of Books by the Foot must intend to read the books they purchase.

This ensures that each time they look at that the books they bought for show, they must consider whether it’s time to read one. If they don’t take a book down and read it, they should certainly look at it and consider when they might read it. They should think about that every time they appear on Zoom or in a TV live shot or as they watch people visiting their home admire their library.

This constant consideration of books bought for show that must at some point be read should create a continuous low-level feeling of guilt.

And that is quite appropriate for the buyer of Books by the Foot.

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  1. Wow! The ‘Fireplace Channel’ for the pretentious psuedo literates. To dignify this as a moral conundrum is to fail to overlook its value as satire.

  2. No, Josh, no!
    Like you, I adore books – including (okay, especially…) the one I wrote, which was published this year. I have dog-eared, underlined, annotated books, books that have changed my paradigms, books that have filled me with delight, books that have taught me new things and transported me to new worlds, books that evoke certain people and places, books whose values to me have been enhanced because they were signed by the authors. BUT: I also have books as art objects, chosen for their beauty, the linen-like texture of their covers, their fonts, their colours. I’ll never read them. I spare a moment when I choose one to remember all the work and care that went into it. But not only do I not feel guilty when I look at them, I feel a little burst of joy each time.

    1. Hear, hear. I hate, but love, to agree with you. I have this beautifully designed/bound series of independently-published literary fiction whose publisher made the books six inches tall and four inches wide as part of some project–such a Project that they even have ribbon bookmarks sewn into the spine. I bought them at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle the one time I went to Seattle, which was a wonderful long-weekend trip during which I saw an old friend from undergrad for the first time in over 20 years and she gave me a native’s tour of Seattle.

      The books fit perfectly in an idiosyncratically proportioned seven-inch-high niche in the built-in bookshelves that were in my house when I bought it in 2002 (I am not a remodeler; I bloom where I’m planted). I look at those books every day and I think of that enjoyable trip to Seattle, and that nice-even-if-it’s-not-Powell’s bookstore where I bought them with my friend, and how they make that inexplicable shelf look like it was meant to hold them.

      I tried reading one of them once. It reflected the kind of self-indulgency with no apparent editorial input that gives “independent literary publishers” an eye-rollingly dubious reputation. I scanned through the others in the series and they appear to be equally unsupervised.

      But those authors (whom I’m guessing aren’t tycoons) got their books bought, and placed in a spot in someone’s house where they are gazed upon kindly and adored daily almost two decades post-publication/purchase. This is more attributable to the publisher and their designers than the authors, but those folks need appreciation and revenue too; I’m sure they’re not tycoons either.

      It would be lovely if the content was remotely readable or enjoyable, but has anyone LOST anything?

  3. The chain Half-Price Books offers this option too. I’ve never needed to do it, so I do not know the details, but believe it is available in-store and online, for your convenience.

    I “collect” books (to read, although a few are too rare to read in the edition I have) and CDs (to listen to, although…). For many of these, I choose a used or remainder/promo/etc. version and choose cheaply. I am amazed at the dual paradox of how hard it is to get a book published or a CD distributed and how many pieces of crap are out there (and to triple the paradox, how many great albums/books are out there that never sold or got airplay). I have the world’s best CD collection at over 5,000 albums and of which many are from several artists that did not sell as well as their art would suggest and many from folks whose dreams of stardom or at least making music for a living died quick and violent deaths for no good reason.

    When I hear a terrible album, I always wonder who approved this mess and it is always several people making poor decisions. But it is all balanced out by the gems that I have found on compilation albums, albums with cool cover art, or albums with some connection to some name I know. Sometimes it is one track, other times whole albums that just plain delight. I have found many a book in similar ways and enjoy even a great passage from a crappy book.

    The record industry does a similar thing to books by the foot in that some folks offer just huge lots of CDs at ridiculous prices for folks to sell individually at flea markets–a starter kit for setting up your very own table of junk someone else might buy for a lot more than you bought in bulk.

    PS: love Claire’s and Josh’s comments…

  4. The phenomenon of books as props has only increased as we Zoom users create our “serious” video backdrops.

    Today’s blog brought back two memories for me. The first happened over 20 years ago when I worked at a highly respected Eastern university. We hired a new president and in the transition his wife redecorated the president’s house. The house had a beautiful library, and she hired a student to scour flea markets and used book stores to buy any red hardcover books they could find. Eventually she filled an entire wall with red books. While it wasn’t an intellectual accomplishment, I have to admit it was a great photo set. Every now and then I see a photo pop up that was taken in that library.

    The second happened a couple years ago. I was sitting at home late one night watching an episode of Nurse Jackie. The scene cut to the office of evil hospital administrator Dr. Michael Cruz. I sat bolt upright when I noticed that book behind Dr. Cruz’s left shoulder was “The Talent Management Handbook”. I contributed a chapter for the book, and I was weirdly happy to see that some prop person thought it would look like a serious business book. There’s nothing like a fake Hollywood book endorsement to make you feel better about binging on Netflix.

  5. This column was a lift of information and stimulation. We had book shelves built on every available wall of a den to hold our collection. It was a constant joy to view what we considered friends. When we began to pile books on the floor, we decided to let the library go so that the books could be read by others. (I kept the art history books.) Do we miss being able to reread a favorite or check a reference now and then? Sure, but that is a problem easily remedied. The exercise in letting go was a spiritual life-lesson The shelves are filling once again but with new finds and that is soul-satisfying as well.