The physical book

After about a decade and a half of work, I finally got the first copies of my latest book, Face Value. It’s out! It’s a history of money, of the ways Americans imagined what money was and what value was. Some of it’s been adapted for this blog.

It’s my third book, if you count editing an essay collection, and like the others, it arrives with an odd combination of pride, satisfaction, and extreme anti-climax.

It’s a classic case of alienation–the physical book is not the work that went into it, or rather the work that went into it is mostly invisible in the physical book. Though its genesis was long and painful, it sits there, a neat, clean product, easily purchased, easily ignored, one of millions of books which might or might not ever get read. It’s a commodity, and like all commodities it shows up not as a product of labor but as something to buy and own. The hours of work seem to have vanished. The physical book was always the point of the work, but the two seem so completely unalike.

Publishing books is itself a strange experience. Your relationship with a book in progress is intensely intimate while you’re writing it–it’s always on your mind. But once it goes to the publisher, you pretty much lose control of the whole process. Sometimes people make the analogy to being a parent–the book grows up, it graduates, and out into the world it goes. But your kids don’t have your name on their spine, and books aren’t autonomous actors.

It may be that the book seems odd to the author because the usual process of commodity fetishism doesn’t work. Neighbors see the book sitting conspicuously near the front door, where I’ve casually left it, and are impressed; it just appeared! I buy commodities like that all the time: they appear in the store, they look cool, I buy them. But I can’t do that with the my book–I can’t square the object with the years of labor required to produce it.

Dan Cohen suggested that back when you typed your manuscript, or had someone type it, you ended up with a big pile of paper, a sort of primitive, missing-link relative of the book itself. The stack of paper was related to the book like a vestigial limb on a whale. A printed book was a vast improvement over a pile of numbered pages: you couldn’t lose it or have it blow away or fall to the foor and get out of order. The progression that went “idea – pile of pages – book” made sense. But a modern book might never leave your computer screen before it shows up in print. The transition is jarring.

So the obvious question  is about the future of the physical book. Face Value is also available as an ebook. Would producing only digital books produce the same feeling of alienation? I’m not sure. A digital book is much much less of a tangible product. And as the pile of typed paper resembled the printed book, a digital book bears a family resemblance to the digital files from whence it sprang. But you can’t send your folks a copy of your ebook to put on their shelf. It’s a good book and has some interesting things to say, if I do say so myself.

NOTE: Oddly, amazingly, Amazon already has used copies for sale. How in the world does that happen so quickly? People who work at the publisher sell them to bookstores?


  • Congrats on the book and thanks for the interesting post! I am intrigued by your ideas about the ebook and it is something I have been thinking about a lot recently. If a physical book gives a certain satisfaction to the author that a digital copy may not give, what if the digital copy wasn’t a “book” at all? Could you imagine Face Value in different form on the Web? Do digital texts need to use the “book” as a metaphor?

  • Excellent questions–I’m not sure. Producing the physical book is extremely satisfying, but also odd, as mentioned. Ultimately what you want is that the work gets read and enters into a discussion, and that would probably happen more effectively in the digital realm

  • Lovely post. I always feel completely indifferent once “the book” is in my hands. It’s an alien creature!

    Re. Those “used” copies at Amazon: that’s where ARCs go to die.

  • charlie mcgovern wrote:

    Mike and Evan – I can easily imagine ‘books’ taking other forms on the web – all the years of museum work avoiding the ‘book on the wall’ syndrome taught me to think of lots of forms of publication. BUT like any technology, a book may have elements that are unique – for me the tactile and the ‘interface’ – ie the way I physically and cognitively relate to a book, is unique and I depend on it. the hand helds have appeal, but 20+ years of reading and writing at the computer have not dislodged what I get from a book. Indeed they have only intensified the distinction.

    For example, I would love to see a web version of my current music project, and will hopefully ensure that some version exists, if the publisher is righteous enough to agree and work with me on the copyright stuff. But I still want the book to contain everything necessary to give a reader both what I want to convey and what they might make use of in all sorts of ways I cant ever anticipate.

    Im halfway through Face Value, living it, and I cant wait to teach it this fall!

  • charlie mcgovern wrote:

    thats loving it – living it might assume i had some money to begin with!

  • Thanks Charlie–that means a lot to me

  • Is this book related to the material from your “Money, Value, and Self-Making” class? Either way, I’ll be looking forward to reading more of your work.

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