Department of Rhetoric and Writing

The University of Texas at Austin

Who said the book was on its way out?

Steve Jobs Biography

Image Credit: NPR

Who said the book was on its way out? Last week saw the publication of two exciting new volumes. Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography has seemingly been touted in every major news organ, and literary-minded folks are currently devouring Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, fresh off the press. The design of each volume is gorgeous, especially 1Q84, and it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to read these works on an iPad/iPhone or a Kindle. That said, just yesterday Amazon.com announced a lending library for the Kindle, wherein members of Amazon Prime can check out for a limited amount of time any number of 5,000 volumes from an online repository. Who could possibly want to check out IQ84 or the Steve Jobs biography when the physical volumes are so absolutely gorgeous?

Modern lending libraries came about in the eighteenth century when books were expensive (and in Benjamin Franklin's America, sometimes hard to come by). What's the value of Amazon's new lending library for twenty-first century readers? Let’s presume for a moment that one goes to purchase either 1Q84 or the Steve Jobs biography at their local, independent bookseller for $30.50 and $35.00, respectively. (The physical editions go for $16.04 and $17.88 on Amazon.com.) Given that the audio-book versions of these titles run 2,810 minutes and 1,500 minutes, respectively, each minute spent reading these works is worth $0.01 and $0.02. Thus, two hours spent with these books should roughly cost $1.30 and $2.80, and when one considers that a ticket to the latest Hollywood blockbuster will run them upwards of $10, an evening with a fully priced new book is relatively cheap entertainment. Heck, at these rates, a new hardcover book offers a better entertainment value than the latest version of Angry Birds. And, when one considers visual beauty of such new titles as 1Q84 and the Steve Jobs biography, there’s really no reason to read them on a screen that only approximates renderings of the books’ covers.

1Q84 Cover

Image Credit: bbcicecream.com

According to an NPR Fresh Air interview with Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs would not agree to interview for the biography project unless, of all things, he had a hand in designing the cover of the book. At the time Jobs made this agreement with Isaacson, the planned cover of the book depicted an Apple logo superimposed with a picture of a younger Jobs, and was titled iSteve. According to Isaacson, when Jobs saw this cover he got “really angry” and said many words that Isaacson did not feel comfortable repeating on Fresh Air. Jobs knew that many more people would see the cover of the biography than actually read it, and for this reason he wanted the cover to make a strong statement. Along with helping Isaacson pick out a photo, Jobs also suggested that the cover be in black and white, and that its cover be glossy.

1Q84 Cover

Image Credit: Amazon.com

Perhaps the most striking thing about the cover of 1Q84 is that the dust jacket is made out of a flimsy onionskin-like paper. Only a week’s worth of reading in your city’s bus or metro system is likely to render your copy’s dust jacket to nothing. The jacket is so thin that images on the boards of the volume are visible underneath. In fact, when one looks at the spine of the book, the 1 and 8 of the title are visible on the dust jacket, and the Q and 4 are visible from underneath the dust jacket. Furthermore, the book's requisite legalese isn’t just restrained to its typical verso, but rather scrolls across the bottom of several pictorial pages in a small font. On the top of these pages run the titles of Murakami’s other works. One doesn’t so much begin 1Q84 as find themselves already immersed in it. This is quite the visual feat, to be sure, and in many ways it’s reminiscent of Murakami’s fiction. For instance, in a seminal New York Times Op-Ed piece from one year ago, Murakami asked, “What kind of meaning can fiction have in an age like this? What kind of purpose can it serve? In an age when reality is insufficiently real, how much reality can a fictional story possess?”

Good questions.

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