Beyond Books & Bookstores: The Designed Experience of Discovery in the 21st Century Book Ecosystem
On December 15th, 2016, Ana De Brito, a midwifery student at Yale School of Nursing, took to Facebook to share an image of a new book—Birth Work as Care Work by Alana Apfel—with friends: “I always loved receiving books as a gifts because #nerd,” she wrote, giving a public shout-out to her good friend Marian Gutierrez, who had the book delivered to her home just in time for her last day classes. The semester was a particularly grueling one, forcing De Brito to question, “What’s my purpose?” and “How can I link my passion for social justice with delivering babies?”
“And then boom—Birth Work as Care Work appears in my mailbox,” her post continued. “I love the way it feels underneath my fingertips[,] and I love the way it flips through.” The first page hadn’t been read yet, but De Brito was enamored, as were her Facebook friends. The post received just over 60 reactions (likes and loves), and quickly became a site of social exchange. In the comments below, Gutierrez and De Brito, who live on opposite coasts, made plans to reunite when the weather was above 70 degrees, and other friends chimed in with their congratulations and excitement. Even one of De Brito’s schoolmates, Danielle Boudreau, commented “Omg, I want to read this!!!” to which De Brito replied, “I can pass on the good vibes after I’m done!”
What transpired on De Brito’s Facebook Timeline that day was not only a kind gesture and exchange between friends, but also an example of how communities crop up around physical books as designed objects of social exchange, even within digital spaces. From bookstore, to tabletop, to Timeline, the book’s cover as shared on social media goes beyond what University of Georgia professor of philosophy Beth Preston would call its “proper techno-function” as a marketing tool, and activates its “socio-function.” Everyone on Facebook may have known previously that De Brito was studying to become a midwife, but her posting the cover of Birth Work as Care Work offers a sense of the specific kind of midwife she aspires to be.
While digital technologies have long disrupted the ways we consume written and visual information, the physical book—the flagship product of the analog lifestyle—remains. Instead of being rendered defunct by digital innovations like vinyl records, CDs, and DVDs before them, physical books have proven to be one of the most robust technologies of modern civilization, and although products like Amazon’s line of Kindle or Fire tablets, or Barnes & Nobles Nook, attempt to bring the millennia-old tradition of reading into the digital age, these products ultimately fail to accurately simulate for readers the experience that physical books afford. And as physicals books remain, so do the physical bookstores that sell them, even despite shifting trends in the bookselling landscape.
To be sure, the experience of a good book begins well before the first page is turned, and well before the cover is even touched for the first time. The experience begins in a process of discovery, known to many as book browsing. And while physical books can be purchased nearly from anywhere via the Internet, the brick-and-mortar store remains the traditional site for book browsing rituals.