Welcome to the Bold and Blocky Instagram Era of Book Covers

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Books that are designed to render well on digital screens also look great on social. Let’s return for a moment to our avatar of great publicity, Marlon James. Black Leopard, Red Wolf’s publisher, Riverhead Books, has an Instagram account so pristine, so archetypical of contemporary design, that you’d think its jackets were all designed explicitly to sit there and rack up likes — likes that ideally convert to sales.

It’s a classic rule of marketing: The more touch points a potential reader has with a particular book — the more times they see a cover posted by an account they trust — the more likely they are to buy. Consider a fairly recent Instagram success. “Alex Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a book that people posted pictures of so many times that word-of-mouth became word-of-eye,” says Straub. “Not only would someone come in and say, ‘I’ve heard about this book,’ but they’d know what it looked like.”

In a marriage of irony and logic, a book that pops in a filtered miniature Instagram still life can declare its presence just as loudly from across the room, particularly in the boutique environment of the modern independent bookstore.

I have forgotten how to read

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Author Nicholas Carr ( The Shallows) writes that, “digital technologies are training us to be more conscious of and more antagonistic toward delays of all sorts.” We become, “more intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli.” So, I throw down the old book, craving mental Tabasco sauce. And yet not every emotion can be reduced to an emoji, and not every thought can be conveyed via tweet.

For a long time, I convinced myself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate me somehow from our new media climate – that I could keep on reading and writing in the old way because my mind was formed in pre-internet days. But the mind is plastic – and I have changed. I’m not the reader I was.

Is social media influencing book cover design?

An Instagram post by bookstagramer @booksfemme

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For a time, it seemed that eBooks and kindles would displace their physical counterparts, but this didn’t quite come to pass. Like the recent revival of zines, the encroach of digital has resulted in a renewed appreciation for the physical – and beautiful. Part of this has been in direct response to eBooks; a tactic to boost the sales of physical books is to remake them as desirable objects, and a way to make objects desirable is, of course, to make them aesthetically appealing. But social media – specifically Instagram, which promotes the coveting of beautiful covers on hashtags such as #bookstagram – is putting a new emphasis on cover aesthetics. We no longer need to go home with someone in order to see their bookcase.

An Instagram-Obsessed Anthropologist Riffs on the Meaning of ‘Maleness’

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MEN AND APPARITIONS
By Lynne Tillman
Illustrated. 397 pp. Soft Skull Press. Paper, $16.95.

“You could say, This is a funny time. You could, but then you wouldn’t be me.”

This remark from the narrator of Lynne Tillman’s intricate new novel, “Men and Apparitions,” exemplifies the book’s swirl of humor and horror, evasion and candor. Ezekiel, or Zeke, Stark is a cultural anthropologist in his late 30s, obsessed with images, both the concrete kind (photographs) and the metaphorical kind (“self-image”), a “privileged, educated” screw-up, as he says of himself, steeped in theorists like Clifford Geertz and Walter Benjamin, but also in pop culture — Pee-wee Herman, Steve Jobs, JonBenet Ramsey, etc. — that pantheon of people all of us know but none of us has met. In other words, Zeke is an American consumer, though what he consumes is not material goods but media, endlessly cataloging and referencing the contents of his own mind, often in lieu of visceral experience. The New Man, Zeke calls this type — his type — and Tillman’s novel is a patient, insistent exploration of what it means to live inside such a mind.

The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re All Going To Miss Almost Everything

A stack of books in a grassy field.

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The vast majority of the world’s books, music, films, television and art, you will never see. It’s just numbers.

You used to have a limited number of reasonably practical choices presented to you, based on what bookstores carried, what your local newspaper reviewed, or what you heard on the radio, or what was taught in college by a particular English department. There was a huge amount of selection that took place above the consumer level. (And here, I don’t mean “consumer” in the crass sense of consumerism, but in the sense of one who devours, as you do a book or a film you love.)

Now, everything gets dropped into our laps, and there are really only two responses if you want to feel like you’re well-read, or well-versed in music, or whatever the case may be: culling and surrender.

If “well-read” means “not missing anything,” then nobody has a chance. If “well-read” means “making a genuine effort to explore thoughtfully,” then yes, we can all be well-read. But what we’ve seen is always going to be a very small cup dipped out of a very big ocean, and turning your back on the ocean to stare into the cup can’t change that.

How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’

Books as objects of desire: photographs by Jennifer Cownie.

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Here are some things that you can’t do with a Kindle. You can’t turn down a corner, tuck a flap in a chapter, crack a spine (brutal, but sometimes pleasurable) or flick the pages to see how far you have come and how far you have to go. You can’t remember something potent and find it again with reference to where it appeared on a right- or left-hand page. You often can’t remember much at all. You can’t tell whether the end is really the end, or whether the end equals 93% followed by 7% of index and/or questions for book clubs. You can’t pass it on to a friend or post it through your neighbour’s door…

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback. “Part of the positive pressure that digital has exerted on the industry is that publishers have rediscovered their love of the physical,”

The Perils of Peak Attention

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Two new books assess the quality of our digital lives: How do we shake off the village when we carry the world in our pocket?

Early on in The Attention Merchants, Tim Wu’s startling and sweeping examination of the increasingly ubiquitous commercial effort to capture and commodify our attention, we are presented with a sort of cognitive paradox: To pay attention to one thing we need to screen other things out. But that very “capacity to ignore,” as Wu puts it, “is limited by another fact: We are always paying attention to something.” It is these “in between” moments, when our attention may be about to shift from one thing to another, that the attention merchants have long sought to colonize—in everything from nineteenth-century Parisian street posters to the twenty-first century’s “long flight of ad-laden clickbaited fancy.”

… We are these days, suggests Laurence Scott in his pensive, provocative book, The Four-Dimensional Human, “inhabiting space in a way that could be called four-dimensional.” The lines between the physical and online—still so robust when getting on AOL for one’s five hours a month meant an aching process of dialing up a working local access number via a creaking modem—have been virtually erased. We no longer “surf” the internet, Scott notes, because we are always already submerged by the waves.

One of the implications here is that it is not only looking at the screen that consumes our attention, as in the old days, for the screen has changed the way we look at the world. It is the way we think of Twitter excerpts as we read an article, or pre-frame the world in Instagram-worthy moments—as Scott notes, our phones “consume” concerts and dinner before we do, while “the real, biologically up-to-the-minute ‘me’ thus becomes a ghost of my online self.” It is our strange view, intimate yet indirect, of people’s Potemkin collages on Facebook—“a place of full-frontal glimpses, where we encounter the periphery head on,” writes Scott. It is the way we worry offline about what has happened online (Did my post get any likes?), and how what is online can cause us to worry about what is happening offline. A friend recently told me how his teenage daughter had not been invited to the weekend gathering of a few of her friends. At one time, the snub, hurtful though it may have been, would have been encountered only on Monday morning (You guys did what?); now, however, she watched her friends’ weekend unfold on Instagram, a live crawl of social anxiety.