Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2284:
BEAUTIFUL BOOKS

John Lienhard presents guest Andrew Boyd

Today, guest scientist Andrew Boyd finds a new use for books. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Who can argue with the importance of books in our lives? Books like Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto. They were driving forces in the development of modern social and economic systems. The Bible and the Quran contain the spiritual foundations upon which billions of people live their lives. For centuries books have passed along our collective scientific knowledge from one generation to the next. Books give us ideas for cooking dinner, instruction on how not to be a dummy, or simply serve to kindle our imagination. Great books are often deeply passionate, and highly personal, expressions by their authors.

So I was admittedly taken aback when I visited an Internet site by the name of Books by the Foot, a service provided by the Strand Bookstore in New York. The service literally sells books by foot of shelf space. The most expensive are leather bound books that go for four-hundred dollars a foot, but there are many other categories. Leather-looking books are only seventy-five dollars a foot, and law books, which the web site informs us, are "available in green, black, red, maroon, and blue," are a steal at fifty dollars a foot. Bargain books sell for ten dollars a foot. For thirty, you can choose their color. Noticeably absent is any mention of author or title.

A row of books

These books are sold, of course, for decoration. As I soon discovered, there are many merchants that engage in the practice, and for a good reason. As the Books by the Foot web site reminds us with a quote from Henry Ward Beecher, "A home without books is like a room without windows." Books unquestionably bring warmth to a room. There's nothing quite like the feeling of a professor's office, books stacked from floor to ceiling with scholarly writing. But these books express a lifetime of learning, thinking, and educating. Isn't there an unwritten law that to put a book on your shelf you must earn that right by actually reading it?

Maybe not. According to a recent article in the New Yorker, producers of the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wanted books covering "paleontology, marine biology, and pre-Columbian society." They had to be "in muted colors, and predate 1957," an ultimately reasonable request for an Indiana Jones film. Books by the Foot offers books by category, such as "children's books" or "classics," and I imagine that, if you have ample money but little time, paying someone to build a personal library for you has merit. Of course, this only makes sense if you take time to read one of the books every now and then. And I always wondered where those books in bars and furniture stores came from. Have you ever noticed that many times they're not written in English? Books by the foot will sell you foreign language books too, and at a nice discount.

So as disconcerting as it may at first seem, perhaps there are legitimate reasons to buy books by the foot. But remember, if you buy the bargain books, pay the extra twenty dollars and get the color you want. I understand that the blue ones are a much better read than the green ones.

I'm Andy Boyd, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President at PROS, a provider of provider of pricing and revenue optimization solutions. Dr. Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at Oberlin College with majors in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Operations Research from MIT in 1987. Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten year career as a university professor. His new book, The Future of Pricing: How Airline Ticket Pricing Has Inspired a Revolution, (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2007).

The Books by the Foot site is: http://www.strandbooks.com/app/www/p/bbtfoot/

Window dressing

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.