Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2606
MORE BEAUTIFUL BOOKS

by Andrew Boyd

Today, the measure of a book. The University of Houston’s College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I’ve talked about Books by the Foot before — a department in the Strand Bookstore in New York. The store sells books by foot of shelf space. Antique leather books run $400 a foot. Books about a specific subject, in hard cover, go for $175.

books antique picture

It’s a bit disquieting to think of books sold by their physical characteristics. Books are creative expressions of their authors. Can they be reduced to the width of their binding?

Maybe that’s not the right question. I recently received a note from Madeline Donahue who fulfills orders for Books by the Foot. She’s a Houston native, and she shared some delightful stories about selling books by the foot.

Finding the right books for movies — titles and colors — is important when setting a particular mood. Shutter Island. American Gangster. Angels and Demons. Producers of the Sex and the City films needed books for the apartment of a “very feminine art dealer.” The Books by the Foot staff pulled titles from the bookstore’s New Art collection, carefully limiting themselves to books bound in pastels and whites.

books sets picture

Books by the Foot also get requests to create libraries for special groups of readers; for example, prison inmates. Books that feature violence, prison breaks, or related topics are off limits. Paperbacks are a requirement, since hard cover books can be used as weapons.

Many of the more interesting orders come from people looking to fill their home libraries. Orders can be for general categories or may include specific authors or titles. Actor Denzel Washington asked for biographies of famous Africans and African Americans.

books biographies picture

I enjoyed the many stories Ms. Donahue shared with me. She and her colleagues clearly take pleasure in their work, and they’re fulfilling a need. But it’s hard not to ask, is Books by the Foot engaged in a form of sacrilege? We need only ask the librarians who worry over the titles of each and every book in their collections.

Ms. Donahue writes, “I am confident that the love of the book as a sacred object will persevere, even with new technology. Books, for some, are akin to owning artwork — precious and beloved.” That’s a soothing yet eerily unsettling thought: books revered as works of art, like Michelangelo’s David. Will we someday be placing our books on a pedestal, literally, while leaving the reading for an Amazon Kindle or Apple iPad?

Michelangelo’s David picture

What then, really, is a book? Is it the words? The ideas it brings to life? Or is it the physical object, firm in our grasp, the cover beckoning us to look inside? Whatever the answer, Books by the Foot places the question front and center.

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

(Theme music)


Notes and references:

For a related episode, see BEAUTIFUL BOOKS.

My thanks Nancy Bass, owner of The Strand Bookstore and creator of Books by the Foot, and to Accounts Manager Jenny McKibben. Special thanks to Personal Shopper Madeline Donahue for contacting me and for her help in providing information for this episode.

More information on Books by the Foot can be found at http://www.strandbooks.com/app/www/p/bbtfoot and http://www.strandbooks.com/app/www/p/gbtb.

The picture of Michelangelo’s David is from Wikimedia Commons. The book pictures are courtesy of the Books by the Foot Web site.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2010 by John H. Lienhard.