Why a book? That is, why, in the second decade of the 21st century, should we even consider making a book? (In this case, "we" = a potential client, and "book" means a printed-and-bound publication.)I had been searching for viable answers to this one, when a meeting with a potential client caused the clouds to part, revealing a glimpse of what the question really concerns. She was communications manager for an independent school that was investigating ways to mark its centennial three years hence. Peter and I met with this woman and her boss for more than an hour, showing examples of anniversary-marking publications we had developed and produced. Both people were enthusiastic, but made it clear that nothing would happen until the school's board approved plans and located the funding for the centennial celebration.
Afterward, the manager escorted us through the labyrinth of adolescent high spirits to the parking lot. The period-changing din swallowed up her words until we stepped into a private elevator and I heard loud and clear: "What we really need is a good answer to the question board members keep asking: Why a book? I promised to send her some articles that would help her discuss it with decision makers, thinking I could come up with dozens of cogent quotations in an hour of checking through my "archive" of quotes and such. Had she been asking for musings about why humans needed and revered books by some of the past century's great minds—none of whom were still populating the planet by 1980—I could have, too. But Walter Benjamin, Lionel Trilling, Iris Murdoch, and company never grappled with questions about the need for books as objects or conveyors of information as opposed to those in digital, video, and audio formats. Not one could speak to what really was an emerging new issue:
Why take this (purportedly) more labor-intensive and (arguably) higher-cost approach to imparting your stories and information? In the end, that independent school created a special "wing" (their term) of its website and devoted it to reminiscences by alumni—some video, some audio, all digital. It was charming for a brief visit, but soon became dull—reportedly even to alumni who knew their alma mater well. The school removed it just before its 18th month, and all that remains as a reminder of the school's centennial and accomplishments is the greeting paragraph in the headmaster's online welcome letter. Three sentences in all. But I've never stopped trying to formulate an answer to this question, and following are five attempts. Not every organization will find more than one or two sufficiently compelling to produce a print-paper-and-cloth publication, but even one should provide enough reason for serious consideration: 1. Books imply permanence. As suggested by the web-wing experience of the independent school, a well-made book offers protection against easy dismissal in at least two ways. First, many (I'd venture most) humans are loath simply to toss a book into the trash, even if they don't care about its contents. The physical object has a heft and size that speak to its presence and existence in a way virtual images and words flickering past never will. Then, too, its very physicality lends it the gestalt of a resource apt to reward revisiting. 2. Books offer leisurely perusal. Many of the writers I read concerning the differences between physical books and e-reading devices comment on the sense of calm and measured attention that books can impart. In a book, no highlighted link or winking side topic invades the reading space, offering to whisk you away to some other subject. At least for the foreseeable future, books will continue to offer the perception of being at ease; of being equal to the task of taking in what they contain. 3. Books suggest seriousness. Recently I had a conversation with a bright young woman who was interviewing with college recruiters. She was a polymath who seemingly could do anything: her pianism caused two conservatories to make bids for her enrollment; she was on her school's hackathon team thanks to what sounds like an innate talent for perceiving digital patterns; and a history term paper she wrote had just been accepted by a scholarly journal. Assuming that her primary research tool was the internet, I asked how she determined which sites were solid and reliable. She explained that she only did library research for "rock-solid ideas and data." On occasion, when she had some doubt about how to interpret what she learned from the books, she used online catalogues and databases to back up her research, but it was never her first line of inquiry. "I don't know," she said. "Books are just so much more reliable. They sit there, demonstrate why they say what they do, and kind of challenge you to find fault with their reasoning or material. Online resources seem more like drive-by info." 4. Books are beautiful. A colleague recently brought his 10-year-old son to our office, which is sadly devoid of what might be considered kids' books. He had his handheld game device, so I assumed he'd keep himself amused. Half an hour later, however, I looked over and saw him slowly, carefully looking through a museum catalogue we produced. His father asked what he was doing. He held up the book and said in a matter-of-fact tone: "Reading." "Why that book?" I asked. "Well," he said, "at first I saw it 'cause it's so big, but once I started looking at it, I saw how beautiful it is. It's just, um, really, beautiful." His father allowed that such books caught his son's eye elsewhere, too, and their subject areas really didn't seem to matter. 5. Books are tools. Unlike the commemorative web-wing of the centennial-celebrating independent school mentioned earlier, books remain viable for years. While no one expects them to be "cutting edge" documents for long, if at all, careful development and production will bestow them with long-term benefits for an organization's promotion, marketing, and development functions. In fact, almost all of the anniversary-related books Vern Associates has produced over the years are still in use by their organizations. Several have even been reprinted.