How the Books Saved Christmas


By the looks of things, 2009 is shaping up to be the year for giving the gift of books…e-books, that is.

Take the Amazon Kindle, for instance.  Amazon.com is touting the device on its homepage as its “#1 bestselling, #1 most wished for, and #1 most gifted [is that really a verb?] product.”  Sales surely have been helped along by the catchy little advertisement for Kindle embedded above, which has been appearing regularly on TV stations throughout the United States since November.  You may not know this, but the commercial is the result of a contest that Amazon sponsored last summer, asking customers to produce their own 30-second spots showcasing the e-reader.

Over at the other end of the post-Gutenberg galaxy, meanwhile, Barnes & Noble has already exhausted its supply of Nooks.  Don’t despair, though.  In lieu of an actual Nook, the bookseller is more than happy to ship a holiday-themed certificate to you and yours explaining that the “hottest gift of the season may be sold out, but with our elegant Nook holiday certificate you can still let loved ones know it’s coming.”  Uh, yeah — on or about February 1st.  Happy holidays from the Grinch.

Clearly, retailers like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble are pinning their hopes for robust holiday sales significantly on digital devices, hoping that their customers will purchase not only the hardware but also an ample electronic library with which to fill it.  The question, of course, is where are printed books in all this?  Is all this holiday focus on digital reading yet another sign of the impending death of print — by which I mean not only of the technology itself, but also of the broader culture that surrounds it?

Hardly.  What we’re bearing witness to, in fact, is the very culture that printed books long ago helped to introduce.

One of my favorite books is Stephen Nissenbaum’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated history, The Battle for Chritsmas (Vintage, 1997), which traces the origins of the modern commercial holiday.  It used to be that Christmas was a raucous affair in which members of the lower castes of society were given temporary license to make unusual demands on social and economic elites.  Often their requests were for food, drink, or money, and typically these “gifts” were given as a result of the implicit threat of violence.  All that started to change in the 19th century, Nissenbaum shows, with the growth of industrial production and the gradual enfranchisement of the working class.  Slowly but surely the social- and class-warfare that had defined the Christmas holiday was displaced onto parents and their children.  And although the holiday mutated in significant ways and tensions defused, one thing remained pretty much the same: the promise of gifts was held out as compensation for the recipients’ continuing good behavior.

These gifts, however, typically weren’t perishables or cash tips.  More likely there were items that had been purchased at stores.  And among the first and most popular commercial goods to be given as Christmas presents were, according to Nissenbaum, printed books.  Books played a starring role in helping to make Christmas over into the commercial holiday that people know and practice today.

Books may be going high-tech this holiday season, but that doesn’t mean, as some fear, that we’ve abandoned the cultural and economic habits they’ve helped to foster.  Our Kindles and Nooks may appear to be pointing toward the digital future, yet if anything they channel the deep structures of our analog past.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Columbia Univ Press, Ted Striphas. Ted Striphas said: How the Books Saved Christmas – The Late Age of Print | http://www.thelateageofprint.org/2009/12/14/how-books-saved-christmas/ [...]

  2. [...] for the book lovers among you.  In fact, the introductory chapter contains a discussion about how books were among the very first commercial Christmas presents.  The circle, evidently, is now [...]

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