Books are cool precisely because we don’t need them anymore

Reading backstage during Fashion Week in Paris.
Reading backstage during Fashion Week in Paris.
Image: Reuters/Gonzalo Fuentes
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Luxury is the ability to indulge in the unnecessary, to enjoy extras, to relish that which isn’t strictly imperative to survival but gives us pleasure nonetheless. That makes printed books the ultimate luxury item, available to the masses yet needed by few, a way to signal your cool—on World Book Day, April 23, or any other.

Last month, when supermodels Bella and Gigi Hadid were each seen carrying novels, the New York Post deemed literature the “hot new accessory.” Carry a book. Complete your look. Although some resisted this formulation and took to social media to mock the characterization of the model off-duty literary style, noting that books are not an accessory and that they are definitely not new, the newspaper did have a point.

Increasingly, reading old-school printed texts isn’t necessary. You can download any book onto a Kindle and carry a whole library with you anywhere. But books offer a sensuous pleasure, lovely covers, the satisfying sensation of flipping pages, the ability to measure one’s progress, to underline and annotate and fold paper, making these objects entirely personal. And it’s precisely because there are more efficient modes of consuming literature that the dated way is gaining appreciation.

Even experts in the art of “luxury” are struggling to define what that term means now. Business of Fashion recently declared that freedom will be the new luxury item. The liberty of time and the ability to go anywhere are now much more valuable than fancy stuff because freedom is so rare in a harried, always online, super-connected culture. In 2013, Italian Vogue asked, “What is luxury? Quality and not price? Yes, maybe…Luxury involves a much wider concept. If you [confuse] it with richness referring to expensive items only, then you have an old idea of luxury. Plus, luxury is not necessarily elegance.”

Given this evolving understanding of luxury, books qualify as luxury items. Anyone carrying around a text at this point, when most people are scrolling through their phones during every rare spare moment, is declaring their liberty and good taste. Readers of the printed book, and especially those who make texts part of their “look” are signaling that they aren’t slaves to efficiency, convenience, or cost, and that they value craftsmanship. While books may not be handcrafted by artisans (though typographers and cover designers deserve a nod), they have all the hallmarks of luxury today because they are extraneous, because we read these texts not for their substance alone but also appreciate them for their form.

Classic luxury brands understand this. Last year, for example, the luxury fashion house Gucci opened a bookstore in one of its New York stores, a cozy, curated corner where customers inclined to finery can indulge in their love of literature…or just pick up a hot new accessory for a lot less than the brand’s trademark $730 horsebit-adorned loafers or its $3,000 striped tote.

For the egalitarians among us, this new view of luxury should be a welcome development. Like the wildly popular free New Yorker tote bag that is a kind of status symbol among literati—and a lot more affordable than a $10,000 Birkin bag—reading (and of course, carrying a book around wherever you go) is a way of signaling your taste and the fact that you’re no slave to fashion trends but a connoisseur of classic arts, too cool to be swayed by mere newness.

The new luxury doesn’t cost much money. It does, however, require, a certain refinement and does signal insider-ness. Just like the secret signs that the wealthy send each other when donning a particular brand of silk scarf—Hermes, say—or wearing the red-soled heels of Christian Louboutin, bookish types are secretly calling out to their tribe when displaying a preference for printed texts. And the unique beauty of this tribe is that all readers can belong.