June 7, 2015

Are book domino world records a form of book abuse?


This, but with books. (Image via Wikipedia)

This, but with books. (Image via Wikipedia)

Dominos! They mean many things. A cliched metaphor. Drunk-munchied pizza. That one Van Morrison song. That one Jessie J song. That one mid-period movie from the Mickey Rourkeissance. The actual game of dominos, which I do not know how to play.

But for so many of us, dominos recall a particular childhood experiment with delayed gratification. I’m of course referring to domino “shows” or “rallies”, in which I set up dozens (or hundreds) of the little tiles on their end to form increasingly elaborate trails. This took a fairly long time, but it was all worth it for the few seconds of joy that sprung out during the moment they all fell in sequence.

You can remember it now, can’t you; the sweaty-palmed bomb-disposal act of balancing domino after domino, with the threat of a premature topple, which would ruin all your hard work, always lurking one twitch of the finger away. (Of course, if you weren’t smart enough to reduce the risk by leaving safety gaps in the trail during construction which you would fill in last, that’s on you.)

As a low-tech and often communal activity, the creation of domino shows has increased in popularity with the advent of mass media, and especially with the publicity draw of world record attempts. Of the many variants on these records, one in particular switches out dominos for a larger but no less effective rectaguloid: books.

So-called “book domino” shows can often be quite charming, when used as a way to draw attention to literacy. Observe this then-record-breaking streak courtesy of the Seattle Public Library, which used the show to promote their 2013 summer reading program, and then sold off the books to raise money for this and other library programs. In keeping with the spirit of the institution, the video carries the disclaimer that “No books were harmed during the filming of this video” and lets viewers know that all books were either donated or had previously been taken out of circulation, possibly to avoid any anti-government-spending backlash. (Imagined headline: “SEATTLE GVMT MONEY PIT USES TAXPAYER FUNDS TO FUND FRIVOLOUS WORLD RECORD ATTEMPT”)

Though the SPL’s record was soon broken, the race to the top was far from over. Not to be outdone, British calorie concern United Biscuits hit a new record last year, in an effective twin motivational/publicity stunt for both UB and Guinness. The UB sales team set up and topped a whopping 5,318 books, specifically 5,318 copies of Guinness World Records: 2015 Edition. An impressive achievement, especially because it wasn’t entirely consensual.

The master plan was to create a tight pattern incorporating a formation of Guinness World Records 2015 Edition books in the centre of the room to spell out ‘UBelieve’.

On the day of the attempt a grid was marked out over the conference floor, with the delegates divided into teams and given a map of their section in which to arrange their books.

The UK sales team had no idea that they would be attempting a record until the morning of the event, but with help from the GWR team, delegates went from being told about the attempt to breaking a record in a little over two hours.

Corporate team-building that’s specifically designed to boost sales of cookies and books (which by extension are designed to boost sales of stout) is all well and good, but not everyone is as overjoyed to witness displays of book dominos as was, I assume, every single member of the UB sales team, who all doubtlessly approached their given task with the immediate joy and élan of a career cookie salesperson.

The Telegraph recently reported on a community backlash to an upcoming domino event involving 10,000 books, which is set to take place next month in Japan’s Gifu City:

Gifu City Library will reopen on July 18 following a redesign by the conceptual architect Toyo Ito, and promises to take its place among the world’s most spectacular libraries.

The book domino event on July 12 was intended to promote Gifu as a “book city”.

However the Asian news site Rocket News 24 reports that disgruntled readers have criticised the library’s decision, with one critic of the plan explaining that “Japanese people hold books in high regard, almost as sacred.”

As with other news stories in which libraries are called out for betraying their principles in pursuit of revenue, the public has some interesting things to contribute, and the article collects several damning answers to the vital question: do book domino shows constitute disrespect or even cruelty to books?

The event organisers had planned to sell the books in its used books store after the event, but this was not enough to mollify incensed book lovers.

The head of a book cafe, Takayuki Kitamurawrote in a blog post: “When I first saw this, it made me feel really bad.

“As a kid, I was taught never to mishandle books. By mishandling the books, we’re mishandling the minds of the people who wrote them.”

The event’s Facebook page has been inundated with complaints. “If one of my old books is in there, please don’t use it. Please do not be a fool,” wrote one.

Another said: “Books are not toys to be used as dominoes. Gifu City government should be ashamed.”

The original Rocket News article also collects several unattributed quotes in favor of the event, courtesy of “other members of the Japanese public”:

“When thinking of books, everyone has their own opinion. For me, I think this is a great event and am rooting for it to go on. I bet it would be a great success!”

“With the increase of digital books, this is a good way to reinforce interest in regular books.”

“The library is just saying ‘Hey everyone, let’s read more books!’ It’s a pretty simple thing to get upset over.”

“I love books, but still, I don’t think this really a terrible idea.”

“It’s not like books are people, they’re just printed paper. Why is using them as dominoes suddenly considered ‘roughing up’?”

We’ve covered the mistreatment of used books before, and I remain conflicted on the issue of book dominos. On one hand, arguing the crassness of publicity stunts designed to promote literacy means wading into murky territory over what constitutes bad taste versus effective marketing in the face of a culture that grows increasingly indifferent to literature. On the other hand, any action, even one taken by a literary institution, that positions books as simple physical objects with the same function as a shim, a doorstop, or a domino, does effectively devalue them, if to an unquantifiable extent. In effect, the allowance of an even minimally greater degree of physical damage as would be visited during a domino show turns books into faceless mechanically manufactured copies, versus individual works of creative art that would demand a proportional amount of owner care.

This is familiar to me. Along with domino rallies, one of my favorite childhood activities was reading library books. My father was assiduous in directing my treatment of these books, and whenever I left one open spine-up on a table would remind me that doing so compromises the structural integrity of the book that I was stealing from other patrons’ reading experience by treating as such, it being a borrowed item.

However, once I began buying books myself, he upheld the same principle; don’t break a book’s spine. Keep it in good condition. Let time and accidents damage it, but protect and shield it from such damage as often as possible.

I would never allow my own collection of books, many of them bought used, to be set up in such an arrangement. This is because I can recall their value in full; the care taken to select them, the time taken to hunt them down, the muscles torn while moving them from one apartment to the next.

But I’m not at the reins of an institution under constant pressure to increase circulation. World record so were I given the proposal to ding up a bunch of donated books with the possibility that it would raise some money, I wouldn’t say no. And if a citizens group felt strongly enough about it, and proposed that they raise the money and buy the books off me right now thus saving my staff the time and labor costs of setting the damn things up next month all in the hope that I can bring new patrons to the expensively redesigned new space, I wouldn’t say no either.

The most effective way to show respect for books and the authors (and publishers) who produce them is to buy them. The worst way to treat books isn’t dinging the corner. It’s ignoring them.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.