Today, guest scientist Andrew Boyd finds a new use for books. The University of Houston
presents this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
Who can argue with the importance of books in
our lives? Books like Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations and
Karl Marx's The Communist Manifesto. They were driving forces
in the development of modern social and economic systems. The Bible
and the Quran contain the spiritual foundations upon which billions of
people live their lives. For centuries books have passed along our
collective scientific knowledge from one generation to the next. Books
give us ideas for cooking dinner, instruction on how not to be a dummy,
or simply serve to kindle our imagination. Great books are often deeply
passionate, and highly personal, expressions by their authors.
So I was admittedly taken aback when I visited an Internet site by the
name of Books by the Foot, a service provided by the Strand Bookstore
in New York. The service literally sells books by foot of shelf space.
The most expensive are leather bound books that go for four-hundred dollars
a foot, but there are many other categories. Leather-looking books are only
seventy-five dollars a foot, and law books, which the web site informs us,
are "available in green, black, red, maroon, and blue," are a steal at fifty
dollars a foot. Bargain books sell for ten dollars a foot. For thirty, you
can choose their color. Noticeably absent is any mention of author or title.
These books are sold, of course, for decoration. As I soon discovered, there
are many merchants that engage in the practice, and for a good reason. As
the Books by the Foot web site reminds us with a quote from Henry Ward
Beecher, "A home without books is like a room without windows." Books
unquestionably bring warmth to a room. There's nothing quite like the feeling
of a professor's office, books stacked from floor to ceiling with scholarly
writing. But these books express a lifetime of learning, thinking, and educating.
Isn't there an unwritten law that to put a book on your shelf you must earn that
right by actually reading it?
Maybe not. According to a recent article in the New Yorker, producers
of the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull wanted books
covering "paleontology, marine biology, and pre-Columbian society." They had
to be "in muted colors, and predate 1957," an ultimately reasonable request for
an Indiana Jones film. Books by the Foot offers books by category, such as
"children's books" or "classics," and I imagine that, if you have ample money
but little time, paying someone to build a personal library for you has merit.
Of course, this only makes sense if you take time to read one of the books every
now and then. And I always wondered where those books in bars and furniture stores
came from. Have you ever noticed that many times they're not written in English?
Books by the foot will sell you foreign language books too, and at a nice discount.
So as disconcerting as it may at first seem, perhaps there are legitimate reasons to
buy books by the foot. But remember, if you buy the bargain books, pay the extra
twenty dollars and get the color you want. I understand that the blue ones are a
much better read than the green ones.
I'm Andy Boyd, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President at PROS, a provider of provider
of pricing and revenue optimization solutions. Dr. Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at
Oberlin College with majors in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Operations
Research from MIT in 1987. Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten year career
as a university professor. His new book, The Future of Pricing: How Airline Ticket
Pricing Has Inspired a Revolution, (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2007).
The Books by the Foot site is: http://www.strandbooks.com/app/www/p/bbtfoot/
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H.