A man’s hands, holding a stack of books.

The brain behind your bookshelves

The headlines keep coming… “book sales thriving”, “bookshops bucking retail trends” and, more dramatically, “indie bookstores survive the retail apocalypse”. At a time in human history that wants ‘digital everything’, what’s so special about books?

When the first of the e-readers launched over a decade ago, they were everywhere. Consumers were excited to carry a whole library with them wherever they went, even though the price of the Amazon Kindle in 2007/08 was nearly $400. There are now over 6 million kindle e-books available on Amazon – compared to just 88,000 when the device launched, but that is eclipsed by the volume of printed titles on the same platform. There are clearly many, many devoted e-readers in the world, but somehow the convenience of the tablet just isn’t enough for the vast majority of readers. In a similar parallel to the current ‘vinyl revival’, people want to own the books they read.

Consider this for a moment: humans are the only species that accumulates property. In fact, we actively go out of our way to own things in a way that no other species does. We just love to own stuff. ‘Ownership’ is not generally something we give much thought to when we’re parting with cash for a bestseller, but there’s a whole area of psychology devoted to the way that humans conduct themselves in regard to the spaces we occupy, the property we own and the things we wish to possess. Our buying behaviour can be directly linked to the way we want to be perceived in the world and whether it’s the objects we covet or the brands we like to associate with, where and how we spend our money is often more than just the fulfilment of needs.

Our possession of specific objects and brands can also signal our membership of social groups

Us and them

In an article for the British Psychological Society, ‘The psychology of stuff and things’, cognitive neuroscientist Dr Christian Jarret talks about the connection between our physical ownership of objects and the emotional power with which we naturally imbue them. We understand what it means to ‘own’ something at an extraordinarily young age and this concept travels with us through our lives, but the way we approach ownership gently shifts and changes as we are exposed to more and more external influences. For example, tiny children often form fierce attachments to a toy or a blanket and it’s not unusual to find them in direct conflict with another child over something they perceive to be ‘theirs’. In adulthood, our owned objects first reflect our identities and then become a part of our worlds. We form emotional and sentimental bonds with the things we choose to surround ourselves with – our homes, for example, or a piece of jewellery.

There is also a matter of ‘tribalism’ at play. “Like a uniform, our possession of specific objects and brands can also signal our membership of social groups, both to others and to ourselves,” writes Dr Jarret. “The success of the Apple brand has been attributed in part to people’s desire to show that they belong to a consumer tribe with connotations of ‘coolness’.” It is generally believed that people who read widely tend to be smarter. Indeed, ‘crystallized intelligence’ comes from accumulated knowledge, which is reflected in our vocabulary and general knowledge – both of which can be linked to reading. So, the very act of carrying a book, being seen reading, or even carrying a beautiful branded bag from a particular bookseller, may align us to a social circle of intelligent people. This instinct to be a part of a ‘tribe’ carries further when we think about how we share books. In adolescence, Dr Jarret talks about the act of sharing or gifting an object as a means to connect or bind us with people we aspire to be like: “the mutual exchange of the same or similar gifts between friends helps them to create a feeling of overlapping identities.” In this respect, the very act of carrying a physical book speaks to our inherent human need for togetherness.

A man’s hands, holding a stack of books.
Beautifully designed bookshops often warrant a special pilgrimage.

‘Investment’ is more than just money

When we buy a physical book, there’s an investment: time spent in choosing, perhaps investigating recommendations online, joining a book club or talking to friends and colleagues about their recent reads. An avid reader might follow book reviewers online or subscribe to the latest updates from their favourite publishers. There are beautiful bookshops, designed in stunning nostalgic perfection that warrant a special pilgrimage, or internet stores that can become a rabbit hole, recommending title after title, based on your buying habits. And finally, the financial transaction and the delight of holding your next great read in your hands. This level of time and energy poured into anything means that you immediately have an attachment to it and in the process, you have exercised three very basic psychological factors that create this bond:

Intimate knowledge: You have learnt enough about your choice to have feelings towards it

Control: You have made a choice and determinedly followed your decision

Self-investment: You have used your time and energy to reach this point

Open to all

It’s interesting to note that despite reading being something of a solitary pursuit, it has taken on a truly social aspect, with readers coming together both on and offline to celebrate their favourite books and authors. Publishers, such as Faber & Faber, regularly hold events and readings. Book clubs, both on and offline are huge and cater to many different tastes and audiences. Actor and activist Emma Watson’s ‘Our Shared Shelf’, for example, describes itself as an “Intersectional Feminist Bi-monthly Book Club” and has 420,000 followers. Releases of hotly anticipated books, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, see bookshops holding launch events that open at midnight to huge queues of fans.

Is this continued devotion to material books a matter of nostalgia, tribalism, emotional attachment or all three? The answer may seem obvious but there is also another factor at play here: inclusion. The price and accessibility of books today make it easier than ever to experience the joys of ownership and the bonds that follow, regardless of who or where you are. As Dr Jarret neatly sums up, “our relationship with our things, possessions and brands remains as important as ever, it’s just the nature of the relationship is changing.”

Do you have a passion for the printed word? Celebrate International Print Day 2019 on 23rd October using the hashtag #IPD19

Written by Marie-Anne Leonard