I’ll admit to being largely unaware of The New York Review Books Classics series until reading this story about how the volumes were popular subjects of Instagram and other social media posts. Having seen what they look like, including a few examples of what a shelf full of those books, I can now say I want them all.
I’m a sucker for things like this. I love a whole series of books, movies or other media that all feature the same design and format. For one thing, it does make the shelf they’re stored on look awfully pretty, appealing to my desire for minimalism and consistency. Also, these kinds of collections and series help focus my attention and action: I instantly want to read and collect them all and know exactly where to start and have a checklist to work down. That just makes sense to me.
Back in the day, when I was regularly buying books in high school and college, I discovered the Everyman’s Library, an imprint of Random House that published public domain works in cloth-covered hardcover editions. Each had a number and featured different colored covers but the same typeface and spine. I probably bought a dozen of them, including 1984, The Wealth of Nations, Frankenstein and more. There were two or three shelves at my local Border’s devoted to the collection and I loved looking through what was available and deciding what my next purchase would be.
The story about the online popularity of the NYRBC editions speaks to a bigger consumer products trend: It has to look good. Demographic trends show younger people aren’t as interested in ownership in general as older generations. They’ve come of age in the era of subscription models and will still buy what’s important to them, but streaming or digital borrowing will do just fine as well.
Honestly, it makes complete sense for those kinds of collections and series to be translated into digital subscription services as well. They have a defined set of titles, so offering subscription access to e-reader versions would be a great add-on, allowing people to work down the list of books and discover new authors and books along the way. Even if they just did a “Here are the six titles available this month” model it would encourage people to act fast to read what was offered before it disappeared. It’s similar to how The Criterion Collection is available on FilmStruck, offering both an aesthetically-pleasing physical product but also online access to that series of classic films.
Not only do consumer goods have to pass the test of “is it worth owning or is subscription-based access sufficient” but also “will it look good on Instagram.” The NYRBC collection seems to have passed both tests.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.