What We Never Discuss: the Physicality of Books, Part 1

The riddle? What’s that thing called – the kettle? The device that’s going to replace books in the future – the rattle? It will come to me.

One thing book junkies never talk about is what we FEEL when we read. That’s why people who aren’t book junkies can think an electronic gizmo could induce the same sensations as a physical book. They don’t realize that what we hold in our hands, the object within which the words are perceived, matters. Reading a book is different than reading the newspaper. Some books are different from other books. The object affects the experience. So do the cover art and the typeface and the page layout, and what the book feels like while you’re reading it.

These sensual responses to the act of reading matter hugely.

My choice of the next book I’m going to read is often heavily influenced by the appearance and feel of the book. Will this typeface be easy to read on the bus? Will this binding make me fight with the book the entire time I’m reading it?

The book, that ancient human invention, has perpetually modified its shape and appearance, and will certainly continue to do so, though I doubt if it will ever be replaced by this new thing, the ripple? The racket? The hardback novel, the paperback, these have a familiar look I expect, a look that matters, a heft and packaging and readability factor that all affect my decision to buy a book and take it home.

Some books aren’t well-made. Pages can be too thin or too stiff. Some covers are dumb, garish, or dull. Some glue bindings are over-aggressive. Some spines easily crack.

But sometimes publishers get it all right, and you hold in your hands a book with a genuinely attractive cover that opens easily and naturally, inducing you to open it to the first page of text with plenty of eye-easy whiteness on each flexible page and a clear, easy-to-read typeface.

This all became achingly clear when I recently realized that, after several hundred pages, I was no longer enjoying the story of a novel. But I wouldn’t put the book down. Why wouldn’t I stop? I was continuing to read because the book was such a pleasure to hold. It was a Europa paperback – do you know those? They’re gorgeously made trade-size paperbacks, with covers that are just stiff enough but still bend easily, and handsome French-folds (those nifty fold-over cover flaps). They’re filled with well laid-out pages of easy-to-read type on perfectly flexible paper. They’re simply lovely as objects.

I was slugging my way through Katharina Hacker’s grimly difficult German novel, The Have-Nots, heartily endorsed by the German Book Office and winner of some prize or other. One of those novels where the author won’t take the time to tell you whether someone is a guy’s sister or wife, you have to figure it all out. Slowly, slowly, you put together that there are three plots all happening in different cities, then everyone moves into the same neighborhood, and you figure out who’s who, not a chuckle in the entire piece, it’s a world where no one laughs, but I kept on reading. Then the good wife finds herself caught in a silent three-way with her husband’s co-worker. Enough! I no longer cared what these humorless characters did to each other.

Did I throw the book across the room? A perfectly-crafted book like that? No, I just kept hoping the story might improve a little. I didn’t give up until eighty pages from the end.

So much for my sensual book addiction. Fortunately for me, in four months Europa will be publishing A Sun for the Dying, another French noir by the late Jean-Claude Izzo, author of that heartbreaking waterfront noir masterpiece, The Lost Sailors.

Won’t be long and I’ll be holding another Europa paperback…



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

1 Comment on "What We Never Discuss: the Physicality of Books, Part 1"

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  1. Yeah, what Nick said. All those crepe-hangers who squawk that the book is dead/dying/on life support should read a posting from Likely Stories last August.

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