What We Never Discuss: the Physicality of Books, Part 2

A well-made book is a work of art in itself, which has an undeniable effect on the reader reading it. You can’t pretend it doesn’t matter.

David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is a perfect example of doing things wrong. Its physicality was inappropriate – for a book by a master stylist where every single word matters, Random House designed an extra-tall book with big pages covered with far too many words in too small type on each crowded page. It just wasn’t easy to read. You practically had to use your finger to keep your place. A smaller size of book and larger type would have enhanced the intimate experience of the story.

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an example of every aspect of publishing coming together right – perfect cover art, that haunting, stubbled face, perfect type size and layout. It was a joy to read, a joy to carry around. With appalling lack of marketing sense, Harcourt decided for the paperback version to drop the cover that’s practically become an icon and slap on the book instead a no-art green cover that kills the paperback dead. It’s so dull I couldn’t find it on the rack, and I was looking for it. What can publishers be thinking?

Lingering for a moment on the subject of cover art, let me mention Indra Sinha’s awesome new novel, Animal’s People. First you should Google the gorgeous British cover. Then look at the book in your local bookstore. I admit I was so worked up I lost my cool and wrote a hot-tempered email when I saw what Simon and Schuster had done for the American cover. The novel is about a boy with a spinal deformity from a Bhopal-like chemical plant explosion, a feisty, loveable, near-feral kid narrating into a tape recorder. The British cover shows the boy’s face. You want to take him home. The American marketing team decided that instead, a more effective cover would be plain white, but splattered as though the book had been dropped in a chemical spill. Um, guys, the spill in the novel, as in Bhopal, was a gas…

All of this recently rose to a head when I realized my last three reading choices had been significantly motivated by the physical object of the reading experience itself. I love spending time with a good book. I want the act to be pleasurable. The physical object of the book itself plays a role.

A month ago I was in University Book Store looking for a good novel, glanced at the grabby cover of Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gang Leader for a Day, picked it up off the Non-Fiction table and opened it. Every aspect of book-making craft went into making that clean, well-written narrative into a reading experience that was eye-friendly and effortless and far too brief. The book opened easily, the perfect amount of text on each page in an easy-to-read typeface.

Same for Daoud Hari’s The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur. Now, there was a book I didn’t want to open, and did. The attractive, evocative cover, the small size, the short chapters with their falsely light-hearted tone, all broke through my barriers and dragged me into Darfur. It took a couple days to recover my sense of humor. But what an experience – and the author’s urgency is matched by the publisher’s tasteful, irresistible product.

And from there I veered away from hardbacks to a paperback original that really felt good in my hands. It also has the most hilarious title of the year, Richard Grant’s God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre. Great cover – the holes in the soles of those cowboy boots! – an easy-opening paperback with everything right, including plenty of laughs, something I desperately needed after Darfur. Though it’s personality rich and packed with historical gems, halfway through I drifted away from the book – not due to any of that adventure’s fault, but I began to realize that in spite of the addictive physicality of holding a fun book, after three memoirs I was developing a serious hankering for plot points and set-ups and payoffs and character turns and red herrings, you know, the kind of stuff you only get in novels.

Plus, okay, for the record, a passionate memoir about urban poverty, followed by a passionate memoir about Darfur’s genocide, followed by a hilarious memoir of a fun-loving guy who likes a little danger… well, it didn’t have the same reason to exist. Gang Leader for a Day and The Translator were books written by men who urgently wanted to communicate with me. God’s Middle Finger was the result of a rollicking good time with dangerous people, told by a guy you’d love to have a beer with – but not his friends.

Enough of this article – I’m dying to get back to holding Animal’s People in my hands, and starting the next chapter, “Tape Eight,” the recorded voice of nineteen-year-old Animal. Oh boy, and this chapter is going to be about the mysterious, beautiful American woman doctor who’s come to town to open her own free health clinic, my favorite new character.

Go hold a real book somewhere.

I’m going to.



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.

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