A Passion for Books
The Look and Feel of...
I love books. I have been in love with the written word since I was 4 and hope to still have that passion when I'm 104, should I live that long.
I own a Kindle. I like my Kindle. I have hundreds of books loaded onto my Kindle: research books and novels, light reading and classics. All reside in the memory of my Kindle and in my memory as some of the best hours I've ever spent.
However, just as strong as my love of the thoughts and ideas that eminate from these volumes are the books themselves. Nothing is like the thrill of having a book in hand: turning the pages, feeling the grain of the paper, running my fingers along an embossed spine, gauging the heft, smelling the aged and ageless pages of a real book.
It has been my habit, since buying my Kindle, to download books and novels as the spirit strikes me. If I read a good review from a reputable source, I download. If a friend (whose taste is like mine) recommends a book, I download. If I must research a particular subject and can find an inexpensive electronic version (which is not always easy), I download. However, once I've read a particular book, if I find it fascinating or moving, I buy the bound version.
I can't explain it: I want it on my shelves. I want to be able to caress the cover, to flip it open to a favorite passage, to loan it to a friend who will experience the impact of its word as I did. There is simply nothing like a book.
All images in this lens are courtesy of Pixabay.com
Content is King
Bookstores are rife with beautifully bound books that have evocative covers and catchy titles. Fantasy and mystery, vampires and biographies, memoirs and science fiction: so many subjects, so little time. I could spend a fortune in a bookstore...and be disappointed with the result. Not all books are good. They may be pretty, but if they lack content I am disappointed. Content, to my mind, is still the most important part.
Lately, a great deal has been made about the garbage that is published. Some blame the publishing industry: they are more interested in what is guaranteed to sell rather than what is good. Some blame the advent of self-publishing: the general concensus is that 98% of self-published works are ill-conceived, badly written, and poorly edited (although I've read opinion pieces claiming that 98% of everything published these days is garbage, including the offerings of the publishing industry). Some of the worst books I've ever read have been on The New York Times Bestseller List; some of the best books I've read in a while have been self-published. What is the real truth? I suspect, as with almost everything, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Whatever the truth or the reason, I find it hard to find books with good content. I'll keep trying however, in the hopes of snagging that gem among the rubble.
Playing with Fire
I have to admit, there are a lot of reasons to love my Kindle - mostly that I can carry a library of books on a plane and that I can buy those classics (at $.0 to $.99) without breaking the bank.
Ultimately, however, it doesn't feel as good in my hands and the print version.
So if I read a book on Kindle that I really really like, I buy it in print. I'm just that kind of guy.
Worth the Paper It's Printed On
Putting aside content issues, let me tell you what I like about a printed book. I'll start with the paper it's printed on.
I feel a bit like Goldilocks when I talk about paper. It is not a subject on which I'm a particular expert, but I know what I like when I see/feel it. My preference, for fiction reading, is creamy off-white, not too thin but not too thick, with clean edges. Boring, but pleasant.
I don't care for deckle-edged: the treatment where the page edges look torn. Whenever I encounter deckle-edged books, I expect their pages to be easily turned. Therefore, I'm consistently disappointed to find that they are not. Toni Morrison's novel Home was offered in hardbound with a deckle-edge only. I declined, preferring to read it electronically before I decided on my next move.
Don't get me started on tissue-paper thin pages that are nearly transparent. These pages tear and crimp and are generally a nuisance. I realize that there is a place for ultra-skinny paper: most of us would not be able to lift some books were it not for the lighter leaves, as the usual application is for tomes of over a thousand pages (like the small Bible I own). Despite my dislike of thin paper, however, volumes like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or the last Harry Potter book, both of which are over 700 pages, might have benefited from a little less weight. That choice might have made them a bit more portable (though no less enjoyable).
In addition to the weight and color, printers offer a variety of treatments for paper to change its look and feel: paper can be made glossier, brighter, and more durable. Some of this isn't my concern; I only care if it feels just right.
A Font of Knowledge
I have seen some hilarious opinion pieces on the merits of a good typeface. I've also read some serious treatises on the same subject...fonts can be a serious business.
I for one can't tell most of them apart -- I know serif and sans-serif, but that's about it. What I do know (again) is whether I like the type or not.
The funny thing is, if I don't notice the font while I'm reading, that's probably because it was the best choice. If I struggle because it is too large or too small, too florid or too stark, the publisher most likely should have opted for a different font. In my opinion.
Illlustrating My Point
My initial thought on this subject was that illustrations outside of children's books should be banned. Then I remembered the fantastic illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, detailed drawings of historical people and events before the advent of photography, and those of the graphic novels and comic books. So I had to change my tune. My new opinion is that BAD illustrations (this time even in children's books) should be banned - if they detract from the real content, they just don't belong in a book.
Then again, who am I to say? The doodlings of W.S. Gilbert (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) are atrocious...but fans of the pair love them. Why? I can't tell you.
I have yet to see good illustrations in self-published works (even if they were rendered by someone other than the author!). I find them distracting and childish.
But when they are good, they are very good. How can you tell good illustrations from bad? Well, it is like pornography, I suppose: you'll know it when you see it.
As for photographs, I want them in every non-fiction history book possible - if the historical period being discussed is after 1840, to my way of thinking there is no excuse for an absence of photographs. Period.
It's Bound to be Good
Here's where I get emotional. I have opinions on paper and fonts and pictures, of course, but those options don't elicit quite the response of a book cover. When removing a book from the shelf, for the first time, I (the potential reader) experience the full magic of that book.
All of the factors that went into the production of that object are there: the value of the font contributes to the number of pages, the type of paper contributes to its weight, the number of pictures contribute to its size. But it is the binding that defines its presence.
I'm not going to try to discuss the cover art, as that is a subject far beyond my ken (although, once again, I almost always have an opinion). Cover design is big business and the thought behind the choice of image and colors, title placement and size, typeface and paper treatments could fill volumes. People make a living designing book covers. I'm not going to try to explain or describe my reaction to that.
No, I will stick with the simple aesthetics: leather, cloth or paper.
By far my favorite are leather-bound books. Leather-bound books are beautiful, weighty, and durable. Even when they are worn, they look good. Leather-bound books don't fray, they mellow. Nearly every one is embossed in some way, for the sensory enjoyment of your fingertips.
Leather-bound books promise intelligence and knowledge within, although the reality of that promise is debatable. If Fifty Shades of Gray had been published in leather, I might have been tempted to read it despite its abysmal reviews. That most likely would have been a disappointing experience, but I could have suffered through it just to hold the book.
Unfortunately, I don't own a single leather-bound volume: they are merely too expensive. I do own a small volume of Shakespeare with a leather spine and cloth cover, which is the closest to a leather-bound book I am likely to ever own -- I simply enjoy looking at that book.
Ahhh - Cloth
This is the binding we most closely associate with the word "hardbound" these days: two heavy-gauge boards covered in fabric, with a spine of the same or similar materials. These books are not as weighty as a leather-bound, but are oh-so-satisfying to have and to hold. They are durable and stand up well on a shelf even without bookends.
When I give books as gifts, I almost always choose hardbound (if I can: some books aren't or are no longer available in hardbound...and unless it qualifies as an antique, I don't want to give a used book as a gift.)
Hardbound cloth books are endowed with gravity, both literally and figuratively. Or perhaps it is just that I have endowed them with weightiness. The subject matter may be comic, but the fact that it is hardbound says "I'm serious about the value of this book." At least to me. Which means I hear books talking, which is seriously alarming.
Hmmm - Paper
We don't call them "paperbacks" anymore, unless we're speaking of the mass-market paperbacks that are usually about 4.5' by 7" in size (and just about any thickness). Now we call them "softcover." Most of these are the same size as their hardbound brothers and sisters, but more-often-than-not significantly less expensive.
Although I find myself cringing at any pencil scribbles and colorful striping in a hardbound book, I have no trepidation making such notes myself if the volume is encased in paper! I have no idea why this is true, but it is.
When the rumor circulated that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was to be rewritten to remove the racist slang (appropriate at the time written but offensive in the modern era), I raced out to buy a copy of one of my favorite books: the book considered by many to be the greatest American novel ever written. I could hardly believe I didn't already own a copy, and found it even harder to believe that I couldn't get it in a new hardbound version. I had to "settle" for a softcover. Where "Content is King," why would that matter? I have no idea, but it did.
Many people prefer the softcover versions: not only are they less expensive than their hardbound twin, but they are easier (and lighter) to handle especially for those who like to read in bed. Or so I've heard.
Does Binding Matter? - Ultimately, No
I have my preferences and opinions, freely expressed above. But the ultimate test of a good book has nothing to do with its cover, its paper, its typeface, or its pictures. What makes a novel worth reading is as difficult to describe or define as why chocolate ice cream is superior to vanilla (or vice versa) or why dogs are better than cats (or not).
We who read books and review books and love books strive to convey that worth the best way we know how: with the very words that authors use to create those great works. Are we successful? Hopefully more often than not, but I can't know for sure.
What I do know is that the word "love" is inadequate to express the joy experienced from a good book.
What's Your Preference for Binding?
I nearly got carried away with this...
"Do you like thin books or thick books?" because in a Book Club I belong to, one of the members refuses to put any book over 200 pages on the reading list!
"Do you prefer books with pictures or without?" because I don't want pictures unless it is non-fiction, but then I would have had to include some of the other permutations, too: Hardbound with Pictures; Hardbound without Pictures; Softcover with Pictures; Softcover without... Well, you get the idea.
"Do you prefer large softcover books or mass-market paperbacks?"
I'm keeping it simple. Forgive me.