Objects of Desire

August 1, 2017

I found myself thinking about books as physical objects, and as objects of beauty and desire; strangely this was triggered by seeing one of the most awful books I’ve ever seen on sale in this country, a new hardback novel on poor quality paper, badly bound and with a flat rather than curved spine as is usually found on hardback books….

I alternate between seeing books as potentially beautiful objects and seeing them in purely practical terms: words on paper available reasonably cheaply for me to read. When I was younger and less well-off, I went for cheap or second-hand; I was initially happy when the net book agreement was axed as it offered me cheaper books, though (as is often the case) now, wiser later, I’m aware of what the real cost of that move has been. As I worked and became better off, I could treat myself to new hardbacks as soon as they were published. Now, I’m more discriminating, and many of the books I’m after are long out of print so second-hand is the way to go.

I have many hardbacks in the beautiful Everyman’s Library series which re-launched in the 1990s: the austere dust-jackets of the pre-20th century texts are preferable to the gaudier 20th century ones, I feel, but in both cases there is the nice cream paper, the real cloth (as opposed to cardboard) cover, and the silk marker; the books are well-made, with the pages properly sewn into signatures. The Könemann Classics series is much rarer, with not many texts in English, but with similar high-quality production standards: they too are books I’m pleased to be able to show off on my bookshelves.

The original Penguin Books, with their colour-coded spines and cover design are another instance of beautiful books; the simplicity of the design was what struck most in a combination of aesthetically pleasing and practical. All this was lost in the 1970s and after with gaudy full-colour covers and the haphazard approach to design and series, though there have been half-hearted attempts to re-create some of the effects of the past. But once it’s been lost, it’s too late. I felt the same about theh simplicity of the design of the Picador paperback series when it first appeared in the mid-seventies, and the French Folio paperback series which began publishing around the same time.

One of the reasons books look attractive on the shelves is repetition: when you have several or many of a similar design. Lest anyone think I’m only interested in the superficial externals, I must emphasise that for me the pleasure of reading a nicely made book – holding it in my hands, turning the pages and looking at them – is a lasting one. Obviously paperbacks used to be cheap and used cheap paper: some of my 1970s science fiction is disintegrating now. Cheap glue in binding was the bane of many books produced in this country in the 1980s: it dries out and crumbles and the entire book falls to pieces… Fonts are important in terms of readability, and French paperbacks often fall down really badly here, being presented in horrid fonts of strange sizes and pointing so that reading them is actually physically very tiring on the eyes. Penguin used to make a point, in the 1970s, of telling you what font they had used to set a particular book, with a few lines detailing the origin and history of the font. Some of the Everyman’s Library series, beautifully presented as they may be, have been reproduced from very old editions with ugly fonts.

Production values in the USA, where the market is so much larger and the economies of scale allow it, are generally, in my opinion, much higher than in the UK, to the extent that I will quite often check whether I can buy the US edition of an expensive paperback or hardback at a similar price, in preference to what I know will be a shoddier UK offering.

For me books have always been both physical objects to like, and to handle with pleasure as well as repositories of entertainment, learning and mental stimulus; it’s wonderful when both attributes are available in the same volume.



2 Responses to “Objects of Desire”

  1. kirstwrites Says:

    I made the mistake of buying Moby Dick on Amazon recently – what I got appeared to be a print out of an e-book, bound together and stuck in a cheap cover. Tiny font, hardly any margin around the sides, new chapters starting at the bottom of the page. Utterly unreadable (although the refund was quickly forthcoming in fairness). It’s reminded me of the importance of supporting actual book shops!


    • litgaz Says:

      Yes, this new print-on-demand business is decidedly dodgy: I got burnt last year with a rather pricey one from India, of a book I’d been searching for for quite a long time. Abe Books (Amazon subsidiary) were quite useless dealing with it, too. Learnt my lesson there…


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