Posts Tagged ‘collection Folio’

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.



The Beauty (or not) of Books

November 2, 2014

Although I love reading books, I’m also often conscious of them as objects in themselves, and sometimes the physical book itself adds to the pleasure of reading, somehow.

Most paperbacks nowadays are banal, nondescript, the products of corporate marketing and design. Penguins used to be easily and unmistakably identifiable as such, with colour-coded spines and covers, and fonts that were part of that design; early Penguins with the single-colour cover and the white band with the title are classics that are a pleasure to look at as well as read. The French still do this marvellously with some publishers issuing first editions of new novels in a plain (no illustration!) cover and standard fonts giving author and title; I’ve no idea why this decades-old presentation has survived, but it looks good. I remember when the French paperback collection Folio was launched about forty years ago: they still use the same white cover, same font, although there has always been an illustration of some kind taking up part of the front cover. Again, I think it looks good; it has evolved into a classic.

Hardbacks are a different prospect. Occasionally I come across a beautifully produced hardback title in the UK: I’m thinking of books like Umberto Eco’s On Beauty, On Ugliness, and The Book of Imaginary Lands. The paper is good quality, the colour printing is clear, the binding is stitched and sturdy: I love having one of these open to read. Most hardbacks nowadays are manufactured down to a (high) price here, printed on poor quality paper and bound with glue, so that they don’t open and lie flat properly; I have no idea how long the binding glue will last before it crumbles. Often US editions are better made and worth buying in preference.

Why am I bothered? Because, with hindsight, some of the books I bought long ago and have loved, cherished and re-read many times, have not stood the test of time, and, quite frankly, I think they should be capable of outlasting me. If all I require of a book is to sit on a shelf, and have its pages turned every five or ten years, then it shouldn’t self-destruct after thirty years.

My favourites are probably the Everyman’s Library hardbacks in their new incarnation: cloth binding and sewn pages, decent quality paper (though some of my older volumes are, to my disappointment, slightly foxed now), always a pleasure to read. And the Arden Shakespeare Second Series hardbacks with their blue cloth covers and minimalist dust-jackets: I have now managed to collect the complete set over twenty years or so.

Good books speak to me across time: I get goosebumps looking at ones like Shakespeare’s First Folio or the King James Bible of 1611 in museums. Physical books can and should last: there is something wrong with them becoming transient junk like so many other things nowadays.

On the other hand, as Theodore Sturgeon once said, ninety-five percent of everything is crap.

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