Posts Tagged ‘Everyman’s Library’

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.

 

 

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Montaigne: Essays

February 17, 2017

515td2p46tl-_ac_us218_When I was teaching, I used to set essays all the time, and yet I never really thought about this literary form at all, in the ways that I used to reflect on poetry, prose and drama. Essays were of various kinds, asking students to write about something they were interested in, something that had happened to them, to present an argument or to explore an opinion offered about a piece of literature, and, other than the obvious idea that the requested piece of writing was non-fictional by definition, that was it.

Having taken a long time – several years, with gaps – to work my way through Montaigne’s Essays (and I must also confess that I read them in English not French, having baulked just slightly at renewing my long-lost acquaintance with sixteenth century French) I have found myself thinking. Montaigne seems to be regarded as the originator of the form, a (relatively) short prose piece on a single topic which the writer may explore how she or he chooses, and often from a personal angle.

It doesn’t seem to be that easy a form to master, for it must either be tightly structured so that the reader knows exactly where you’re leading him or her, or, if it’s a looser kind of reflective wandering through a topic, it must not unravel too much and the reader feel lost in someone else’s ramblings. Which is why a large part of my teaching work was about how to plan and write essays.

Montaigne comes across as a very likeable and very erudite man in his essays: he ranges very widely; some pieces are quite long and involved, others much briefer. The titles of his essays are often puzzling, enigmatic, and one often doesn’t meet the named topic for many pages. He seems very liberal, in the free-thinking sense, open-minded in a way one might not expect from his times, humane in his approach to us and our failings and shortcomings. He writes very openly about sex and sexuality, about his own body and its weaknesses as he ages, and faces the prospect of death. And I am quite envious of his very early retirement to his estate and his tower in which he would sit, think and write, away from the demands of the world. I also like the idea that Shakespeare would have read some of his works, in Florio’s translation: usually it’s the essay ‘On Cannibals’ that’s mentioned, in connection with The Tempest.

I’ve really enjoyed making my way through this huge and well-produced tome – Everyman’s Library do make beautiful books; some of the essays I’ve enjoyed far more than others, and I’ve taken care to mark these, so that I can come back to them: I can’t see myself re-reading them all, somehow…

And now that I come to think of it, I suppose that each of my blog posts is actually an essay. In case you wonder, I do plan them (former students please note!) usually jotting down notes, thoughts and reactions as I’m reading a book, and each piece is carefully read through and revised after I’ve committed it to my hard drive. And I thought I had left essays behind when I finished my master’s degree…

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.

Miklos Banffy: Transylvanian Trilogy 1

November 1, 2013

9781841593548Nothing about vampires here: sorry to disappoint!

I like beautiful, well-made books, and I have been a fan of the Everyman’s Library since its renaissance in the early 1990s. As well as good, durable and (usually) well-produced copies of some of my favourite classics, I’ve also discovered other texts when they have appeared in the publication list and I’ve felt adventurous, as well as in need of another nice book. This explains my acquisition of the Transylvanian Trilogy, by Miklos Banffy, published in the 1930s but set in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the early years of the twentieth century, the lead-up to the Great War.

It’s easy reading, and also quite superficial in some places, but deceptive as it draws you in to the world of the aristocracy in this fatally-flawed and ultimately doomed empire, with a paralysed government, and various ethnic minority problems. I do feel attached to and interested in the main characters and how their futures are going to play out; I can see the empire falling to pieces around them, whilst they can’t, for they do not have my gift of hindsight. And I do have quite a detailed and clear picture of life at the time.

I struggled to find anything to compare it with, certainly in English literature. I suppose Antony Powell‘s A Dance to the Music of Time might do, but in the end the closest similarity is with Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy, in terms of the time-frame and the scope and the attention to detail: the reader is drawn into and becomes part of a completely other world, which s/he has probably only been previously aware of. The aristocracy is decadent, with a capital D, the peasants are oppressed, particularly by the bourgeoisie who are on the make in every direction, the army is as stiff-upper-lipped as it’s possible to be, and the details of the duelling code are fascinating….

However, I’m only at the end of volume one, so there’s a long way to go; the whole amounts to about 1400 pages.

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