Sunday, March 22, 2009

A book’s material condition

Nige follows up my followup to his reflections on the future of the book by making a strong case for reading on the page instead of reading off the screen. “I believe the sight of print on paper,” he says—“in the case of a well printed book in a decent typeface and on decent paper—is not only pleasant to see but literally easy on the eye, in a way that no on-screen image can be.”

I could not agree more, and there is more to it even than that. In his just-released book of essays Worlds Made by Words, the brilliant Princeton historian Anthony Grafton points out that “The form in which you encounter a text can make a huge impact on how you use it.” His example is the letters from Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, critical of George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the 1970’s. The contents were damning, but the material condition of the letters, especially the typeface, which could not possibly have been used by a National Guard typewriter in the 1970’s, established them as forgeries.

The physical properties of books also betray clues that contribute to knowledge, if a scholar knows how to follow them. Grafton’s example is a historian who “systematically sniffed 250-year-old letters in an archive. By detecting the smell of vinegar—which had been sprinkled on letters from towns struck by cholera in the eighteenth century, in the hope of disinfecting them—he could trace the history of disease outbreaks.”

Here is an example from my library, which is not so pithy. I own a first edition of Nabokov’s Conclusive Evidence (1951), the autobiography that was revised and reissued as Speak, Memory in 1966. (In England the book was originally published under that title, and in the U.S., the second edition, with text unchanged, was published under the new title in 1960.) The revised edition contains an index and illustrations; it is reset in Baskerville or Caslon (my untrained eye can’t quite tell which), two faces that emphasize clarity. Conclusive Evidence is set in Bodoni, a far more modern-looking and striking type. The rest of the book is conservative, however. The black spine is stamped with the title in a gold fourteen-point type and the author’s last name in all caps in twelve point.

The book is well-made, sewn firmly in eight signatures, bound in blue cloth, with tight tucks and corners, and printed on high-quality paper that has neither yellowed nor chipped in nearly sixty years. But the dust jacket is a different story. Nabokov was not yet famous. Except for an author’s photo on the verso—he looks tightlipped, impatient—and a freehand inch-tall drawing of the tsar’s crown beneath the title on the recto, the only art is a dark blue top-to-bottom drapery that serves as the background to title, author, and publisher’s description (“A brilliantly written memoir of youth in a bright and vanished era”). Harper & Brothers solicited blurbs from Eudora Welty (“Intimate and spirited, delightful entertainment”), S. N. Behrman (“one of the most rarely exquisite books I know about”), and children’s author Anne Parrish (“An absorbing book; at times beautiful and moving, at times illuminating, and always a book to be grateful for”). His public standing can be estimated from the sources of these recommendations.

The jacket is dingy, and gives the book a stuffy and old-worldish look. Yet the quality of the binding is first-rate. What this suggests is an ambivalence on the part of the publisher; indeed, Harper never published another book by Nabokov. On the one hand, the binding suggests that the house thought more highly of him than the blurbs would lead anyone to believe; on the other hand, the jacket suggests that Harper had small confidence in the book’s commercial appeal. To its credit, the publisher did not hype it, but by giving the jacket all the bright cheerfulness of an old woman’s curtain-drawn livingroom, Harper did the book no favors either. The material condition of the book says to me: if Nabokov had not gone on to write Lolita, he would have remained forever in the company of S.N. Behrman and Anne Parrish—forgotten and unread, even in a Google book.

To hold the first edition is to be carried back to a moment before Nabokov was a recognized master, but even though he had been in the U.S. only a decade and had written only two English-language novels, he was respected as a “serious” writer—too “serious” perhaps to be hyped. This is the reason for owning first editions: they are time machines for removing you to the year of the book’s original publication. Their physical properties serve as aids to their historical interpretation. They dispel the illusion that the book belongs to the moment at which you are reading it, and remind you that it comes as news from an earlier time.

Any edition of any book will offer telling details. I remember sitting in the coffee house at Washington University with my girlfriend, who was reading the Dell paperback edition of The Gospel Singer, Harry Crews’s first novel. On the cover, as I recall, was a girl en déshabillé. Across from my girlfriend, a young man nudged his friend, gestured at the book, and smirked. He had already interpreted the novel on the basis of its material condition.

Update: Following Nige’s lead,Sebastian Mary reexamines his reading habits in light of what he calls the “ipod for ebooks” (h/t: E. J. Van Lanen at Three Percent). He points out that the ipod has reduced music to the “micro unit,” the song lasting three to four minutes, and expects that ebook readers would have the same effect. “Long-form writing” will always require paper and binding, he concludes, but will the reading public always require long-form writing?

Update, II: Missed this too when it was first posted: ten reasons to hate the Kindles.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

I have no opinion about Kindles (yet), but I don't like audio books. My mother LOVES THEM. I personally can't handle being burdened with someone else's inflections and intonations.

I imagine it would take all the fun out of READING.