Sunday, 10 April 2011

Why I love a beautiful book

I love a 'nice' book - by which I'm not talking about a cheerful story, or even anything particularly well-written. I mean the physical characteristics of a book - its size, the design (and materials) of the cover, the paper used for the inner pages. I'll pick up - and often buy - books because they're attractive. And I'll sometimes reject a book, especially if its one I know I want to read/keep, if the cover's nasty or the pages are already puffy and yellowing.
Persephone - a well-branded shade of 'dove-grey',
with gorgeous and carefully chosen endpapers hiding within.

So why does it matter? Am I shallow and superficial, more interested in how well books furnish a room than how well they nourish my mind?

I think I like a well-made book because I care about my reading - I won't read any old trash and I want a book that feels and looks as good as its contents. If I'm going to invest time and money in a book I want it to be a nice object, which looks and feels good, as well as a stimulation for the brain. And I want a book that I'll be happy to keep, and that I'll want to go back to in 5 years. So I want to trust that the glue won't fail leaving pages loose, and that the pages won't all get soft and rip-able. In return, I make the time to 'open' a paperback properly so that I know I can read it without breaking the spine.

As an example, I was given a big bookprize after Finals, which I spent it on 'the' Pleiade edition of Proust. I'd studied A la recherche throughout my year abroad in order to take it as my special subject - reading it it the very decent Garnier Flammarion series - good size, nice white paper, useful notes. I didn't get rid of my GF books - and they're still the ones I'll turn to if I'm going to reread a section. But the Pleiades are special - bound in leather, printed on thin bible paper - the physical qualities of each volume say "this is a special book, important and valuable" and I love them for it. One day I hope I'll sit by a window in a comfy chair and give them the attention and respect they deserve.

Valley of the Dolls
One of the eight books
 VMC produced for
 their 30th anniversar
y -

hardbacks, with gorgeous
textile print covers.

Also, to be frank, I quite trust publishers. I think they know exactly how to market books to different segments of readers, and it's a largely reliable shorthand. Yes, it's controlling and manipulative, yes it boxes authors into a corner and leads to lots of copycat books (in content and covers) commercially chasing the same trend. But it works. Pastel colours/pictures of shoes, coloured drawings of women, black covers with the author's name embossed in silver, anything called 'My Story' - I see the cover, I know it's not for me. Similarly, a cover that I find attractive has probably been designed to suck people-like-me in - and because the publishers know what they're doing, there's normally a story I'll enjoy lying behind the gorgeous cover, printed on decent paper too.

What do you think? How much do/should you judge a book by its cover?

**Edited - because I've read a number of other people's thoughts on this issue - I'll continue to add as I find/re-find them:
Readingfuelledbytea - can you judge a book by its cover?
RochesterReader - the aesthetics of Persephones


  1. I like nice books too. But then I do read trash, and will happily read books that are falling apart.

    In fact, while I can appreciate the aesthetic qualities of a book, for me the form is an added extra. For the function, I'll read anything - as a look at my bookshelves will attest...

  2. I don't think it's at all shallow to go for attractive, well-made books. I don't think it's just about "if it's pretty, I'll buy it" as I think most regular book readers have an idea of what they like anyway, so it's a case of marrying inner and outer quality.
    I also like to have quality - yet affordable - editions that are a pleasure to hold and return to in a few years. A beautifully published work - with illustrations - can be a pleasure for all the senses and a treasure to enjoy through the years. Nice post! :-)

  3. Thanks for the comments. Sally - yes I do know about your bookshelves, and I remember in Vauxhall days looking with such jealousy at the way you had books everywhere (and lovely posters too).

    And Cristina too - I do like the phrase 'well-made', it gets at the physical object-ness that I was trying to get at.

  4. Oh Dear, I spent my post finals book prize on Quirk's English Grammar. How sad is that? In my defence, I am a grammarian and it is the Bible of my world.