A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I promised to fill in Friday’s post with a fascinating post about big books. Which I was going to write and post on a train. Unfortunately, said train was not only absolutely choccablock but full of singing drunk people, sharing their joy with the whole carriage. So this post might be rather grumpier than usual.
Reading Moira’s post about the bible recently, I felt a pang of recognition when she talked of her love of the physical object – the thin rice-paper quality, the crinkly pages, the little writing. Not that I’ve ever felt this about the bible, myself – but there were many books I loved as a child and teenager for their physical manifestation. I remember the softness and thinness of the paper. And how easy most were to hold and read…ok this makes me sound about a hundred years old, droning on about how much better things used to be in the time of the Penny Farthing. But, it seems to me, that books were nicer a decade or so ago. They were not all designed to double up as a handy doorstopper. The “slim tome” could even be admired for its own sake. In fact, I spent most of my time at university gravitating towards “slim tomes”. (Something to do with being traumatised by the 969,000 word “Clarissa” in my second year.)
Now, you’d be hard-pressed to even find a “slim tome” nestled on the shelves of many outlets. There seems to be some unwritten myth that no one likes slim tomes anymore. People, so I’m told, want “value for money”. More words for their buck. And if you do end up mistakenly writing a “slim tome” it’ll end up being presented as a fat one, anyway.
“Look at this!” my friend said, hauling out a copy of a comedian’s autobiography. “You can’t even hold it open easily without your hands beginning to hurt”.
I looked inside. Thick paper, huge margins and extravagant spacing add the requisite bulking agent. It is an uncomfortable thing to hold and read. You couldn’t balance such a weighty object in the bath, for instance, or crushed against your pillow whilst you lie on your side. The only way to read this book is straight-backed and well-supported. Preferably with some kind of aid to help you hold the blinking thing.
Is it this obsession with size that feeds the idea of requisite wordcount? I remember when comedy novels – Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for example, would happily come in under 70,000 words. When I was writing and submitting my novel the wisdom was that it had to come between 80,000 and 150,000.
Does anyone think The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie too short or that they haven’t got their “money’s worth” from Heart of Darkness?
Why should books be uniform? Some books are long, some are short. But what is the point of making a short one such an ordeal to read?
The other common habitat of the massive doorstopper is the airport bookshop. Airport books seem nearly always to be massive B-format trade paperbacks. Unlike the less expensive A format paperbook – the B format is larger in height and width and many inches thick. In other words, a nightmare to transport and the EXACT OPPOSITE of what you require when going on holiday. It DOESN’T make sense, people! Surely, the very time you DON’T want a book the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the weight of a small rhinoceros is when you are trying to cram it into your hand-luggage. It makes no sense at all.
I am maddened by these humdinger (or do I mean hummer-like?) books and resent being required to pay extra for the honour of having a book that’s painful to hold, impossible to read, and gives you backache if you have to lump it around with you anywhere.
And has this assertion that the only thing people want in airports is humungus books ever been properly tested ? Is it really that the reader requires “value for money” and buys a book by the kilo or is it more that the fancy B-format paperback is more expensive, therefore it is what the publishers and retailers are wanting to push?
Rushing for my train before writing this, I was looking at the choice of paperbacks in the station bookshop and there was no choice in size – they were all massive. I might have bought one for the journey, but laden down by baggage as I was, there was no way it could be easily accommodated, resulting in a missed purchase from this reader.
It will be interesting to see how the digital revolution affects the length of books. Bulk becomes an invisible element rather than on immediate show. Will the 80-150,000 rule still hold? Or will the novella suddenly find an appreciative audience? With many ebooks competitively priced at 99p, perhaps people will no longer see it in terms of literature by wordcount (or kilogram) and a wider range of lengths will be allowed to flourish.
I hope so.
People go on about the look of the book, the feel of the book and the evocative papery smell…that’s all very well, but if you have to be a professional arm-wrestler to even lift one, all that papery romanticising gets kicked into touch. The truth is that I have simply not enjoyed reading books these last few years. Not the physical aspect. They are uncomfortable to hold and uncomfortable to read and many do not hold open easily or are tough to wedge comfortably and stably whilst louging or loafing.
Ereaders may be less romantic and evocative, but at least the reading experience should be relatively hernia-free.
What is your view about this issue? Do you buy a book for its size? How long (and large) should books be and what do you look for in the physical experience? Do you like a book to look like a brick? Do you have an ereader and how have you found it? Has it changed the reading experience for you? Let us know in the comments!
RosyB is a comedy writer. Her novel Sadomasochism for Accountants is a modest 87,000 words and she promises can be read in the bath, but her next is going to be shorter. You can find out more here.