Words to remember

"Never doubt in the darkness what you believed in the light."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

De Veris Libris

It was pointed out to me yesterday that I have an apparent prejudice against paperback books. Currently sitting on my desk are 20 hardcovers, compared to only 6 paperbacks. A rather strong indication of bias, I must admit. I should state, for the record, that I do not hate or dislike paperbacks; why, some of the best books I've read have been paperbacks. But it must be stated that hardcovers are really the only true books we possess today. I organize my thoughts below not by chronology, but in terms of the quality of the material.

Papyri and scrolls are wonderful and elegant, but they're not meant to be read in the way we read. To have a papyrus of our modern book length would make the scroll far too unwieldy and large to be used effectively. And this is likely why they fell out of use to begin with. The codex is a much easier thing to operate. The preservation of the book is also much simpler in codex form, with the rolling of the papyrus being frequently quite deleterious to the text and the writing surface. For official proclamations, a scroll retains its character, but on the whole, I am not unhappy that it is confined to a few ceremonial functions.

Paperbacks are an improvement on this. They follow the codex form, and so can be read with any amount of necessary or desired pauses over a long period of time while still enabling one to find one's place relatively easily. They rest easily next to each on shelves, and can be stored better. One way in which I prefer them to hardcovers is that they are significantly more expendable. I feel no qualms about taking a paperback novel to the beach and risking its ruin, as the cost is generally less onerous. Furthermore, they can take a lot more punishment without losing their character. A paperback is still pretty much the same thing when folded in half and creased mightily; but a hardcover does not have this luxury.

But the hardcover stands alone today as the 'true book'. In form, it is ancient and venerable, taking its fabrication from the earliest days of the Middle Ages. Indeed, the techniques used in its assembly have changed little, even if the materials and technology has. Their board covers grants them both a respectability and seriousness which more flashy paper covers lack; it also establishes a greater permanence and better chance of longer preservation. This also individuates books much more. The texture and feel of one paperback is much the same as every other; usually a glossy cover, regular, predictable, unchanging. You know instantly that there are millions of other editions exactly like it in every detail, and you are saddened. This is not the end product of a human endeavor, but the output of a mechanical process. Not so with a hard cover. You know instantly that some man made this, as much as a smith works iron or a carpenter makes furniture. Each volume is seemingly unique, its texture subtly different than any others. The woven board covers take on different hues and characters as they age, so that no two editions would look quite the same after a number of years. And if leather, ah! From the very beginning they are unique. The cover could be smooth, or rough, or porous, or hard, and the colors could vary even within the cover itself.

I have also noted a marked difference in the paper used in hardcover books. Perhaps this is not quite so pronounced as the difference in covers. It is also a greater factor when dealing with books printed at different times. But it can still run the gamut from an almost glossy, thin sheet to a heavy, spongy, almost leathery one. And this also gives them a unique odor, so welcoming and timeless. A library or bookseller really is a sensory experience (excepting perhaps taste).

This being said, I shall now return to my hardcover for the rest of the afternoon.

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