Dispatches | January 11, 2011

This is a fascinating article that appeared in the New York Times last week.  It took me about four paragraphs to shake off the name of this guy – Thatcher Wine – whose company, Juniper Books, designs customs book covers and libraries for (very) wealthy clients.  But, once I did, (I mean, really – “Thatcher Wine”?), this article was both intriguing and revolting all at once.

There has been a tremendous amount written about what digital publishing and e-readers means to the book publishing business. Most take the “doom-and-gloom” approach.  There are some that feel it is environmental conscious and good for the planet (is that actually true?) or that it is a matter of convenience. The general feeling is that is the death of books and we will all be reading on a large or small computer screen one day.

One of the most popular comparisons for books nowadays is music. At one time, local radio deejays had influence on the taste of listeners. Then came cassette tapes, CD’s, and Napster, along with the FCC loosening regulation so that conglomerates could own hundreds of stations across the country, and everything changed for the music industry. Now, say what you will about the state of corporate music publishing, but right now, things are pretty good for music.  Sure, the top 20 or so might be banal pop music, but hasn’t it always been?  Finding a diverse range of hip-hop, or jazz, or folk-punk-Appalachian-etc, is incredibly easy to do.  The cost of recording has dropped, live shows are often inexpensive, and bands use the ‘net to send their music out to everyone.  Do they earn a profit on CD’s and record sales?  Of course not.  But shows, concert t-shirts, b-sides available at shows, all that good stuff: those make it worthwhile.

Not the same for author.  No one wants a Margaret Atwood TYPE Books Toronto ’97 t-shirt, or a rare recording of a reading she did in Tulsa (perhaps, maybe, there are one or two of you, but, you know…).  For musicians, the album is just a way to get you to experience everything else. For authors, the book is the whole shebang.

Juniper Books and other companies like that believe the reading experience is merely home decor. Thinking about what Thatcher Wine and others do is amazing: some clients demand that the books are in English, just in case, you know, one day they want to read one of the books.  Imagine!  Others, of course, prefer books written English  – German leatherbounds are apparently easy to find – so that it at least looks like they could read the book, you know, if they wanted to (they don’t). The entire article is quotable – I could fill the rest of this post with the sentences that made me shake my head, from thinking of books as props or room filler, the astronomical cost of this service (billed per foot!), or the square footage of these homes.

When discussing the future of publishing and “the death of books” and all that, the actual experience of reading is often ignored.  The focus is on the delivery system, which makes sense if you are a publisher, right?  After all, a publisher can’t force you to read by stretching your legs out on the couch, curling up into a chair and dangling your legs over the arm, or posting up at a coffee shop and hunkering down with a cup of coffee and a cigarette.  If they can’t sell it, why consider it?

Like every author, I’d love for my books to be released in hardcover. As an editor, too, I’ve become much more conscious of the physical objects of books, the range of formats, the quality of the binding, typography, the weight of paper. When I bought Richard Bausch’s new story collection earlier this year, I was amazed at the how much care had gone into its production. Forget that it’s a hardcover release of a story collection: just the texture of the dust jacket and the pages was startling. Clearly somebody over at Knopf decided to throw a few dollars around for the deckle-edging.

And yet, as much as I love the idea of hardcovers, they aren’t as enjoyable to read as a paperback.  They are heavier to carry around. They don’t bend.  They are beautiful things I don’t want to damage too much: I like my hardcovers to be in good shape. Crazy as the Times article was to me, distantly, I understand the sense of wanting books to look a certain way, to fill a room, to suggest as much about its reader as a family photo album.

On my bookshelves, whether at home or at TMR, there are a mixture of hardcovers and paperbacks. Some of these books I have little memory of, a vague sense of whether or not I enjoyed it, if it was a gift, how long ago I first read it.  And the ones that seem to stand out are the paperbacks.  At home, I have Nicole Krauss’s Man Walks Into A Room.  I actually have two copies: one in hardcover, one in paperback.  The latter was a desk copy I used when I taught her book a few years ago.  On the first day, I told my class to read actively, take notes, and mark up the page with a pen or a pencil.  Eyebrows rose, and sick looks crossed their faces.  Mark up the book?  Really?  Oh, you betcha!  And, of course, we did.  Mark this paragraph. Mark that sentence.  Cross that image out. Toss an exclamation mark there.  Note the spot where you’ve lost the narrative; note where you pick it up again. The paperback version is a history of reading, the memory of that class and those students, my history of experiencing.

I own four copies of So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. No, really: four copies. The first one is from college, one was a gift, and the other two, honestly, I’m not sure how I got them.  My original, the one from college, has all kinds of marks: sentences underlined in red, margin notes (many of which are illegible), page numbers circle, full sentences written at the bottom of the page at the end of chapters.  Even now, seeing the first chapter again – I mean, I marked almost every word, somehow – I appreciate, years removed from the first time I made those marks, how much Maxwell put into each and every word, understanding the care he took in a way that I couldn’t have conceive twelve years ago.

My copy of Snow Falling on Cedars is nicely warped; the top right corner bends down, the lower left bends forward.  Always, the book’s weight has helped it to rest on a table, making it easy to lay flat.  My copy is used, and in pencil, two previous owners have marked the pages late in the book where they want Guterson to “get it over with” (pages 387 and 421, if you’re curious).

My favorite though is my collection of Raymond Carver stories.  You know the one: with that intense stare, his head jutted out, almost disembodied, waiting for you to throw a punch.  I’ve had this collection for years.  The pages are faded now, and there aren’t many marks in this book, just checkmarks and circles around the page numbers in the table of contents. All the corners are rounded; it has that lovely smell of dust that you find in old library books.  Despite the number of times I’ve read these stories, the pages remain tightly together and compact, and the spine is clean and unmarked. Recently, I lent it out; it’s back now, on the shelf, waiting. Before that, I had yanked it off the shelf to reread “Where I’m Calling From.” I had just had a long conversation with an intern here about how I think it’s his best story (really) and why; talking about the story, I could picture the pages of my copy, mentally walking through the last scenes, when the narrator sees Venturini on the ladder outside his bedroom, when he’s standing at the pay phone and making the phone call.

There are other paperbacks, of course, many that I could rattle off.  In the future, there are going to be new ones too, or old ones that become revisited so much they develop into those books that linger like the hint of a memory.  The Kindle and the Thatcher Wines of the world can’t sell that, can’t reproduce that, can’t measure our experiences in square footage.  That’s for us and our books that we bend, batter, reread, mark up, becoming as distinct to us as our fingerprints.  For that, we should all be happy.

Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.