“Those of you who have seen my book, whatever you may think of its contents, will probably agree that it is a beautiful object. And if the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the eBook, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”
From Julian Barnes’s acceptance speech at the 2011 Booker Ceremony, on winning with his novel, The Sense of an Ending.
A Guardian article states at length how the book buying public are now being seduced by a book’s appearance as well as its content, how more care is being taken in the production and appearance of books. Generally, I don’t believe this is true.
The Sense of an Ending is a physically beautiful object; a compact hardback with dust wrapper containing a nice but simple design, all put together with good quality material. I think all books are beautiful in their own way, but that is another discussion. Barnes’s book is a beautiful object, but how practical is it? By that I mean how well does it do its job, perform its practical purpose of being read, and being read with ease, without unnecessary hindrances? The answer to that is: not very well.
I read frequently in bed. That may not be where the majority of reading hours are put in, but it is the place where my reading most often takes place – every night without fail. Actual reading time can be as little as one minute before the object of reading falls onto my face to remind me that I’ve fallen asleep; it can also be hours or occasionally a whole book. In bed is where one judges the practicality of a book. I believe most of us must read while lying on our back, holding the book above our face; that way when sleep comes it’s possible to place the book on the floor or on the bedside table and quickly get to perfect slumber without unnecessary interruptions, such as changing position drastically or rearranging pillows, cushions and covers. If, like me, you do read this way, then you should know what I mean about the practicality of reading a book as opposed to its beauty.
Julian Barnes is right. His Booker winning novel is a beautiful object; I read it over a few nights, entirely from a prone, on my back, position. And it is not a practical object. For a very simple and infuriating reason: its inner margins are too narrow. The book requires an uncomfortable and impractical two hands to be able to see the whole of the text; in other words, without forcing the book wide open with two hands the inner text on both pages will disappear into the fold of the book; one is constantly tilting the book this way and that to read the end of the sentences on the left-hand page and their beginning on the right hand page. This is unusual with hardback books, but this is a small book.
Although this fault is most noticeable in bed – I suppose publishers will protest that books are not designed to be read in bed (if not, they should be) – it is almost as annoying when reading anywhere in any way. If, like me, you love books as ‘physical’ objects then you will resent having to practically break their backs to read the central text. Apart from the discomfort and the detraction of pleasure, you are damaging the book, shortening its life – the act of doing this, bending the two halves of a paperback hard against its spine makes me angry; apart from the inconvenience which has been added to what should be a pleasure (depending on the book), I resent having to treat a book this way. It should never be necessary.
Why are so many books made this way? And who is producing them? I can’t decide if this is just a quirk of printing or penny-pinching. I was unable to decide if some publishers habitually printed unreadable books, if some never erred or if the whole business is a lottery. I was going to put together an extensive list but found that margin width is completely random, there is no pattern to it; a publisher may release a book with wide margins followed by one with narrow margins: same price, no reason. It appears to be haphazard. Rather than try to catalogue the problem, here are just a few examples of what I have been reading lately.
Geoff Dyer’s Working the Room (Canongate) is impossible to read in bed without forcing the covers back with two hands (not a natural position). Using the natural stance of holding the book between thumb and forefinger reveals the bottom half of the text, but the top half disappears into the centre, forcing one to use unnatural, uncomfortable pressure to be able to see the upper text.
A Little Aloud (Chatto & Windus) is not only a marvellous book, its proceeds going to charity, it has really wide central margins to make one-handed reading easy as well as silent or noisy reading in bed – in fact why not read aloud to a loved one in bed?
I had hoped that this would be a modern phenomenon, a sign of the philistinism and greed of the post-modern era, penny pinching publishers saving another £0.0001 per copy by depriving the reader (me!) of reading space and comfort. It was not to be: A 1998 Penguin edition of Lucky Jim is very mean with its margins. It requires two hands and needs forcing open at all times because also, without the book open flat there are always shadows to contend with, a hazard for all but those with 20:20 vision.
Another factor is ‘Give’. Have you noticed how the better paperbacks allow themselves to be forced flat, you feel as though you are breaking them but you are not – the spine remains uncracked, the glue holds – they are a miracle of design and engineering. I present two examples: Alone in Berlin (Penguin) 2009, and Leviathan (Fourth Estate) 2009; beautifully put together books, but Alone in Berlin has narrow margins while Leviathan has wide margins; they are both priced at £9.99 – the problem has nothing to do with cost. I don’t think publishers even consider this. The Empty Space by Peter Brooke also has ample room on the inner margin.
The crazy thing is: Who needs outer margins? They are necessary for appearance’ sake but provide no practical purpose. Why not shorten the outer margin and give the difference to the inner margin? I hope I’m not the only person to notice this. Any thoughts?