My favorite pastime is the art of book browsing. I take immense pleasure from wandering through bookshops and libraries, and drifting aimlessly through the aisles. When a title looks interesting or a cover is intriguing, I stop and pull the book from the shelf to flip through the pages. I note the quality of the paper, the style of type, the age, and, eventually, the subject matter. Only with the right combination of those attributes will a book pique my interest enough for me to buy it or, if the book is owned by a library, to check it out. Pursuing my hobby for years, in dozens of different libraries and hundreds of bookshops, has made me something of an expert.
I am the first to admit that the packaging of a book does not necessarily have a relationship to its literary merit. Many of the great classics of literature can now only be found in paperback or budget editions. The Modern Library, for example, has provided book lovers with hundreds of low-cost versions of some of the most important works of mankind. The idea of placing great literature into the hands of virtually anyone is grand and unassailable. But, leafing through the Modern Library edition of The Gallic War and Other Writings of Julius Caesar (published in 1957), does not give me a sense of awe. The book’s inexpensive, thin pages hold the words of an important man, but hold them unimpressively. Thin pages force the printer into using less ink, so that the resulting letters are not dark and distinct. As light as the words are, not only do those from the backside of a page show through on the page you are reading, but so do the words on the front of the next page. It’s as if Julius were telling you his story but he was always way ahead of you, and you are constantly struggling to catch up. You can see his words coming, but you can’t make them out until you turn the page.
I like to be surprised. I prefer thick, heavy, textured pages that flip stiffly rather than limply, and that give away nothing about what is to come. You can lightly brush your fingertips across pages like that and feel their significance, sense their presence. Whether the book has many pages or just a few makes little difference as long as the paper affords some degree of sensual pleasure. And let’s not forget the way that the pages have been cut. Most books have rectangular pages, higher than wide, with precisely trimmed edges which, when the book is closed, fall upon one another in a smooth stack of perfect alignment. It’s a very neat way to make pages.
I, however, prefer the rough-cut variety. Experts refer to them as deckle-edged. They look as if someone had torn them to size rather than cut them. I don’t know what it is about the deckle edge that I like except that it exhibits a bit more character, en masse, than a nicely chopped, perfectly flush stack of pages. Sometimes a bit of randomness is welcome, and the deckle edges fit the bill – they are absolutely chaotic. If nothing else, you must admit that the sight of the uneven pages of a closed book bring to mind the long and peaceful afternoon of a chilly, rainy day, when you were whiling the time away in the huge, overstuffed armchair in your uncle’s private library, randomly perusing and absorbing the magnificent splendor of his ancient but timely volumes. Many of those books, if you remember, had deckle-edged pages. You sat there entranced, turning page after page and wondering how long you would be allowed to remain in heaven.
Getting back to earth, however, I must admit something to you that only I and several close family members know: I am a book sniffer. Yes, I like to smell books. And I don’t just quickly pass a closed book under my nose and take a few short pulls. I open the book to some place near the middle and dive into it, oftentimes rubbing my nose deep into the valley and inhaling as I traverse the height of it, usually from bottom to top. New books are my favorite – there’s something absolutely erotic about knowing you are smelling the fresh, recently manufactured pages of a book for the very first time. Some books, as you can imagine, do not smell good. Old books often smell musty and ancient, and many smell like stale cigarettes. Some smell like cigars, and I swear you can tell whether the previous owner or a one-time reader smoked cheap ones or fine ones. You can often smell the damp basement where the book must have been stored for years in a cardboard box, or the perfume of a lady who read the book last week, or last year, or decades ago. Books absorb the atmosphere surrounding them and take on certain remnants of where they’ve been and who has used them. There is no end to the pleasure a book sniffer can take, but sniffing is not for everyone and there are more important ways to classify a book.
Typography is also important in establishing a mood or a sense of like or dislike for a book. Nearly all books have text printed in some form of the Roman style of type, but there are many varieties of Roman, and many ways for a publisher to present the type to the reader. The shape and design of the individual letters is important, but perhaps more important are their size and the way they have been grouped together into words and sentences and paragraphs. The shape of the text on a page, including not only the letters but also the spacing between lines, can have significant impact on a prospective reader’s acceptance or rejection of a book. Opening a volume to a randomly selected page and glancing at verbiage stamped upon it has often been the single act that determines whether or not I take the book or put it back on the shelf.
I have just gone to my personal bookshelf to find a case in point. I have brought back to the table The Agony and the Ecstasy, the fictionalized account of Michelangelo’s life by Irving Stone. Including bibliography and notes, the book has 664 pages. I have selected page 484 to examine, and I count 511 words. Now I will examine a book that I brought home from the Fort Wayne Public Library – The Magic of the Book by William Dana Orcutt (1930). Flipping to page 217, which is virtually filled with words (except for the margins), I find 217 of them. It’s unsettling to find 217 words on page 217, but that just makes my research all the more interesting. Doing the math, 217 words is only 42% of the number of words found on the page in Agony. Not only is there a great difference in the number of words but also in the quality of them.
In Agony the letters and words are adequate. The ink is dark enough to show up nicely against the off-white background of the slightly aged pages (printed in 1961). The words are distinct enough to distinguish one from the other. The paragraphs are readable. A glance at a page as a whole, however, is almost frightening. Hundreds upon hundreds of words, in 44 tightly packed lines (an average of 11.6 words per line) are meshed together in a morass of sentences, thoughts, impressions, ideas, and attitudes, none of which stand out physically from any of the others. You must dive into the verbiage and hack your way through the paper and ink jungle just to figure out what Mr. Stone was trying to say. Casual forays into Agony are not rewarding – thumbing through its pages you will neither trip on interesting anecdotes nor stumble upon ingenious aphorisms. They may very well be there, but you won’t find them until you sit down, prop up your feet, and get down to some serious reading.
In contrast, consider the following. On one of my browsing expeditions not long ago at the Fort Wayne Public Library, I haphazardly spotted a dark blue volume, with a modestly elegant golden title of A Raft Pilot’s Log. It was written by someone named Walter A. Blair and published by The Arthur H. Clark Company in 1930. The handsome exterior colors caught my eye and, pulling the book down from a nose-high shelf, I opened it to page 26. I focused on a short paragraph near the middle of the page. “My favorite pilot was Joe Blow,” Mr. Blair said, “an old Frenchman of Stephens Point, of whom we bought lumber every year. He was intelligent above the average . . . .” Beautifully but not ornately typeset, the book’s large, distinct letters nicely complimented the heavy, textured paper. Individual words and sentences fairly leaped out at me as I scanned the pages. The riverboat pilot Joe Blow was an interesting man with an outrageous name, and I wanted to know more about him and other reminiscences of Walter A. Blair.
Page 27 of A Raft Pilot’s Log held 34 lines of type, with only 318 words in total. That’s a sparse 9.4 words per line. The attractive text, framed in pleasantly large margins, called attention to itself, and the relatively small number of words on the page naturally suggested to me that each word and sentence has a gravity unmatched in a book like The Agony and the Ecstasy, even though A Raft Pilot’s Log was written by a virtually unknown boat pilot about a dead profession, and Agony was written by a moderately famous author about one of the most well-known artists of recent times.
The purpose of a book has much to do with its size, shape, thickness, and appearance. Some books are published with the intent of gratifying the senses as much as with satisfying the reader’s thirst for intellectual stimulation. Consider, again, The Magic of the Book. You need only read the title to understand that the author has, indeed, a high regard for books, and probably wishes to instill some of his regard in the reader. Sure enough, to help attain his goal, along with the vividly stamped text and high quality, textured pages, are no less than 70 illustrations. Magic is truly a feast for the eyes as well as the mind, and hours can be spent in drifting from page to page snatching morsels about the history and technology of book manufacture, and in viewing the interesting pictures and examples.
I’ll select another volume from my own shelf for comparison to Magic. Traveller’s Library, a collection of poetry, fiction, and essays “compiled and with notes by W. Somerset Maugham,” offers an interesting example. In a package smaller by 1/2″ in height and 1/2″ in width, and only 5/8″ thicker than Magic, the Traveller’s Library contains an abundant assortment of entertainment: two novels, 29 short stories, 15 essays, and 50 poems. In 1,688 pages, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., in 1933, provided many a traveler with a wealth of literature in an economical format. Thin, inexpensive paper, bound tightly in a common but attractive light blue and silver cover, provides exactly what a traveler needs – as much reading material as can be squeezed into as small a space as possible.
But Library is not a browser’s book. It’s a heavy thing, and comes down from the shelf only with great care. It flops open with a thud, and you must wet your finger to turn one of the smooth, gossamer-thin pages. With no illustrations, no fine paper, and no beautiful typography, I’ll put Traveller’s Library back on the shelf until I set off for Alberta, Argentina, or Australia.
The longest trip you can make in the shortest time and the smallest space comes with the browsing of books. It is not only a pastime, it is a means of tasting and sampling the thoughts, impressions, and ideas of writers from all over the world – a proven, reliable method for expanding your mind and at the same time for treating your eyes, ears, nose, and sense of touch. I’m addicted to the practice – hopelessly and permanently obsessed with it. I have been side-tracked from many an important project by the overpowering impulse to take one more step down the aisle, glance at one more spine, read one more title, crack open one more teasing tome. It’s . . . Oh, excuse me for a minute. I see something interesting just up ahead . . .