I recently bought a handmade blank book from a local artist, who uses Japanese papers to create one-of-a-kind journals. They are just beautiful and bring together many of the elements I love about print books.
And that got me to thinking. We’re a day early for Wild West Thursday, but let’s talk about print books and why (if) we love them. I adore print books. I always have. And now that they’re diminishing in numbers and availability, I have to hope that they’re not facing extinction. I love print books so much that I can’t imagine reading only in a digital format. I also love print books enough that I am aware of the limitations of print-on-demand technology.
Let’s talk about why.
First off, there’s the tactile experience of a physical book. I love the smell of print books. The glue from the binding has a particular scent, as does the paper. I love the sound a hardcover book makes when it’s cracked open the first time, and the feel of a cover under my fingertips. I love matte paper covers on trade paperbacks, foil stamping and raised type, gloss varnish images that you only see when you hold the book at the right angle. I love rag edges on the pages of hard cover books, marbled end papers (or illustrated end papers), leather covers with tooling and gold embossing. The paper can be smooth or have more tooth; it can be creamy or it can be stark white; it can be trimmed with precision or have rag edges. There’s something magical about a book that needs to have its galleys carefully cut open with a knife before it can be read, like it has secrets to reveal only to you. I love all those printing and production tricks that make print books into tactile treasure chests. Some people call this “book as object” or “book as treasure”. The physical book in itself is a prize.
Possibly because I learned to read print books, I associate all of those physical clues with the thrill of discovering a new story. We had the entire set of My Book House when I was a kid, a twelve volume hard cover collection of children’s stories that become progressively more advanced with each addition. (I still have them.) I remember opening those books to read—or be read to—and the thrill of moving on to the next volume in the series very well. Holding a print book in my hands gives me a sense of anticipation, an awareness that I’m about to embark on an adventure.
I also love illustrations in books. These tend to be few and far between in digital books. My Book House had wonderful line drawings, and perhaps my affection for them came from that. The illustrations were well chosen to highlight the story in question and often took the imagination in new paths, or brought some previously-unnoticed element of the story to the fore. Sometimes poems were typeset to flow around the illustration or echo its composition, which looked like magic to me. I recently read a new book (in print) that had title pages for each section with line drawings, and they made the book so beautiful that I wanted to put it on the shelf and keep it forever. (I did.) I love drop caps and illuminated caps, the kind that you see in fairy tales. Those illuminated caps often have an entire story hidden within them, or they hint at one. When I began to study medieval stories, I was enchanted by the illustrations in the margins and caps of those old manuscripts, probably the forebears of illuminated caps. I also appreciate when someone takes the time to choose the perfect symbol or dingbat to use as a scene break or chapter break. That’s another illustration, another way to explore the core ideas of the book in images. These little touches take a specific title beyond the ordinary.
I’m not sure whether I was a typesetter because I loved the way type could convey mood (maybe it was those poems flowing around the illustrations!), or whether I learned more about type conveying mood because I set type for a while. Fonts in themselves are evocative, and the composition of the page in a print book gives the reader a powerful impression even before he or she begins to read. Most people don’t think about type, or white space, or the density of the lines, but all of those variables and more can combine together to enhance the experience of the book. Most mass market paperbacks aren’t designed, per se, but the copy is pushed through a template, maybe with some tweaks. It was in my trade paperback editions that I saw the art of book designers—trade is considered a “boutique” product in traditional publishing, so it gets more attention from the production side of the house. Doubtless hard cover does, too. (Although large print hard covers would be an exception to that.)
Digital books give the end user the flexibility of setting the font, color and size of the type, much like a website does (and EPUB is really a variant of HTML). That means that the art of the book designer is irrelevant. If you compare the layout of a digital book “page” on your e-reader with the page of a well-designed print book, you’ll see what I mean. The e-reader gets the job done. You can read the story. It’s functional, but it’s probably not beautiful.
And this all makes me wonder about the future or not just books but interior design of books. Will print books go away? Will digital books integrate some of these elements in the future? I can’t see the user control of font going away, but maybe we’ll get more illustrations or just better dingbats. Maybe there will be a default to the layout—”author’s choice” or something—that incorporates these elements but which the user can over-ride.
One thing I intend to do is think more seriously about my print-on-demand editions in future. It may be possible to add line drawings or other elements into those books to make them richer and move them beyond functionality.
What do you think? Do you love print books? Or do you prefer digital books? Tell me your preference and your reasons for it.