This is the fourth and final piece of a series on the anatomy of books. The first three pieces were “Skin & Flesh,” “Organs,” and “Bones” (extra: Epigraphs and Dedications). Most of these observations are taken from my own experience and library of knowledge. This last piece is primarily concerned with the overall physicality of books.
1847, London, England. A eighteen-year-old mudlark, drenched in the filth of the Thames, spots a flutter of paper on the shore. He picks through the rubble and finds a penny dreadful; three pence, if I’m lucky, he thinks as he flicks through the tattered pages. A String of Pearls: A Romance. Sweeney Todd. Huh, the young man wonders. What a funny name. The sun has nearly set behind the plume of melting buildings, and most workmen are stumbling home. The young man, however, is fixated. He turns to the first page and begins to read, slowly and stiffly. ¹
Dime novels and penny dreadfuls are only a fragment of the compendium that is our worldwide book culture, but the reason I brought up the latter was to reference its distant cousin: mass market paperbacks.
Mass market paperbacks—cheap, pocketable, words crammed onto pages with barely discernible margins—are not known for flourishes. Yet there is something riveting about their rawness, how they are stripped of fancy covers, dense afterwords, meticulous typefaces, and how people could care less about how easily the spines crack and fall apart. In the end, we buy mass market paperbacks for one reason and one reason only: the stories inside.
So when you put into perspective the $6 for a stuffy paperback versus a $545 letter-pressed, limited edition of a Shakespeare play, you may recoil. Who on earth would pay that much money (sometimes more) for a text you could buy at the local bookstore for less than $10?
C. Max Magee mentions the “idea of the book as an anachronism“—in other words, the perpetual resistance towards e-books. People pay hundreds of dollars for a book because of its physical worth, from the hours spent sewing the binding to gilding its edges. Some say that it makes no difference. Books and e-books are obviously tailored to have separate advantages, but the core is very much the same: a flicker of heat for words, thoughts, imagination.
Then, in essence, the physicality of books is the only thing standing between digitalized libraries and the sweeping shelves of the NYPL. Books are the medium between ideas and tangibility, but they are also experiences: age-old marginalia, the smoothness of new paper in Oxford World’s Classics, the use of books as art, the mystery of deckled edges, the copy of Dragon Rider peppered with bagel crumbs, the fold-out dust jacket maps, the chemical degradation that gives rise to that lovely scent in old books (vanilla, almonds, and a touch of floral).
Books are loved for their inimitable presence in our lives, from using Les Miserables as a doorstop to flinging a copy of The Catcher in the Rye at the annoying kid in class. More importantly, though, they are loved for being present when we need them most: clutching fragments of Sappho close to your chest, hauling the tales of Narnia in your lap on a hot summer evening, bringing Keats and Wordsworth on the bus home, or conversing with Camus via spacious margins and blue ink, because sometimes defaced pages and cracked spines are the only solace we have in this bright, glaring world.
Further reading: “Books As Objects”
¹ I understand that in 19th century England, impoverished boys and young men, especially mudlarks, had little to zero education, but let’s just allow imagination to roam for a bit.