I used to stroll into Boston bookstores frequently, many times forgetting the time and showing up to work late from my lunch hour, often without having eaten or having bought any books. It was always like a tresure hunt, especially when I went to the used books bookstores; lots and lots of books, about anything imaginable. I'd go in to get the sequel to a book I was reading at the time, and end up flipping through design books, photography books, cookbooks, mysteries, children's, non-fiction, everything! Then I'd either buy a bunch of books or none at all.
A trip to the bookstore these days is more of a planned event. I can't just walk down the street and decide I'm going in. I have to go there, and mean it. You see, I have moved to the middle of suburbia America, where everything seems to be between 10 to 20 minutes away by car. It takes some of the charm away, and with it, some of the relaxing effects of just wandering in. Still, going to a good bookstore is always a treat.
On a recent evening out, after some decent coffee and good conversation, a friend and I decided to go to the bookstore. The first thing that struck me about this little outting has more to do with Allentown, PA, than with bookstores; notice I said "the" bookstore. When we were at the parking lot (I have gotten over the shock of the bookstore actually having a parking lot by now), I looked at him and realized we had never even talked about which bookstore to go to; there is only one real one here (see related article in issue 2 of skew). Actually, there are a couple of good used books places around, but this was the late side of the evening, so we went to the "new" books store, Encore Books.
While wandering around, after catching up on new releases, we ended up in the cookbook section for no particular reason. Each one of us grabbed a few books and we settled down on a couch to flip through them, ocassionally getting up to replenish the browsing materials. Something else struck me as funny then, this time more of a reflection of the graphic designer in me; I had about three books in my lap that I had picked randomly, one each from three different cuisines. What I realized is that I hadn't picked those particular books because of any reviews, or references, or even authors. I picked them because they looked good. Reading the flaps revealed two of the books had only the designer in common and nothing else; one was Middle Eastern cooking and the other Cuban cuisine.
I then started talking to other people about what I had always thought was one of those weird things I do because I am a designer (or a Libra, some try to tell me); there are a lot more requisites than just content to the books I buy or borrow. They have to be well designed, pleasant to look at (which is, after all a prerequisite to reading), feel good in my hands, and then look good in my bookshelf when I'm done. It seems those around me that share my love of reading have also at one point or another not bought a particular book because it didn't meet some personal criteria similar to mine.
The first thing everyone agreed on is that books don't have to be new in order to look good on the bookshelf or to be attractive; many times, we prefer an old book, sometimes for the way it feels, for the mystery or tradition an old book holds, or for the craftmanship that went into books that weren't as massively produced as books are today. I have a few books that are tattered around the corners, or whose spines have cracked, and they still hold a certain dignity about them. Some of them are on the bookshelf because of some personal meaning; when I look at them I manage not to see the cracks (a very dificult task for me). People I care about gave them to me, or read them after I did and weren't so careful. Some other "old" books are just beautifully bound in leather, assuring themselves that I will never replace them or put them in a box to make way for newer books. And there are those books in my bookshelf that are actually behind some other books; the reference books I feel I should keep around, or the ones that I had to read for some specific purpose and did so grudgingly, almost suffering through them (content aside) because "they", the people who are responsible for those books, forgot to design them, or decided that cheap paper was OK for the paperback version of an otherwise great book. I have given away or traded in most of those, but there are some still there, the ones that are good books to have. For some of those, I have actually gone out and bought the hardcover version, or a new paperback edition that had the fortune of being published in better paper with a better cover, after I have read them, just to have them, to read them again years later, or so that someone else whom I know to be just as caring about books as I can read them.
So, what then, does a book that I know nothing about, that means nothing to me emotionally, and that could be any one of a number in a category, have to be for me to take it home, read it and keep it? It has to be well designed, printed on good paper (or at least one that isn't offensive), and in a good typeface. They don't necessarily have to be fancy; as a matter of fact, simple books are often better. Of course, different categories of books have their own particular requisites, but these are a must in all.
I don't have a particular preference between hardcovers and paperbacks; to me they are just different, and I treat them as such. Hardcovers I usually read at home, while paperbacks I carry around to read at idle times while commuting, or when waiting for something or someone. I have been known to read two books simultaneously, one a hardcover and one a paperback, to cover my reading times everywhere. There are obvious reasons why I read hardcovers at home; they tend to be heavy, making it impossible for me to hold the book and the rail on the train (when there was a train) at the same time. They are also more expensive, and I couldn't just as easily go out and buy another one to replace it if it gets ruined. Then, of course, there are those paper jackets they put on most of them. The concensus seems to be that everyone takes them off, for one reason or another. They are annoying, and they twist and bend in funny ways while you are trying to read the book, so they get taken off and put aside. Some throw them out, although I put mine in a safe place until I finish the book, then put it back when the book gains its place in The Bookshelf. I don't really understand their purpose; I am sure there are other proper places to print the author's bio other than on the flaps. I wish they would just put that money into printing the book itself with better, durable covers. And boy, do I hate it when I take the paper cover off to read a book, and the actual cover is made of cheap fabric that feels like sand paper... then I just have to juggle the flimsy paper jacket, trying not to fall asleep on it and ruin it, while I read the book, or just put the book in my lap and never touch it.
Paperbacks seem to be a favorite for most people. They are comparatively cheap, and, as I said, easier to carry around, but I fail to understand why many publishers have to make them feel and look cheap. It is not more expensive to center the column on the paper, or to cut the paper appropriately. The choice of paper may be more of a monetary concern, but it is only a matter of cents for massively produced books, so I would bet most people would gladly cough up the extra 25 cents. The binding should hold up to a few readings, yet not be so tough that you almost have to crack the spine to read it, and the size of the book should be comfortable enough to hold with one hand.
I love typefaces. I think each has its own place and function, and as a designer, there are two things I can't have too much of - RAM for my Mac, and typefaces. I wish those that design books would consider knowledge of typography as possibly the most important part of their job. To get through a book, no matter how good the story is, you must be able to read it easily. A dignified typeface, proper leading and kerning, appropriate line length, and correct centering of the text block within a page are essential. For picture books, of course, the balance of type and images is, well, an art.
There are other oddities that also come to mind. The environmental movement has brought with it deckled paper (the one with an unfinished edge), which is very cool looking and, if done properly, even feels good in your hands as you thumb through the book. Books with colorful images demand good paper and quality printing, no matter what. "How about those awesome cloth bookmarks that are sewn into the binding... A definite plus," someone wrote me. I agree. Someone else used the word "hate" to describe the little cut out windows that have been popping up in paperbacks. I agree there, too. Also, if the book is too long, please make it into two volumes.
Last, there are two book categories that reach beyond and encompass everything I have already said - children's books and manuals. I have bought children's books many times not because of their content, and not even because there is a child around, but because they are just beautiful. The brevity of words needed to hold the attention of a child demands, and very often achieves, excellence in illustrations. The styles vary as much as there are artists, and which I pick reflect my personal likes. When you go to a bookstore, wander over to the kids section; many of the books are works of art. Paper sculptures are my favorites; I had a lengthy discussion with my favorite short person about which dinosaur book we were getting one particular afternoon because of illustrative styles. Needless to say, binding and quality paper are paramount in children's books. No matter how hard anyone tries to instill a sense of respect for books, children will always want to make them lay flat, and they will always hold them a little rougher than I would like. Manuals are reference books, at least as far as I am concerned. Software developers have taken as of late to perfect bind books (as paperbacks are bound); it is cheaper than wire binding them and alleviates the problem of not having a spine to put a title on, but you can't make the book lay flat, and how, pray tell, are you supposed to type, maneuver your mouse, and read the directions if you have to hold the book? Apple Computer used to have great manuals - wire bound, with a cover that would wrap around the open side of the book, creating a spine. A great solution, I thought.
There was another conversation after we left The Bookstore that day; are books going to be around in a few years? I say they will always be there. Yes, about half the reading I do is on my computer - Usenet news, stuff my friends send me, CD-ROMs, etc. - but nothing will ever replace curling up on the sofa or in my bed with my book that feels and smells good, holding it with one hand and with my hot chocolate in the other. If I fall asleep and crease the book, well, I will probably be grumpy for a while, but when I roll over and realize the book is there, it will be a whole lot more pleasant than realizing I fell asleep on top of my Powerbook.