Friday, November 13, 2009

Against dust-jackets: Or, the scent of a book

This afternoon, I sat down to read a book.

I'm actually really surprised to write that so definitively. You see, that's a pleasure I used to partake of very frequently, even up to a few months ago. But now I'm afraid that with the 'curse' of artistic success and an altered professional schedule, I'm finding it to be a much more rare occasion. (I must admit, the thinking and writing of these posts is equally under that burden at present.)

But back to my story...

I have my cup of tea, my recliner, and my book: a compilation of G.K. Chesterton's essays. As I'm reading I find very quickly that the dust-jacket is annoying me, (It's a hardcover, because I love such things...but more on that later.) it slips and slides around when I'm trying to grasp the book... so I take it off. And to my surprise, I had quite a specimen in my hands.

The book had a very smooth, cream-colored cardboard as its cover, with some kind of faux-leather binding, which was ornamented with gold filigree at it's edges. In a word, it was beautiful.

This made me look down to the dust-jacket, with its rather ugly green wallpaperish spread and a rather generic exhibit of clip art, as if its 'classic' status as literature demands some subtle but unobtrusive emblem of a featureless man reading at a candle... In a word, it was gaudy.

So now I'm left with my book, my very fine book with well thought out essays crafted on the inside, matched with its true exterior of simplicity and artful craftsmanship on the outside. And it makes me think.

What is all this? Why the dust-cover? Why so flashy? You might argue that if all books were simply leather or gray bound, with straight gold type, the bookstores would have a very difficult time grabbing your attention while you peruse the shelves... perhaps I'll grant you that. But in such a case, I would suggest that you treat such superficial packaging as the marketing trash it is and destroy it as you would the bright gold stickers saying "10% off this week only!" As they are no more than that, and deserve no better fate.

The other day I was listening to an interview from On Point, and it was discussing the beauty of architecture. In it there was one point I really enjoyed. It was asserted that architecture needs a balance between utility and beauty. Those fancy squiggly break-your-mind buildings often didn't work well when you lived in them, and if they were so out there as to not do their job, they failed. Likewise if you get purely utilitarian, as we tend to do these days with our boxy and mass-produced fare, there is something decidedly missing.

I would say the same can hold true in all manner of little things. I'm not planning on building a house anytime soon, but when I look at my hardcover book, I really like it as an object in itself, not just the content. Actually, I find the content and its cover to be satisfyingly complimentary. I derive just as much pleasure in reading it as I do holding it. I even had one friend who would go through a particular ritual every time she sat down to read. She'd plop down, rapidly flip the entire contents like a deck of cards, then stick her nose in the binding and sniff deeply. We laughed at each other anytime I caught her doing it, but we both agreed it was a good thing.

So I leave you with these possibly random, maybe superficial thoughts. Buy hardcovers, pretty ones. Rip off your dust jackets. Stop and smell the pages. You'll get a lot more out of it. At least, I certainly do.