The other day, one of my employees, who’s not from the publishing world, inadvertently revealed that she is, in fact, a born publisher. A beautiful book arrived at our office, devoted to subject matter that she is deeply interested in. She picked it up eagerly. However, instead of going to the Table of Contents or doing that maddening thing of exploring content by flipping pages back to front, she headed right for the copyright page to see where it was printed. Then she held it up by the boards to check the soundness of the binding. Then she smelled it. It reminded me of a horse fancier feeling hocks or checking teeth. She was judging, appreciating, loving that book as a thing.
We talk about, pay tribute to, defend with passion, the First Amendment and all it means to our chosen profession. Yet what many of us get weak in the knees over is paper. Or color reproduction. Or type. Type! I have seen book publishers yammer about x-heights, serifs, and leading–right down to 1/72 of an inch–the way wine snobs go on about… whatever they go on about. I have done it myself, at length. We embrace the concept of Print on Demand and all its economic benefits, but then balk at the look of a Print on Demand book. The way the ink (or toner) sits on the paper. The kerning. The way the grain runs. And e-books? Don’t get me going.
Maybe I’m overgeneralizing; maybe you’re a more pragmatic sort who truly just wants to get the content out there and considers the package a physical necessity or a marketing frill. The world, after all, has been changed by crudely printed, hastily bound volumes. But I’ll bet I’]Z› not talking to myself here. I’ll bet you have books that you keep around just because you love them in some irrational physical way, not because you’ll ever read them again.
There’s a stunning passage in Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, Last Report on
the Miracles at Little No Horse, in which a priest on the Ojibwe reservation in the early part of this century lies awake at night in his frigid primitive cabin reading the spines of a wall of books. This story has abundant plot twists and layers, ethnography and adventure, magic realism–it’s vivid and robust. Even so, it’s this quiet, understated
passage–the little priest reaching out to stroke the spines of his beloved books in the cold moonlight, so real that you can feel them–that stops a book lover’s heart.
Book publishing is a content business, and it’s a manufacturing business. It brings together the world of ideas and the world of made objects. That’s the pleasure and the paradox.