Or, Why I Picked a Good Time to Get Into Publishing
I’ve always been the type of person who loves to read in his downtime, ever since I started with R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps as a kid. Fear Street came later, and at some point my older brother bought me two books—a fantasy epic called Cormyr and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. I think that’s when I became a “book person” and evolved into a multi-genre reader.
We’re always taught that it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover, and while the message that phrase teaches us about how we treat other people is fundamental, I think—sometimes—we just can’t help it when it comes to books. (Speaking of covers, check out this post Clare wrote yesterday). In retrospect the Goosebumps covers are pretty laughable, but they were dramatic enough to hook a younger me into sneaking them into the grocery cart, frustrating my parents at the register.
(Am I remembering that right? They sold kids’ books in grocery stores, right?)
When I graduated to Fear Street, it was the photo-realistic covers that grabbed me.
(I also started buying books from actual bookstores.)
But when my brother gave me Cormyr and Rainbow Six for my birthday, it wasn’t just the covers that caught me. Here were two books like bricks, thick and heavy enough that I was careful not to let them crash through the glass table I set them down on. Cormyr weighed in at 486 pages, an intimidating feat at the time, but Rainbow Six made my palms sweat in nervous anticipation of its 912 pages. That was a first time I ever thought about the physicality of a book, it was the first time I realized, “someone made this.” I imagined pages being sized up and laid out, being printed and put together. For the first time, I saw a book as a physical thing. And then I didn’t.
The next ten or so years books would go back to being stories and ideas. I forgot about their physical reality, about their construction.
Two things have made me reconsider the reality of book production. Firstly, and most obviously, I got a great job in the publishing industry. While we don’t print and assemble the books here in the office, I get to talk about producing books an awful lot, and I get to listen to people who genuinely love this little-thought-of reality of the book world. Secondly, I have two books on deck that I can’t wait to read, and they both challenge what a book physically is. I guess two books plus one new job is three things. Sue me.
S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst is a marvel of a book. The cloth-bound centrepiece is The Ship of Theseus, a fictional book from a fictional author named V.M. Straka. Holding it, the book looks and feels worn, and the first thing you’ll notice is that it’s a library book. Er, made to look like one. The Ship of Theseus is a stand-alone novel, but the real narrative happens in the margins, as two characters—Eric and Jen—communicate through notes and try to solve the mystery of who V.M. Straka is. The book comes shrink-wrapped and boxed, because along with the margin notes the narrative presents itself in postcards, letters, even a map drawn on a napkin. Part of the narrative also exists online, in places like www.radiostraka.com and www.eotvoswheel.com. Look at that; print and digital working together to tell a story.
The other book is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. There’s nothing tucked in-between the pages of House of Leaves, instead the book relies on its layout and design, and lots (lots!) of footnotes in order to tell its story. Reading this book is a physical as well as an intellectual act, and from what I hear the nature of its construction creates an uneasy feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia for the reader. (When I picked it up and Words Worth Books, the woman behind the counter said, “this is the most terrifying book I’ve ever read,” and tried vainly to explain the sensation of peripheral anxiety she felt during certain passages). Sheer curiosity made me pick this one up, but I haven’t been able to start it yet. The dedications page reads, “this book is not for you.” It might be right.
The nature of the novel (or any book) is up in the air right now. People are starting to experiment with what exactly a book is capable of being—or doing. Last week I had a great conversation with our Acquisitions Editor, Lisa Quinn, and she told me how the influences of our digital culture is changing the way she’s structuring and planning books. Before that, Harvard University Press explained that “the scholarly book was overdue for an overhaul,” on their blog, and shed some light on their metaLABprojects series, a heavily design-driven series that I’m looking forward to following.
Okay, so what am I getting at here? I don’t want this post to turn into Rainbow Six so I’ll cut to the point. The “revolution” in publishing, if you want to call it that, is a lot more than print vs. digital, e-pub vs. p-book. What we have on our hands is a new medium, and the opportunity to look at existing ones in new ways.
From the Harvard University Press blog post mentioned earlier:
“Revolutions in media are never reducible to the mere substitution of old media by the new. Rather, they are about reshufflings of decks into which new cards have been inserted. This implies the emergence of new genres, norms, and forms. It also implies new hybridities that, in the case of the digital revolution, permit riffing off of convergences and divergences between the online and the offline, the digital and the analog.”
My love of books only grows stronger as I grow older. And my collection grows on an almost monthly basis. A bit of a hoarder, I never let go of my books, so I have the opportunity to look back and see an evolution, a progress. I see design trends rise and fall, the shapes and sizes and colours of my books all telling a little story of their own. Same with the stories within them, working collectively to narrate an epoch. I don’t know how it’s going to end (actually I kind of hope it never does) but I’m looking forward to following along.
And I’m looking forward to seeing what happens while we reconsider everything books can be, and everything they can do.
So sit back and enjoy the show.
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