Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Tactile Beauty of a Hardcover Book

With Amazon busily vaunting the superior nature of the 'Kindle', a personal 'virtual library' and so many books now available on the internet, many people tend to disregard real books completely. The 'book' as we know it is itself a mutation from older 'scrolls' made of lambskin or papyrus, rolled and tied, then set into cubbyholes for storage. The printed book is even a mutation from the original older hand-lettered works available only to the rich or to the Church in Europe. When the printing press went into action, there were those who mourned the end of the era of the hand-lettered work of art.

I hope we are not living in an era that will witness the demise of the printed book. Although I use a computer constantly, I do not like to read long works of fiction on the screen. A book has a tactile magic to it. It is a private world, hidden behind the 'gates' of its covers. Open the cover and you enter into another universe, the limit to which is set by the power of your own imagination and the ability of the writer.

I have been reading Bernard Cornwell lately. He is most famous perhaps for the 'Sharpe' series about an Irish soldier during the Napoleonic wars, a series that was translated to cinema. I have watched the films but have not read the actual books yet, mainly because my sympathies tend to be, rather treacherously, with the other side in the conflict. I had no problems with his Anglo-Saxon series, however, and enjoyed it immensely.

The internet is an incredible boon to serious readers, actually, as one has the world at ones fingertips when it comes to a search for a hardcover book at a good price. When I lived in Manhattan, I haunted the 'Strand', an enormous bookshop that sold remainders and other hardcover books at reduced rates. The 'Strand', however, is nothing compared to the internet. I was able to find a copy of Bernard Cornwell's 'Agincourt' absolutely untouched for less than a quarter of its listed price.

A new book can have a magic of its own, when the book is made well using superior paper and binding. When I opened 'Agincourt', I was overcome by the scent of the paper, sending me back to my happiest days in childhood, when my favourite Christmas or Birthday gifts always were books. The edges of the pages are deckled, which further assists the tactile enjoyment.

Oddly enough, one of my most magical memories involves a set of books I did not even own. When I was a child, I accompanied my mother to the local university library where I found a complete set of the hardcover works of Alexandre Dumas. Dumas set himself the enormous task of constructing the history of France from its inception in the form of novels. He had a 'factory' of writers to assist him, actually, but his accomplishment remains extraordinary. There are more than one hundred novels in the series. I was able to read all of them, book by book.

The series was leatherbound, I believe, and printed on superior paper. What made this experience truly legendary for me was the fact that at least two-thirds of the books had uncut pages. I had to find a penknife to cut each page before I could read it! I felt like an explorer in a virgin forest.

I am not a time-traveler. I was not born in an era of printed books with uncut pages. The edition I read had to be almost contemporary with the writer himself. It probably was the first English edition of many of the novels.

In any case, reading 'Agincourt' by Bernard Cornwell transported me back to childhood, when I viewed a new book with almost as much excitement as a plane ticket to another country.

Here it is necessary to comment upon the shoddy quality of many contemporary printed books, even books that are printed in hardcover editions. The paper and bindings often are cheap, although the price usually is the same as it would be for a superior edition. That is where Harper Collins should be applauded for maintaining the highest of standards for so many of its editions, from 'Agincourt' to the 'Warrior' series by Erin Hunter. Both may become classics one day and the owners of these editions should be able to enjoy them as much in a decade or three as they do now, unlike so many contemporary hardcover books of equal price.

I think it is wonderful that so many classics have been uploaded to the internet but I should hate to think that the printed book will become obsolete.

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