Extreme Books

You have heard people say books are going away, that we’ll all be reading on Kindles, etc. for the foreseeable future. The more extreme prognosticators declare that whole libraries are in demise, and with the cloud, their books are destined for landfill. (They obviously haven’t read the statistics on the increased use of libraries, and not just for their computers.)

Some book publishers have an extreme prognostication of their own. They have predicted they’ll succeed if they publish general interest books—not coffee table books—with a beautiful design, a gorgeous feel, and a reach toward complexity. Such qualities can be pictured on an e-reader, but, compared to a real book, it would be like listening to a symphony on the radio instead of hearing it in a concert hall—the experience would suffer.

Some publishers, of course, have always published beautiful books—Godine comes to mind—but there is a new emphasis toward making an object that can’t easily be transformed into an electronic mode.

Here’s an example. Chronicle Books’s The Little Book of Jewish Celebrations, written by Ronald Tauber, is a guide to Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot and other holidays and rituals. It is concise, entertaining and readable. The descriptions are amplified by related biblical quotations, a list of important words and phrases, and sometimes sidebars explaining a bit of history. (Full disclosure: the writer is a long-time friend. His book made me pay attention to this trend in the publishing industry.) It’s a book you can’t stop from reading.

It is also a book you can’t stop yourself from stroking. Its navy blue and gold cover has a silky feel—in textiles the feel is called the “hand.” Inside, the pages are enlivened with color, drawings, creative typefaces and charming decorative lines. While graphically much is going on, the division between parts is always clear and readability is paramount. The design of the book confers an importance to the text that would be lacking on a plain page. You could read the text on a Kindle, but you’d miss half the fun.

The Thing The Book is another Chronicle production. My friend, Shari, will love it. This book deconstructs books. In college I was a proper English major. I was told to do what I had always done: read stories and discuss them.

Then things changed. English departments were introduced to and fought over a new approach to literary criticism and analysis—deconstructionism. Deconstructionists don’t enjoy stories. Instead they consider all other kinds of meaning, most of which I didn’t understand or else found irrelevant. Shari, however, loves this kind of philosophical tangle.

That’s what this book is—a tangle, fully decorated with graphics that may hold secrets. I think I know what the Table of Contents is about, but I’m not sure. The cover’s texture is rough, probably a clue to the contents. There is one blank page. All parts of a book are scrutinized, analyzed and dramatized, from the endpapers and a book plate to ink. Many writers contributed. Some articles are heavily footnoted, which, I suspect, carries some deconstructionist meaning.

But whether I understand this book or not is not the point. It’s an extreme book, which cannot easily be transposed to your Kindle. I’m giving this book to Shari.

Extreme books have moved into literature too. The Luminaries (Little, Brown) is a novel with a remote setting, swashbuckling characters, an epic tale, and a historic time. I picked it up and didn’t put it down until I had read all 900 pages.

It goes way beyond the usual novel. The deconstructionists will love it. The structure is mathematical. The author plays with the reader, introducing astrological charts and characters representing astrological beings. Again, graphic design plays an important role. You could read this on an e-reader, but you’d miss the fun.

While The Thing The Book did not engage me in the same way as The Luminaries, I did pay attention to its introduction. It is both silly—“[Books] can be used to level a table”—and profound: Those objects, your books, are “a manifestation of your own history,” write the editors. People will continue to read books on e-readers. But, like extreme books, other books will have meaning that can’t be retrieved on an e-reader. They’ll need to be in hard copy and allotted shelf space.

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