Monday, October 19, 2009

Thinking about the Centuries

One of my favorite books is Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. I've read it many times, but the first time, I borrowed it from a friend in the third grade. She had a hardcover edition that was oversized. The cover shows us Mary in a yellow coat looking over her shoulder while pulling back a wall of ivy. I remember resting it on my lap while I read it. It had heft and weight and smelled of paper and ink and a little of my friend's house. Even now, though I don't have a copy of that exact edition, it's part of how the story lives in my mind whenever I think of it or reread it.

And I thought of that reading experience this weekend after walking through some of the exhibits at the Morgan Library. The museum has a fantastic, if small, exhibit on Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, which includes original art and handwritten original manuscripts. (Undeniably amazing.) But it also has a Gutenberg Bible, letters and original manuscript pages from the likes of Dickens, Eliot, and Hemingway, and a number of illuminated prayer books and bibles. At the end of the summer, I also went to an illuminated manuscript exhibit at the Met which blew my mind a little bit.

Standing in front of a book that's a thousand years old--a thousand years old--with an eReader and a blackberry in my bag made my brain want to implode. That's a millenia of ways to read all within a few square feet. And those centuries-old books are so full of craft. People spent years and years perfecting their skills to make those books. The calligraphy, the artwork, the bookbinding, papermaking . . . it's a work of art. One that you can tell a person, or many people, put care and attention and love into. All books are works of art, even today. Care goes into the choosing of typeface, the layout, design, presentation. Every single detail is taken into account.

The lack of physical presence is one of my worries about ebooks. And that's not to say that I don't like ebooks, or digital books, or whatever is currently developing. I think it's exciting and interesting and part of the future of reading. But have we figured out the craft of creating them yet? Right now, they seem more about convenience and availability, not design or art. A good story is a good story no matter how it's presented, but a good package makes the reading experience even better. None of the digital readers are what I'd call beautiful yet. (Ok, maybe the iPhone is the exception here.) But I think we'll get there, so that reading a digital book has the same physical presence, evokes the same sensory memory that reading The Secret Garden--and so many other books--has always had for me.


  1. Martha, I agree on the lacking design of the ebook, and think it unforgivable of Amazon to strip all the type design out of the books they're publishing on the Kindle platform. I do like the convenience of my Kindle, but every book looks the same, and the covers and other images are unintelligible. So we're a long way from there. I think they will get there, though. There's too much talent in the design community to leave this territory unexplored.

    I do love the printed books that have come out lately with multiple ink colors (Lips Touch, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon). So lovely.

  2. There is something irresistible about a real, tangible, heft-able book. I went to the library the other day, intending just a quick stop to turn things in. Then I spied the "New Juvenile Fiction" shelf. Of course I had to go see what's new, and after I'd handled several, admired the covers, read the jacket flaps, sampled the prose, I couldn't help myself. I was off to the check-out desk with another armload.

    I can't see an electronic book having the same effect on me.

  3. it'll be a sad sad day if ereaders
    are more popular than actual books.
    i really hope that day never comes--
    at least not in my own lifetime!

    as much as i love the internet, i'm not
    a fan of reading novels online. or electronically.
    i love the heft of a book and the smell
    of the pages. it's a sensory experience
    that is robbed by etechnology, imo.