Books: Physicality vs. Story

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Yesterday I walked into a Barnes & Noble and I realized my relationship to books has changed.

When I was younger, middle school through high school really, I read all the time. I would go to the bookstore every so often and scour the shelves, hoping to find something interesting. Something that could capture my attention and take me away from the every day. I could spend hours in the same three rows of books, looking at each and every one, picking them up and turning them over, reading their back cover copy. Then cracking the book open to glimpse those first few pages.

Back then I mostly stuck to YA books. I loved that genre and not only read it but also wrote lots of stories and even finished one novel-length piece that fit snugly within that category. YA books move to a different beat; they are fun, silly, and wildly entertaining but can also shed light on important topics, not unlike adult literary fiction does.

When I stepped into those rows of YA books I was mesmerized. There’s really no other way to put it. Each and every purchase of a YA book was calculated and deliberate on my part. I was mostly interested in what each book was about. What captured my attention the most? If I only had a $20 gift card to spend, what was the best use of my money so that I could get the books that interested me while also getting the most amount of books. I loved getting Barnes & Noble gift cards for birthdays and Christmases because it allowed me a chance to buy books that I wouldn’t have otherwise spent my own money on.

Each bookstore visit was like a true treat. Something to look forward to. Something to savor. Something to aspire to—my name on a book sitting within those shelves. One day, I’d tell myself.

My relationship to books has changed a lot over the past ten years. Mostly this has to do with the line of work that I’m in—book publishing, and specifically book production. I know how books are made—both from a design standpoint but also from a manufacturing standpoint.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to look at a book—like a true physical book—the same way as my former YA-loving self did. That girl looked at books almost exclusively for the story within, in conjunction with the price tag. Now I look for books more so based on their physical qualities and design. My first inclination when I step into a bookstore is to touch the books—what type of lamination was used? I make my guesses. If there are fancy inks, I try to determine what shade of PMS was used. Covers that have lots of bling catch my attention the most—like foil stamps and spot gloss. But so do hardcovers—especially printed case hardcovers since these books are such an appealing little package to me. And of course there’s the interior paper—a choice that probably nobody else will ever notice except for hardcore material people like me.

I’ve often said over the past year or so that I buy books these days pretty much for their physical qualities—not so much because the story within really speaks to me. A good example of this is when I was in Seattle. There was a book sitting out on a display table that was tiny, much smaller than your average book. It was part of the Picador Modern Classic series and pretty much the only reason I bought it was because it had rounded corners (a unique feature for a full-length nonfiction book) and fit comfortably in my tiny bag. This tiny size made it a quick read—super easy to finish pages and be encouraged to keep going. I ended up really enjoying the book, but it could be argued that that was a coincidence.

Stories are powerful but they are nothing without a vehicle to get them into the hands of a reader.

Now that I am older and my life is steeped in books, I am more willing to spend more money for a beautiful book. Yesterday I bought Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. The book is over 1,000 pages long. There were two versions of the book sitting on the shelf. One version was large, with ample white space in the margins of the pages. The cover had french flaps and the book had a lovely deckled edge. The other book is classified as a “mass market paperback”—a no bells-and-whistles version that is itty bitty with dense text. It’s meant for someone who wants to read the book but also wants to easily take it with them, so it’s smaller and lighter for easier transport. This type of book is also considerably cheaper than other versions (in this case, about $15 cheaper).

Hopefully it’s obvious at this point which version I chose to purchase (the more expensive one). Knowing what I know about book design, I felt like for my poor little eyes that wanted to read so many words, a bigger page with more white space would be the better choice. Plus, material-junkie remember? Finer materials for a little more money will always be my preference.

But I will say, I miss the wonder and excitement I had for the stories held within these packages. That’s all a physical book is really. Packaging for a story. A story that is very much not a real “thing” at all, in the sense that a “thing” means it takes up space in the physical world. This idea is what attracts me so much to the book design and production side of the business. By doing my job, I get to help stories take up that physical space so they can be shared and admired and maybe make an impact on somebody’s perspective or even life. Stories are powerful but they are nothing without a vehicle to get them into the hands of a reader.

I don’t read like I used to. Over the past many years I have been reading things more because I feel like I should, less because I am truly interested in the story at hand. This isn’t always the case, but a lot of the books on my bookshelf at home are unread simply because I got them for free. My bookshelf would look a lot different, I think, if I were to fill it with books that I genuinely wanted to read (and therefore my bookshelf would be filled with books that I have read, not books that I haven’t).

The idea of free books from some fantastic publishers is just so irresistible. So even if I know I might not actually ever read the free books, I’ve taken them home anyway. Maybe I’ll try to read them . . . or maybe they will continue to sit there, unopened and unread. If anything, it goes back to everything I’ve already said—it’s the physical quality that I love so much. Even if I don’t particularly connect with the story, I connect with the book as a physical object. I can still gain something from it by looking at its cover or its page design.

The story has become a secondary element to me. This is not bad. But it is also not good. My wish is for those two elements—physicality and story—to balance each other out. I have no doubt that in another ten years, my bookshelf will look vastly different than it does today. One can only hope, as this means books are still alive and well in the world.

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