Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Two book reviews

Your Face Tomorrow (a novel in three volumes) by Javier Marías. I've recently acquired all three volumes, the first two in trade paperback, the final one -- Poison, Shadow, and Farewell -- in cloth, a real cloth binding, not just a hardback case, fully sewn, with a nice heft to it. I like the blocky trim size, 5 3/4" x 8 1/4". The jacket art is fine, although I'm not greatly enamored of the typeface, nor the way the author's name runs vertically up the left side of the front cover. The spine, though, is nearly perfect, easily readable at ten paces, splendidly designed, including a thumbnail version of the cover art. The previous trade paperback volumes feature similar components, minus the nice binding. Unfortunately I find the books very difficult to read. Why? The page design is lousy -- the margins are exceptionally thin, especially at top and bottom, giving one the impression that the paper was improperly cut. There is simply too much text squished into a tight space, allowing no breathing room for Marías' dense prose. My eyes begin to hurt as I search in vain for a place to rest, so I can only read a few pages at a time before fatigue sets in. The books are published by New Directions, a distinguished house, long associated in my mind with those giants of 20th century poetry, Pound and Williams, their paperback spines instantly recognizable, dedicated to quality literature, bearing the idiosyncratic message on every copyright page, "New Directions Books are published for James Laughlin..." I have many of their books in my library, all very readable. Which is why it pains me to look at Your Face Tomorrow and see a botch job of page layout. There are too many savants loose today who give scant regard to the various components of a printed book, who claim that the text alone is important, and that the modes of text delivery are interchangeable. I don't think so. Had the pages of this novel been set differently, the reading experience would likely have been entirely different as well. Oh well, I will continue on my snail's pace through volume one -- I'm definitely smitten with the words and sentences that the author has written -- and see if I have the stamina to stick with the whole thing.

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker. I thought this was a terrific read, the obsessive miniaturist Baker back in top form, with an exceedingly clever novel about poetry, of all things. The details he pays attention to! Unfortunately, the book was published by Simon & Schuster, who really ought to be ashamed of the actual object itself. First off, it weighs nothing. You can't believe that it's really a hardcover book. The case materials are cheap and -- boy! -- do they look and feel it. No heft whatsoever. The cover is nice but utterly conventional and adds nothing to the "object-ness" of the book. It seems as though its edges will get dinged if you even look at them too hard. The paper inside is horribly thin and rough at the same time, feels weightless, and doesn't have sufficient opacity to prevent seeing through to the text on the next page. Given Baker's well-known and passionate defense of printed books and libraries, these components seem like a deliberate insult. The type is nicely set, though -- much, much better than the Marías volumes -- and the various design elements, scanned verse, snippets of musical notation, are incorporated into the pages with aplomb. The text is very easy on the eyes. Finally, there's the price. $25.00 for a badly produced 245-page novel released smack in the middle of the most crowded fall book season in memory, thereby virtually guaranteeing that it would get lost in the avalanche of Overhyped Literary Titles. (My guess is that Simon & Schuster overpaid for it too, given that that's been their MO over the years.) In recent months, S & S head Carolyn Reidy has made a lot of noise about the deleterious effect of e-book pricing on the superstructure of big-time publishing. But who can blame readers for choosing to buy the e-book when the physical book is so shoddy and expensive? If reading is to be a sensual experience, and not merely the intellectual consumption of text, then the book itself must be pleasing to the senses, in its form, its weight, its design, and its "thing-ness." If you produce a throwaway block of cheap paper, then let the e-book reign. Even if it leads to more layoffs.

No comments:

Post a Comment