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Volume 25 - Spring 2008


 
 

Cracking Reads - Food for Thought

by Joseph Connolly
 

When is the last time you held in your hand a brand new book and declared it to be beautiful? Not a finely morocco-bound Victorian tome with gilt-edged India paper leaves, each page made noble by the sort of bold and generous typography that simply takes your breath away; not even a solidly pleasing cloth-bound volume with gold leaf and contrasting lozenges of colour beneath a striking and hand painted dust wrapper from the last golden age of British book production, the l960'S. No, cast aside thoughts of such bygone beauties and concentrate upon what is on offer in Waterstone's, Books Etc. and WH Smith.

Setting aside magnificent art books and the sometimes quite extraordinary over-production of commercial 'jackets", the heft, boards, paper and design of a typical new novel or biography are decent and serviceable, certainly, but beautiful - no. Why should this be? Is it merely economics? A lack of aesthetic excellence is often blamed upon this quite nebulous excuse and on the declining standards of the book-buying public, which leave publishers under no obligation to make their books any better than they are.

Collectors like me know that modern publishers have no interest whatever in a book following its sale. They are not in the business of supplying museum quality heirlooms for a future generation. Indeed, most publishers and many royalty-conscious authors would quite welcome the invention of the book that would self-destruct the moment the initial purchaser reached the words "The End". I once asked Dr DG Hessayon - author of the phenomenally best selling Garden Expert series - how it could be that his old titles continued to sell in their millions each and every year. "Simple," he replied, quite deadpan: "cheap bindings".

It was not always thus. Time was when a gentleman's library was a highly visible display of his taste and learning, the look of his collection an extension of the peerless decor.

Today, collectors of contemporary first editions had better ensure that the books are never placed close to radiators or in direct sunlight, if their investment is not to turn into a handful of dust. It is possible to preserve modern books in dust-free and temperature-controlled rooms; they won't disintegrate, but the steady yellowing of pages that become ever more brittle is inevitable, even in the best-kept collection.

From a strictly production point of view, trade paperbacks these days are pretty much perfectly formed and, incidentally, extremely good value - but all one has to do is compare the best books of today with an average product of 40 years ago to see how badly things have slipped.

In the 1960s, all the great literary houses -Jonathan Cape, Chatto & Windus, Oxford University Press, the much lamented Bodley Head - were producing well printed and bound standards, but none so wonderfully as Faber and Faber. Faber was fortunate in having a genius as their resident art director - Berthold Wolpe, designer of the quite superb Albertus typeface, and single-handed artist to most of the output.

Brave blocks of colour, offset by strong and vigorous type and hand painted calligraphy - and beneath, heavy boards covered in cloth, the spines alive with contrast and gilding. No one, with the venerable exception of Everyman, uses cloth any more - and spines now very meanly record the title and author as if for mere clinical reference than any sort of display.

Even the half-crown Penguin was a thing of aesthetic beauty, its inherent floppiness and the instantly recognisable orange bands striped by black serving to denote quality, while provoking a need to possess. Today, paperback covers sport all manner of embossing, metallic foils, spot varnishing, but artistically they are generally a bit of a mess. It may be no coincidence that what were once the best-designed colophons are now mostly owned by an offshore corporation. Over the past 20 years or so the condition of books - whether by design or accident - has improved. In the 1980s blotchy paper was yellowing even as the books languished in the shops; over- laminated jackets crazed and curled, and boards were far too flimsy and routinely warped. The two signs of the time were title pages so thin you did not need to turn over to read the copyright details on the reverse, and a new sort of paperback binding, much touted by the trade, which comprised individual sheets of paper (as opposed to stitched and folded 'signatures") glued directly to the squared-off spine. The crack that was required to prise open such a book ensured the immediate detachment of some of the leaves, and then when the glue became brittle, most of the rest. Enthusiastic publishers, with a wholly straight face, christened this nightmare, the "perfect" binding.

So is the disintegration of books a matter of economics, or simple negligence? Publishers, if cornered, will offer to produce a cloth-bound book with stitching and ribboned headers and fine, thick paper, provided that you, the customer, are prepared to stump up 50 quid a whack. At which point we, the bibliophiles, point to America, where book production is in another league. They have the sort of bindings that would survive a fall from the Empire State, and an obsession with acid-free papers (these ensuring no yellowing or decay). American books often list the provenance of the trees from which the paper was made, and all sorts of typographical information - rather like their newsier sorts of wine labels. What is more, American books are famous for being cheaper. At the mention of which, British publishers will purse the lip and shuffle the feet a fair deal and resort to "economics".

Somehow, the Everyman Library seems to manage it with ease - proper paper, cloth bindings, restrained (though admittedly dullish) dust wrappers, and all as cheap as chips. Admittedly, they're not crippled by the need to dole out huge advances to the likes of Charlotte Bronte, but there is a lesson here to be learned.

Of course, modern books look nice, but then so, momentarily, do clothes from Top Shop - we sorely need to get back into publishing more of the style and quality of Savile Row.

Joseph Connolly - London Evening Standard 19th May 2003

Joseph Connolly - (born March 23, 1950) is a British journalist, novelist, non-fiction writer and bibliophile. For many years Connolly was the proprietor of The Flask Bookshop in Hampstead, London. Having started writing fiction rather late in life, he is best known today for his comic novels, especially in France, where they have been translated by Alain Defossť. He also contributes to The Times and various other publications.

 

Skin Deep - Volume 25 - Spring 2008

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