Intimate with Print

When venturing in search of new (or used) books, the Serious Bibliophile requires a few essentials: canvas bags for carrying the books home, a bottle of water, a dedicated and equally bibliophilic companion, a list, and a lot of time. The canvas bags are necessary for two reasons: 1) they won’t tear when you cram them full of books of different shapes, and 2) they represent environmental consciousness. Using the cloth bags will help you resolve your eco-guilt from bringing home a dozen print books. The bottle of water will keep you hydrated as you make use of the ample time you’ve allotted for this session. When you want to go dashing down every aisle, whisking books off shelves with the irrepressible glee of a 5-year-old on a sugar rush, the list of titles to look for will help you to exert some self-control. The companion will also help you make use of your time; her enthusiasm for finding and reading the books you desire will the hours disappear quickly.

My most frequent book-buying companion is Katie, and she is meticulous about observing the rules above. We regularly schedule trips to one of Jacksonville’s largest used bookstores, our canvas bags, shopping lists, and protein bars in hand. If the trip to the bookshop occurs somewhere in a long day of errands, we have learned to eat before we step across the sloping threshold. Book-buying on an empty stomach is a dangerous business. Combine our crankiness from hunger with our desire to buy four times the amount of books our budgets allow, and we represent a serious threat to ourselves and all other customers.

Because I am a lover of literature – poetry and prose, drama and nonfiction – you might assume that a book’s content is the only thing that matters. However, accessing literature is a multi-sensory experience, an indulgence for the hands, eyes, and nose – as well as the mind.  The books I purchase are stories I want to read, in formats I can easily access. So, aside from interesting content, what am I looking for in a good book?

While shopping with Katie, we wandered into the Classics section in search of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. I had read the book eight years ago, for my AP Language & Composition class, but I’d somehow lost track of my beloved copy. Katie found the card with “WOOLF” printed in large, blocky lettering, and began to scour the stacks for the book I wanted. She found several editions, published by different companies – their fonts, pages, and binding wildly varied.

Our process is a simple one: Katie pulls an edition off the shelf and hands it to me, I open it to check whether the print is easy to read, and Katie uses my observations to filter the books she passes to me. I rarely require books in standard large print (size 18), because I apply a collection of magnifiers, reading glasses, and bifocals to texts I read. For me, ideal print is dark against the page, not a spidery or blocky font. Fonts like Courier New that echo the look of a typewriter are a recipe for disaster, while seriffed fonts like Times or Garamond are easy on my eyes. (WordPress tells me that the font I’m using now is Times.)

The quality of the page is also important. Often, I prefer to shop for used books because the yellowing pages are easier for me to read. Bright white pages can be glary, making the letters difficult to distinguish. Yellowed pages, on the other hand, soften the glare of overhead lights and contrast well with most fonts. If the book has any markings in it, it becomes exponentially more difficult to read. Occasionally, I can read a text that has underlining throughout, but, if someone has highlighted in the text, forget it!

The book’s spine is worth considering as well; if the book does not open easily, it will be difficult for me to get close enough to the pages to read them. When I was younger, I used a dome-shaped glass magnifier to read print. Now, I prefer reading glasses with 10x bifocals; I don’t have to worry about wedging a heavy glass dome in between the pages, but I do need to get about two inches away from the printed text to read it. Since I regularly underline in books, I must be able to get close to the text.

Because of my necessary textual intimacy, I have to give all my books the sniff test. Unless a book smells appealing – musty, old, and well-loved or crisp, new, and papery – I am reluctant to read it. I once avoided a textbook for my Mark Twain course, because, when I got deep into the pages, I could only smell the acrid glue of the binding.

The olfactory pleasure of books prevents me from switching to an all-digital experience of literature. Arguably, many more books are available online as e-books and free texts, but I know how desperately I would miss that Good Book Smell. Plus, my tactile relationship to texts helps me to navigate them with ease. I often remember where a passage is located because I remember reading it halfway down the page, on the left side, in the second column. My spatial awareness of text on a paper page disappears when I switch to texts on my computer. Audiobooks, however, are a welcome addition to my library, and I enjoy listening to a book while following along in the print edition.

If you’re thinking that my preferences sound like a load of cumbersome specifications, you’re very close to the truth. It is certainly easier on my eyes when I have an audiobook doing the reading and I can simply skim the pages with a pen, underlining as I listen. Yet I continue to gravitate to the printed page, even in the absence of audio recordings. Something in the experience of curling up with a good book – my nose, without exaggeration, deep in the pages – conveys a coziness, a tranquil absorption. As my body performs the posture of reading, the book is a reassuring weight in my hands. Getting my fingers around the edge of a page, sliding my bookmark into place, drawing a thin bracket around a particularly moving passage – these gestures comprise the sensory pleasures of a revitalizing experience.

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