They keep talking about revolutions in publishing – e-books, print on demand, and so on – but I think what I want is for it to revive an older capability. MUCH older. I would like to be able to just say, I want this book in this format, as Sam Pepys could (admittedly, I’d prefer to pay a lot less for the privilege than he did, relative to my other living expenses).
This year’s holiday was divided into two parts: busily getting ready for Christmas and hosting guests, then just hanging out, reading, knitting and doing basic house stuff. There were other holidayish and non–holidayish things: the weather let me get out in a kayak once and we went hiking the last day; we had plumbers paying two visits apiece for each of two different issues plus a dishwasher repair and a vet visit. (you know how being on antibiotics can upset your intestinal flora? Apparently the feline version can result in anal glands that require “expression”.) We saw a movie and hung out with an old friend, we went to a party at the neighbors’, we cooked and ate and drank lots. But mostly, it divides into those two basic parts. The relevant part is that since I spent two whole weeks in the house where most of my books reside, I spent time reading paper instead of a Kindle screen. I feel like I may lose some book-person cred here for admitting I kind of prefer the screen these days. I don’t need to hold it open so I can knit more easily at the same time, I never lose my place or my bookmark, and I can turn out the bedside lamp and read at bedtime without bothering Ted.
Still, despite the vast stock of e-books I’ve squandered my fortune on, I don’t really trust Amazon (or any other e-book sellers). When I buy a book I want to own it from there on, not have it become obsolete or be subject to whether a particular company stays in business and maintains a particular service. (I suppose this is a consideration I’d have confronted long ago if I were a movie buff whose library was on film/VHS/CD/LaserDisc/DVD/BluRay.) So for the books I love most, even if I met them in electron effigy I want to acquire them in corporeal form. And since I am no longer young enough, in Anne Fadiman’s phrase, to believe that either my paperbacks or I will last forever, I’d prefer hardback. What I want, really, is good reasonably priced volumes, ideally with the quality of, say, the first couple of Harry Potter books in the US version. (Who made the book binding decisions on those, anyway? And can they please be given authority over lots more books? Thick creamy paper, crisp typeface, an excellent illustrator hired, sturdy bindings, distinctive covers.) Matching sets for series, maybe in a box, would be nice – I envision a 20-volume set of slim Phryne Fisher hardbacks, for instance. They could be in jazz colors with Art Deco designs on the bindings and jackets showing the iconic illustrations of Phryne and her beautiful clothing from the original paperbacks. (I agree that the actress who plays Phryne in the TV show and appears on the reissued paperbacks does look the part, but I still like the line drawings better).
Samuel Pepys could get that sort of thing – he could go to a bookseller, tell them exactly what volumes he wanted and how he wanted them bound. He was probably very limited in what books were available and I’m certain they cost a lot more in relation to his food, clothing and shelter than I’m willing to pay, but then his booksellers didn’t have computerized printing and modern transportation. I don’t need fine calfskin and gilding; I want books that are a pleasure to hold and to read, not just to collect, and I really don’t want to pay $450 for a children’s series, no matter how much I might love The Dark is Rising. (On second thought, its being a children’s series has nothing to do with it. I just don’t want to pay $450 for five books.)
I have a boxed set of the Aubrey and Maturin books, with three books bound into each volume, that nearly meets my criteria – in order to keep those volumes to a readable size they used thin paper, but otherwise those aren’t bad. The Library of America books I used to get were OK despite both thin paper and boring covers – when I subscribed those books didn’t come with jackets – but they never really had the books I most wanted.
I wish Amazon or someone would invent a service that would let me specify the book or series I wanted, let me choose mass-market paperback, large-format softcover or hard cover, maybe let me select from a couple different quality levels and possibly a few other options like regular or large type, then just print, bind, and ship me the book I wanted. The same typeface, cover/dust jacket illustration and so on could be used for all formats, so those shouldn’t cost more for design than they do now. I could decide on my priorities and stock my library with the books I wanted most as I could afford them, then when civilization crumbles around my knees and takes with it the infrastructure needed to support my Kindle I could retreat to my bookshelves and be all set for the rest of my life.