word craft


The Art of the Book

The book as we know it today—multiple pages bound togeth­er on one side, the pages capa­ble of being read individually—was first called a codex and can be found in the Roman world as ear­ly as the first cen­tu­ry (Com­mon Era).  As a form—contrasted with a scroll—it became pop­u­lar in so far as it was the for­mat most often used for the Chris­t­ian Bible. (“The Book of the Prophet Ezekiel,” “The Book of the Prophet Jere­mi­ah,” etc.) By the sixth cen­tu­ry, it was the pre­em­i­nent form of text dis­per­sal and the pri­ma­ry for­mat for reading. 

Of course, those ear­ly books, whose pages shift­ed from papyrus to parch­ment, were made, and let­tered (and illus­trat­ed) by hand. Those books, such as the Irish ninth cen­tu­ry Book of Kells, are con­sid­ered great works of art. 

The Book of Kells
“Christ Enthroned,” from The Book of Kells, which can be viewed at the Old Library, Trin­i­ty Col­lege Dublin.
Image in the pub­lic domain, CCBY Wikipedia.

Paper is a fifth cen­tu­ry Chi­nese inven­tion, which only comes to Europe in the four­teenth cen­tu­ry. The first print­ed book using mov­able, exchange­able type, The Guten­berg Bible (1455) was, for the most part, print­ed on paper, but some were print­ed on vellum—a mate­r­i­al made from ani­mal skins. 

With the uni­ver­sal spread of print­ing, paper soon became the pri­ma­ry sub­stance on which the print­ed book exist­ed. It fur­ther evolved with the British pub­li­ca­tion of paper­backs in 1935, the “Pen­guin” books. 

In the course of my life­time, the print­ed, hard-bound book has under­gone a mas­sive trans­for­ma­tion. It is still a codex, but the qual­i­ty of the book itself, the bind­ing, the paper, the design, and the print­ing has, in my mind, great­ly deteriorated. 

The Mysterious Affair at Styles Agatha Christie

Not so long ago, upon receiv­ing my first copy of one of my books, I felt oblig­ed to write to the pub­lish­er to object to the qual­i­ty of the book. In par­tic­u­lar, the paper could hard­ly be con­sid­ered white, but was, rather, a mud­dled gray, a gray which obscured the many fine-line illus­tra­tions and obscured the text. The paper, to the touch, was crude. 

No reply from the publisher. 

Con­sid­er me old-fash­ioned but I think there is some­thing one can call the art of the book, the book itself as an object of beau­ty, a beau­ty which can, and should con­tribute to the plea­sure of read­ing. The way a book is print­ed, its shape, design, the clar­i­ty of the font, the for­mat­ting, the lay­out on the page, the qual­i­ty of the paper, the bind­ing, the very feel of a book in my hands, all of these things are impor­tant to me as a read­er, and writer. A book is more than just text. It is an experience. 

Copy­right: jelena990. Source: 123rf.com

And now we have elec­tron­ic books. E‑readers. 

Let me say I own an e‑reader. It sits bed­side so that when I by chance wake in the mid­dle of the night I can read myself to sleep with­out a light that might dis­turb my wife. 

But the expe­ri­ence of read­ing elec­tron­ic books, is at best, soporif­ic. Every page of every book looks and feels the same. I might be read­ing a biog­ra­phy of Queen Vic­to­ria, or a sci­ence fic­tion adven­ture set on an exo­plan­et, it makes no dif­fer­ence. I am not on page 45, but at “13% of the text.” The illus­tra­tions are awful. 

Most impor­tant­ly, my mind, such as it is, slips and slides over the text, as if I were rac­ing on an icy side­walk. It makes for slop­py read­ing. I find myself for­ev­er skip­ping text and retain­ing far less of what I read. 

Let me also say that in the world of young read­ers, the book as a thing of beau­ty, is of par­tic­u­lar impor­tance. It enhances the prac­tice of read­ing inso­far as a beau­ti­ful book adds to the dis­tinc­tive­ness of that book. Each book becomes (or should become) its own experience. 

Indeed, going back to where I began, in Roman times, as the first cen­tu­ry Cicero wrote, “A room with­out books is like a body with­out a soul.” 

1 thought on “The Art of the Book”

  1. I agree with Cicero. I have book­cas­es in near­ly every room in my house. Sure, I could, and do, read online for infor­ma­tion, but if I real­ly trea­sure a sto­ry or poem, I like to put my hands on it.
    I val­ue your books and your blog. I always find nuggets to chew on. Thanks.


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