Body Buzz: The Phenomenology of Leather-bound Books
Last column I wrote about how my once lively reading habit bit the dust once I started working from a smartphone and became a binge-watching social media junkie. In an attempt to bring my reading habit back up to its former health, I’ve been paying attention to what grabs me about a book. Obviously the content of the book matters, I have found that I also gravitate toward books that feel and look good.
It started with this hardcover Hemingway biography I’m reading by Mary V. Dearborn (Knopf, $23.97). It’s not the best edition I’ve ever seen, but with over 600 deckle-edged pages on yellowed velum and a lovely light-gray cloth bound cover with foil printing, it’s about 10x nicer than the airport-purchased paperback I’d been slogging through. What’s fascinating is that the paperback is the wildly entertaining In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick, the true story of a Nantucket ship sunk in the middle of the Pacific by a pissed-off whale that gave Melville his towering third act of Moby Dick. For me, this whale paperback is way more interesting than the protracted and often gossipy Hemingway bio with its lengthy subordinate clauses, interruptive complex modifiers, and indulgent self-justifications. The biography is boring; the paperback a romp. But my experience reading these books has been the polar opposite; the boring bio has me longing to read it, while the exciting whale book has joined the sorry pile of half-finished tomes on my bedside table. Why is that?
I blame the edition, to use bookish parlance for design. I am pulled toward that lovely hardcover Hemingway bio and repelled by glossy promo-quote-covered paperback. It’s almost as if the content matters less than the container. I agree that there is a superficiality to my being so swayed by the edition, but I also believe in the colloquialism, “Whatever works.” Given that my goal is to become an avid reader again, I must concede that acquiring luxurious editions is, indeed, working.
Speaking of Moby Dick, I entirely blew off reading it in high school, once more in college, and then finally gave it a try in my late 20s, though I barely made it out of port before quitting. Captivated by the real plot of In The Heart of The Sea (ship goes whaling; whale sinks ship), I recently bought a beautiful Easton Press edition of Moby Dick that’s bound in leather with embossed gold-leaf nautical patterns, has gilded edges, an integrated silk bookmark, gorgeous illustrations, and pages so shiny and clear-reading that the story seems to leap off the page. That’s how you read Moby Dick, dammit. The bunched up, blurry paperback from my youth made Melville’s whale tale seem tedious, impossibly long, maybe even a little dumb. This new edition has me reverently turning the pages, savoring the language, anticipating the next scene. The book has reeled me in.
Feeling the old-white-dude-on-a-ship vibe, I recently bought Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in the Easton Press edition, and have finally started picking through this masterwork, which I also failed to read when assigned in grad school. I can’t wait to start in on Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf or The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini from Heritage Press, both larger cloth bound editions in decorative slip cases—real gems, these two. Cellini’s autobiography reminded me of The Autobiography of Ben Franklyn (which I actually did read in high school) so I got that in the Easton Press edition, too. The maps of Philadelphia are alone worth the price of admission, and I am forging through Moby Dick in order to get to it.
The next thing I know I’m building a lovely library of books with such physical presence and beautiful colors that rows of cheap, glossy paperbacks and slip-covered hard-bounds are already slated for donation to make room for more of these fine editions.
In the movie Anchorman, Will Farrell’s character, the hilariously egotistical Ron Burgundy, famously declares: “I don’t know how to put this but I’m kind of a big deal…I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.” It’s one of my favorite comedy scenes. So, yes, I get how absurd recommending building a library of leather-bound books might sound. And maybe I don’t need to tell you how enchanting I find the books adorning every square inch of Buckingham Palace in Netflix’s The Crown, or that I adore the old-world charm of Ivy League libraries. Perhaps I am playing into a ridiculous stereotype. There’s even a website called booksbythefoot.com that sells vintage books by color, size, materials—everything other than what’s written in the damn things—which I confess to having browsed with a serious eye toward the Navy & Black eight-inchers and the Maroon & Brown 12-inchers, each reasonably price at around $40/foot.
Alas, my goal isn’t to build a good-looking library; it is to reactivate my reading habit. And I’m reading a lot more now that I have these lovely editions. Hey, whatever works, right?
My explanation as to why beautiful editions promote my reading is that, by giving my mind a beautiful object to touch, see, and smell, my experience of reading is inflected in positive ways. The book’s design sets a tone; it gives subtle and overt clues as to how to feel and think about the work inside.
On another level, I just really love the aesthetics of these editions, and they’ve made me realize just how little I like the average paperback or hardcover. It’s a bummer that more bookstores don’t stock these lovely editions. We tend to get the typical glossy dustcover over the meh hardcover or the smaller, flimsy paperback. Neither are all that great. Of course, this raises the problem that a majority of books will not make it into these special editions, though I’m kind of surprised to find a number of relatively obscure titles are available, typically as part of a thematic series, or because the author was willing to sign a numbered edition. I doubt you’ll find feminism or critical theory, but if you’re interested in canonized works from across the ages in a wide range of genres, you’ll likely find something of interest. Sci-fi, field guides, novels, plays, poetry, history, biography, autobiography, mysteries, philosophy, science, religion (including religious texts)—it’s all there.
Reading is such a lit-up experience; it’s like watching your own consciousness rev’d up and firing on all cylinders; it’s an incredible mind-space, almost psychedelic; and I feel compelled to tell you, dear reader, how important and wonderful it has been to reclaim that mind-space from the attention merchants preying on our consciousness, begging us to never look away from our digital devices and their sleep-depriving blue light. Or maybe I should just tell you that I bought all these wonderful editions on eBay and Etsy for less than the paperbacks would have cost new, and point you toward Easton Press, Heritage Editions, The Folio Society, The Franklyn Library and the Limited Editions Club. These are some of the best editions you can buy.
From watches to whisky, Allen Farmelo’ s writing celebrates luxury as a pathway to health, sustainability, and joy. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in the Hudson Valley with two big orange cats. Learn more at allenfarmelo.com and body-buzz.com.