The physical book

Having now read, since I last wrote, all the books on the Booker Longlist, I shall now digress to discuss not their contents but their bindings. As it happens, the Man Booker Shortlist [minus one which I have lent to my brother-in-law and plus one that didn’t make the shortlist] exemplifies a certain type of modern novel and all of them demonstrate why it is much more satisfying to read a book in its physical manifestation in preference to an e-book.

E-books have their place, I saw somewhere that it gives ‘women the ability to read books that they would prefer their menfolk not to know that they were reading’! Well, be that as it may, the number of grown men that I have seen on the underground reading Harry Potter, the women have nothing to worry about! But on long journeys, give me an e-book with 1000 classical novels any day.

scan0007Back to the bindings. I think you can see from this image that there is already some variation. So to start on the left with We need new Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, this is a pretty standard edition, the wrapper is colourful, doesn’t tell us much about the book inside, and is perhaps largely reminiscent of the gaudy, colourful designs of African fabric which, I daresay, is the intention.

Then we have The Testament of Mary, a very small book. I have seen another version of this with a picture of a woman dressed in blue, taken I think from an Old Master. This could be the American edition, I have no way of knowing. I rather like this white version, the title and the author in gold lettering on the front, the first words of the novel appearing below; in several different fonts, upper and lower case, leading you into the book. Opening it, you have a satisfying colour to the end-papers, not the predictable blue, but a deep crimson. This is practically a pocket-book, it fits neatly into the hand and should be read at one sitting, not rushed but savoured for all of its 104 pages.

The Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being, is bound like no other book that I have ever owned. The binding itself is exposed, the hardcovers are not joined together and Ozeki’s name looks as if it was written across the back by hand with a felt-tip pen. It is all an illusion, of course, there is no dust jacket and it is oddly unsettling. Opening the book, what I noticed first was that the quality of the paper was unusual as well. It is more like the paper used in a paperback, then I read that it was printed in India and everything fell into place. Its unsettling familiarity reminded me, though I had forgotten, of books my daughter-in-law brought me when she lived in Delhi. There are footnotes throughout the book which expand on ideas, or explain Japanese terms or vocabulary which is unusual in a novel, but useful; better by far than a glossary at the back. The end-papers, in contrast to the very austere front, show a colour picture of a girl’s rather dreamlike face. It is published by Canongate which is quite a small imprint, I believe.

* I have since learned that the paperback has come out which obviously loses these characteristics, but also apparently the font is so small that the footnotes are unreadable. Pity.

The Luminaries is a great heft of a book, at 832 pages it could hardly be more of a contrast to Colm Tóibín’s novel. A Granta publication, it has that most joyous of all finds: a silk ribbon book mark integral to the binding, with the tradition silk ribbon top and bottom which marks it out as a serious book. With such a long book the ribbon was an essential accompaniment to several days of reading. The dust-jacket is simple, tantalising and lunary – that is to say the front shows part of a woman’s face in the phases of the moon (waxing) and the back shows a man’s face in the same phases, waning. The end-papers show an old print of the town of Hokitika, where most of the action takes place. You already know that I loved this accomplished and readable book and want it to win.

The next book in the picture is the one that wasn’t on the Shortlist. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is here because it is a first edition paperback. This is a relatively new form of publication, not counting certain genres which invariably appear first as paperbacks, some crime fiction and science-fiction for example. Over the years of collecting the Booker choices, I would say that only in the last five years have so to speak ‘serious’ novels come out first in paperback. Years ago, in the 1970s the novels came out in hardback, the paperbacks being rushed into print once the Shortlist was published, the Longlist wasn’t published at all. This is another small imprint, Sandstonepress which are always a welcome addition to the prize listing.

Lastly, The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri. Now that I have read this marvellous book, I am wavering slightly in my choice of winner. This is a consummate piece of literature; it is much more than a story. Starting at the time of the Naxalite riots in Calcutta, we follow the fortunes of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan. How fortune treats them and what they have to deal with centres around Calcutta and America, where Subhash goes to study. This is familiar territory for Ms Lahiri, a previous book The Namesake also deals with Bengali families living in American University towns.

The binding is a rendering of symbolic ideograms: guns, two lovebirds, the kokil, the hammer and sickle superimposed on a lotus flower (actually it is possible that this is not a lotus but a water hyacinth). There is no dust-jacket, all this is integral to the book cover in bright red, gold and black. This is a Bloomsbury publication, though lacks the silk ribbon bookmark which some of their books have. The end-papers show the waving grasses of the lowlands, flood plains of the coastal region around Calcutta; now completely landlocked and built over.


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