On the train home this evening, I got to thinking about my favorite type of book. I’m not talking about genre: science fiction mystery; or fiction vs. non-fiction. Instead, I’m talking about book binding.
To anyone who has ever walked into a bookstore, the most blantant book types you see are hardcover books. Hardcover books are great. For anyone who likes books, a hardcover book is like the first class of book types. They have a heft to them. I love it when they have unevenly cut page edges. The are appealing to the eye. You can feel the content in your hand. Invariably, when I want to buy a book as soon as it comes out, I buy the hardcover edition. I’ll also buy the hardcover edition when it’s a book that I want to keep for a long, long time. Most hard cover books these days are printed on high, quality, acid-free paper and will not turn yellow after sitting on your bookshelf gathering sunlight and collecting dust.
There are some downsides to hardcover books, however. For one thing, they are expensive. Most hard cover books coming out these days start at very close to $30.00. The smaller the print run, the more expensive the book. As someone who like to read obsucre books now and then, that occasionally means I’ll pay in excess of $35 for a hardcover book. On the otherhand, hardcover books for “bestsellers” are usually offered at pretty good discounts, sometimes as much as 40% off. Another downside to hardcover books is their weight. They are heavy. One hardcover book adds noticiable heft to my backpack. When I carry two, it’s like lugging a ton of bricks! Finally, most hardcover books come with “dust jackets” which I find annoying and useless. They don’t actually keep the dust off the book. They interfere with reading the book and I always take them off and leave them at home when I am reading a hardcover book. However, the dust jackets curl easily in the sunlight when they are not formed around the book and become warped and out-of-shape. I’d prefer if hardcover books did away with the dust jackets entirely.
Another type of book is the paperback book. These are much smaller, much cheaper versions of books, that often are released in “mass market” form, roughly a year after the hardcover edition. Paperbacks are great because they are versatile. Toss two or three paperbacks in your backpack and you hardly notice it. Sometimes, you can even put a paperback book in your back pocket. There are some downsides, however. For one thing, if you are like me, and want to read new books as soon as they come out, paperbacks don’t fit the bill. For another thing, if you are like me and prefer keeping all of your books in the best possible condition, then paperbacks have to be “handled” much more carefully than hardcover books. Their spines can “crack” easily if you open them up too widely, and the pages yellow and tear easily.
“Trade” editions are a kind of happy medium. These are special editions of books that are halfway between hardcover and paperback books. They are larger than your normal paperbacks, and printed on better (acid-free) paper, yet they are still soft-covered. Whereas a paperback book might run you $7 and a hardcover book $30, a trade edition can usually be had for between $12-15. One drawback is that not all books are released in trade editions. Often times, trade editions are re-releases or special editions of books that have already come out in both hardcover and paperback.
So which of these is my favorite type of book? As it turns out, none of them.
My favorite type of book is a very specific type: a well-used paperback.
Well-used paperback books can usually only be found in used bookstores, garage sales, or library sales. In particular, I love well-used paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s. I have a lot of science fiction novels that are of this type of book. In the 60s anda 70s, lots of science fiction novels were published straight to paperback without ever having a hardcover edition. These books have a well-worn look to them. They bend easily, they are pliable, the spines are worn and cracked, they pages are so yellow as to be almost orange.
And the smell!
There is nothing like the smell of a well-worn paperback book, one that’s sat nestled in among its brothers and sisters on the shevles of wonderful used bookstores, collected the dusty and sweet, musty odor that is unique to these objects. You can flip the pages and sniff, and be instantly transported into wonderful places, like the late Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, CA. Or the Iliad Bookshop in North Hollywood. Well-worn paperbacks feel like they’ve been read by a million people. You can often see some of that history, a name scribbled on the inside cover, highlights or underlines in pencil or pen an various pages, an occasional comment in the margin. The book has been used again and again and again. A well-worn paperback book has always been well read. You can stuff the book in your back pocket without worrying about damaging it. It’s beyond that. A book that has lasted that long is indestructable. You toss it onto your bed before going to sleep and squeeze it into your backpack in the morning.
I don’t beleive there will ever be anything as versatile, entertaining, and mysterious as the well-worn, used paperback book. I buy them on purpose whenever I am in a used bookstore to be sure that I don’t run out.
In some respects, it makes me sad. More and more stuff is being published online and there is always the debate as to whether or not books will one day be completely replaced by electronic media.
It is a completely different mechanical experience reading something on screen than it is reading a book. There is a brightness to the screen that you don’t have in a book, that interfers with the reading process. With a book, the subtlest flick of the thumb flips to the next page. With a something on-screen, there are no “pages”. You have to scroll or click or do some other type of obnoxious motion that interfers with the process. Most of all, however, nothing will ever be as portable as the book. Even when the day comes were we are always “online” no matter where we are, we will still rely on a power source to power the devices we use to read things online. With a good, used paperback (or even a brand new hardcover book for that matter), the only power source you need is enough sunlight to read by, and enough food in your system to keep you alert.
The book that I’m currently reading, Robert A. Heinlein’s, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress happens to be one of these well-worn used paperbacks. In fact, this particular edition was printed in 1968. It’s 38 years old. There is a much newer trade paper edition that I considered buying instead of reading this edition. But you know what? I can’t quite say why, but I am certain that the book would have been less enjoyable if I read it in a trade paper edition, then it is reading it in this beat-up, 38-year old paperback edition. Go figure.