But I didn’t.
It wasn’t the content (ghastly word) that alienated me, but the platform (ghastlier word). The physical book is obnoxiously cumbersome to hold. It’s a two-handed operation simply to keep the thing open. And don’t try to keep it splayed with paperweights; the heavy covers will snap closed like a Venus fly-trap.
OK, it’s an expensive hardcover, a well-made object designed to be used, crafted expertly and simply for its purpose. So what you need to do is just force it open a few times, right? Nope. The spine cracks ominously, and pages begin falling out. Not only that, but the book never again closes properly.
With so much written on declining literary (and moral) standards in publishing, it’s baffling that almost no mention is ever made of the increasingly poor quality of the actual physical books that you hold in your hand. And to me, it’s down to bindings.
An expensive hardcover book with glued bindings is like a fine piece of meat served on Wonder Bread.
But they’re still expensive. Cases in point.
My Everyman’s Library edition of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: superb paper, linen covers…but glued binding.
The Library of America publishes a two-volume edition of Lincoln’s Speeches and Writings, printed with the degree of excellence one expects of the LOA. But a companion volume, The Lincoln Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Legacy from 1860 to Now (available for free with the Speeches and Writings, and available independently for $32.00) is bound with glue.
Might this be explained by the fact that The Lincoln Anthology is “A Special Publication of” the LOA, rather than a full-blown part of the series? Nope, because The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard is also “A Special Publication of” the LOA, and features sewn binding.
Most dispiriting is a category of books I’ll call Mass-Market Deluxe Hardcovers (MMDH). These are typically works whose publication dates are heralded as events in the higher end of the middlebrow media. Often large-dimensioned, with deckle edges, beautiful illustrated covers, and heft, these books have every reason to actually be the objects of quality that their hype would suggest. Surely, the publishers wouldn’t try to get away with anything less, for these commercial darlings. But no.
I’m talking here about Nabokov’s Letters to Véra (Knopf), Stevie Smith’s All the Poems (New Directions), The Complete Works of Isaac Babel (W.W. Norton), and The David Foster Wallace Reader (Little, Brown). Glued bindings, all.
Not all pricey hardcovers have glued bindings these days. Dietrich von Hildebrand’s My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Image Books) has sewn bindings, yes, but such poor paper that it hardly seems worth the bother to sew them together. The Collected Poems of James Laughlin (New Directions) has sewn bindings, handsome linen covers, and…paper that looks stolen from my desktop printer.
Whenever you click “Add to Cart” on Amazon, you’re spinning the roulette wheel.
I have no difficulty conceding that it might seem silly to kvetch about such things at a time when the United States cascades into the sort of crisis that inspires any student of history to double-check that his passport is current.
But I disagree. It’s precisely at times like this that we scour our lives in search of durable things…things of transcendent value, things of quality and integrity, things that bind us to the invisible, timeless empire of thought.
And only the strongest binding will do.