THE PHYSICALITY OF BOOKS: A SURVEY ON FANTASTIC METROPOLIS
After compiling responses over the course of the last two years, in my "spare time," the entire five-question book survey is now going live on Fantastic Metropolis. Over 70 writers and editors responded, including Michael Chabon, Milorad Pavic, Gene Wolfe, Shelley Jackson, etc., etc.--just too many to mention. Please check it out--it's vastly entertaining. Meanwhile, my own responses to the five questions can be found below.
What do you most like about the book as a physical object?
I love how each part of a book, from exterior to interior, can become a work of art. I love how a well-made book is both like a well-made cabinet and like a stunning painting: it simultaneously provides some of the satisfaction of physical exertion and the aesthetics of art. The craft that goes into a well-made book is fascinating to me.
Do you have any rituals or procedures you go through after acquiring a new (or used) book? (Some writers indicate they bite or smell books.)
I read all of the front and end matter first. I'll perhaps read a page or two here or there to get a sense for the prose style. If it's a hardcover, I'll put a plastic protective cover on it immediately. I'll take the dust jacket off and see if there's a foil stamp on the cover. If it's one of my books, I will carry it with me everywhere like a talisman for a week or two, marveling all over again at the fact that I have a book in print--something I never thought of as a given. I like to thoroughly enjoy each new book when first published…I usually don't smell my books--smell is not a big deal for me when it comes to books, but I do hate the smell of cigarettes emanating from a used book, or an antiseptic smell. Mustiness is just fine, however.
Is it necessary for books to exist as physical objects in our increasingly electronic world? If so, why?
For me, it's necessary. I am so invested in not only the text of a book but the way a book is put together that I would find a world without hardcopy books much poorer and less interesting. It's instinctual.
What recent examples stand out for you as exemplar of well-designed, well-made books?
Savoy Books continues to put out amazing books, including their recent A Voyage to Arcturus edition, which is one of the best designed books I've ever seen. I almost very much liked House of Leaves when it came out in 2000. I'm a sucker for anything published by Tartarus or Dedalus, although Dedalus books are not collectable per se. I also very much like the first volume of collected Hodgson from Night Shade Books. Anything from McSweeney's tends to be interesting--sometimes "clever" wins out over "substance," but it's always interesting. When PS Publishing does something crazy like publish a book with no text on the cover, just art, I always smile and applaud their daring. Usually, they know just when to do that, the art deserving to be center stage.
Do you have any memory connected to books that you would like to share?
Several books are dear to me because they triggered an emotional response I wasn't expecting, because they revealed some truth to me in a very profound way. The World According to Garp by Irving and The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen are two books that gave me a reading experience I'll never forget. As a writer, I'll never forget reading Angela Carter's The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Her use of language was so amazing that I felt like my eyes were burning from the "touch" of the words against my vision. I actually cried out in amazement at times while reading it because the use of language was so brilliant. Much earlier, the last book of The Lord of the Rings had a profound effect on me because Tolkien, despite faults that are apparent when I re-read the books now, never let his characters off the hook--they suffer terribly to attain their desires, and even afterwards they are not safe, as when Saruman takes over the Shire. This idea that characters, like real people, cannot "get off the hook" easily resonated with me to the point that Tolkien, like Stephen R. Donaldson, with his Thomas Covenant series, was a huge influence on my early fiction. A story like "The Bone-Carver's Tale," for example, could not have existed without that lesson.