Many of us, myself included, have only a consumer’s knowledge of book design. It’s like chocolate cake: I’ve eaten many and have some opinions and fond memories, but I’ve never made one. (No, box cakes don’t count!) I think it’s easy for those of us who aren’t in the publishing industry to forget how much effort goes into choosing typefaces, layout and style for a book.
Two things brought the topic to mind of late: Jay Lake tweeted a link to this Lit Slits quiz. Of course most of the clues to the books’ identity come from the actual words the ‘slit’ reveals. However, in at least one case, I knew the author and series immediately: whether or not you like Harry Potter, he’s got some lovingly designed, distinctive books. Even without the chapter headers in their zany serifs, the page brings the memory back to anyone who’s read those books.
That’s what amazes me: how evocative the shape of a few letters can be, even when I couldn’t recall them at will or describe them to you. It’s like a more subtle version of the way smell brings memory in its train. I open my own copy of a beloved book and each previous reading is present in my eye on the page, my fingertips on the paper.
I’m reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness right now. I picked up this copy at Ravenna Third Place Books. It’s used, hardback, and it’s been on some journeys – it bears a Portuguese stamp from a bookshop in Brazil. And best of all, it’s from a book club.
Oh, I know, that means it’s not collectible. It may mean the covers aren’t as durable, and all sorts of things. But this book is typeset exactly like the oldest of my dad’s book club books – books like Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. It feels the same, smells the same. This is 100% pure old-school science fiction, and it fills me with nostalgia, even though the story is new to me.
What books carry this extra meaning for you? Are there books whose beautiful design adds to your love for them?