Monday, May 28, 2007

Size Matters

In the May 10 LRB, Michael Dobson reviewed the new complete Shakespeare published under the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare Company. While Dobson did a masterful job of discussing the merits and failings of this particular edition as well as the history of publishing and editing Shakespeare's work, I have to admit I was most intrigued by his brief aside on the massiveness of Shakespeare editions:

[The Riverside Shakespeare] is described by its publishers, Houghton Mifflin, as ‘the beautiful cornerstone of any home library’, and, given that the Shakespeare canon is only just short of a million words in length, the inadvertent suggestion that most of these books are hefty enough to be used as building blocks rather than just as reading matter isn’t far wide of the mark. (For the record, the RSC weighs in at 5lb 12oz, substantially lighter than the 1986 Oxford’s commercially suicidal 8lb 8oz, but noticeably heavier than the 2005 revised Oxford’s 4lb 8oz.)

As someone who often reads lying down and never travels without packing at least 2 or 3 books, I've always been mildly nonplussed by the tendency to publish physically large, heavy books. The RSC Shakespeare is nearly six pounds. That's heavy for a book. I can see a Renaissance scholar buying it: whatever love he may for Cymbeline or Twelfth Night, for him Shakespeare is work. I can imagine the RSC Shakespeare lying open on someone's desk as they outline their next lecture. But for a layperson, the weight of the RSC sends a message: that this is a book that's part reference book and part furniture, something to sit on your shelves and impress your guests, to be taken down and consulted from time to time, but not to take with you to read on the subway or curl up on the couch with.

I took a few of my own books and plunked them on the postal scale at work. My hardback copy of Possession (one of my favorite novels) weighs in at an eminently manageable 2 pounds 3 oz. At 15.6 ounces, 1831: Year of Eclipse is almost the perfect weight for a book. I re-read it when my left arm was useless due to a muscle injury and my reading was limited to books small enough to be managed with one hand. The World According to the Simpsons is even better: 13.5 ounces. These were all books I bought for my own reading pleasure. Books bought for class requirements were another story entirely: my Riverside Chaucer was 5 pounds eight ounces, and my Pelican Shakespeare 4 pounds 3 ounces.

As much as I understand the desirability of large, comprehensive works for educational purposes, I dislike the message sent by their massiveness: that reading is not really a part of your daily life. No one's going to lug the Pelican Shakespeare with them for a long subway ride or take the Riverside Chaucer to the local Starbuck's. I grew to love Thoreau's Walden when I read excerpts in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (3 pounds, 11 ounces); but for an edition of Walden I could really read I bought a Signet Classics paperback edition (5 ounces).

I appreciate that edition of Walden not only for its light weight but also for its manageable size: its four inches wide and seven inches tall, small enough to fit in my coat pocket or hold open in one hand. I love the message the size of this books sends: that reading is a part of your life, that people want to read and take whatever chances the day offers to do it, whether it's the afternoon break at work or a few minutes in a doctor's waiting room. A number of publishers used to produce books roughly the size of a modern mass-market paperback, both in paper and hardcover. Such books don't seem as common now, but there are a few still around. Some are imprints devoted to specific themes or topics, such as Modern Library Chronicles or Penguin Lives. Nevertheless, most hardback books are around ten inches tall and six and a half wide. Whatever the merits of the writing between the covers, I find the size a little off-putting, as if the volume is less a book to be read than a possession to be shown off. I realize that many books, many fine books, will be that size, but for ease of carrying and reading, and the feeling of intimacy that such ease enables, I will always have an instinctive preference for volumes the size of my paperback Walden.

No comments:

Blog Archive