Friday Book Design Blog: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
I wrote on this blog last week about permanence being central to our idea of the physical book. After all, the codex – a book of hinged pages, as opposed to the earlier scroll – has been around for two millennia, with some early examples still existing in museums today, while more recent ‘long-term media’ formats, such as the laser disc and CD-Rom, are already obsolete. (For an interesting discussion of this, plus an amusingly banterish contest to see who has the best/most obscure book collection, see This is Not the End of the Book, by Umberto Eco and Jean-Claude Carrière.)
I’m no antiquarian, so the oldest books on my shelves are a few compact hardbacks from the 1930s, mostly still in good condition, and well-placed to offer an acceptable reading experience for decades, if perhaps not centuries. And I’ll always buy a decent (good-looking, solidly built) edition of something I think I might want to read in the future, just to have it there, to hand. Everyman’s Library, The Collector’s Library, White’s Books, Penguin Clothbound Classics and the Folio Society all offer something in this line, in varying degrees of luxury, robustness and expense.
So I was pleased and astonished to find a newly published book that sets itself up entirely against this tradition – that emphasises the fragility rather than the solidity of the printed book.
The first thing to note about Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is that it is being published by Canongate in four simultaneous editions: hardback (price £20), paperback (£7.99), ebook (£7.99) and audio (£7.95 on iTunes). Putting the hardback and paperback out at the same time obviously loses the marketing double-whammy of a two-stage release, and brings to mind the sort of approach seen in the record industry, where the vinyl package is aimed at the collector, rather than the casual listener, and often comes sprinkled with extra goodies, whether bonus tracks or discs, or artistic ephemera, postcards and ‘art prints’ and the like – and usually includes a free digital download. There is a definite nod to this with the Ozeki, in that the ‘luxury’ hardback comes with a free download of the ebook – though only if you buy it through the Canongate website.
The paperback has its own add-on: an ‘augmented reality’ cover, which comes to life briefly via your mobile device and the Blippar app, then directs you to some (non-exclusive) web content. Personally I can take or leave this – the cover comes to life for less time than it takes to download the app in the first place, and in rather the same manner that Lego boxes come to life in the Lego shop when you hold them up to a special screen, but at least it shows some forward-looking thinking from agency Big Active, who designed all four editions for Canongate, with design direction by Gerard Saint and Markus Karlsson.
It’s the hardback design that really appeals to me, however. It has simple front and back boards, but it is the spine that catches the eye – or rather, the lack of one, for there is no board spine at all. Instead, the binding is left exposed, to show the ‘gatherings’ or ‘signatures’ (the collections of 16 sheets of paper, folded to make 32 pages) sewn together with red thread, with the author’s name and publisher logo printed directly onto them, as if blocked in by hand, using a marker pen.
This traditional stitching method means the book happily lies flat open, but it also speaks directly to the theme of Ozeki’s novel, in which an American Japanese woman, Ruth, discovers, washed up on the north Pacific coast near her house, a Hello Kitty lunchbox containing the diary of a young Japanese girl, Nao. (Say it out loud and you get a sense of the playful approach Ozeki takes to the philosophical themes of her book.) To redouble the sense of book-as-message-in-a-bottle, the diary is written in a ‘hacked’ hardback copy of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, the pages sliced out and replaced by blanks. As I’ve said before, I’m not treating the inside of the book in this blog, but I entirely concur with Doug Johnstone’s review for this paper.
In the words of Saint, the exposed stitching at once references Japanese binding techniques, and emulates the fragility at the heart of the novel. The thing even comes wrapped in plastic, with a red sticker warning the reader ‘This special edition is fragile.’ Everything about it makes you want to treat it with the same care that Ruth, in the novel, treats Nao’s diary.
While this is a perfectly apt response to the book, it does make me wonder about the future. If I had bought the hardback/ebook bundle, for example, would I actually have unwrapped the physical book? Or would I have placed it reverently on the shelf, and regretfully fired up my Kindle? (I haven’t got a Kindle.) If I did unwrap it, would I peel back the red sticker to see what’s underneath – thus diminishing its value, like a child cutting out the fake moustaches from their parents’ original sleeve insert from Sgt Pepper?
All dilemmas that we may face more and more, as books come in bundles like this. The worst of all possible worlds, it occurs to me: the physical book becomes untouchable objet d’art, a sumptuous avatar of the text, an Alton Towers bumper sticker for the intelligentsia…
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