The Three-Dimensional Book

“So we are nearing the end. The right-hand, still untasted part of the novel, which, during our delectable reading, we would lightly feel, mechanically testing whether there was still plenty left (and our fingers were always gladdened by the placid, faithful thickness) has suddenly, for no reason at all, become quite meager: a few minutes of quick reading, already downhill, and…” (Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading)

Some books are famously “thick”. In the old days, before Kindle, this was a physical fact about them. Thickness was a palpable reality, something you felt in your hands as you read the book. It also meant that you knew when the end was coming — you could feel it approaching between the index finger and thumb of your right hand. Surely, this feeling is part of the experience of reading, part of our training in books. (I know that people still read books, and even before kindle, some books were gathered together in collections and anthologies so that the end of one novel, and the beginning of the next, could occur anywhere. But I think you understand my point.) A book is not just the text that is printed on its pages; it is also a physical, three-dimensional object. Just as we can enjoy the two-dimensional surface of the page on purely aesthetic grounds, we can derive pleasure from the texture of the binding and the way pages are cut, the weight of the book and the thickness of the paper.

I don’t want to trivialize the aesthetics of reading books. But I do need to point out that, unlike the painter, who works on the canvas, or the sculptor, who works in the marble, the writer does not put a book together in the same sense as the book binder. A writer does not make a book, does not see the book emerging physically as a result of the work. A writer composes a text. The materiality of the book is not part of the writer’s experience, and not even the layout of the page is usually part of the writing process. (There are exceptions, especially in poetry.) How the book will finally look and feel is not under the control of the writer in the moment of writing. (Writers may, however, try to influence this later on.) Its contribution to the thickness of the book has little bearing on the choice of one word over another.

Today, the popularity of audio books shows how incidental the physical presence of a book is. A book can be purchased in a form that can unfold only in the single dimension of time — the time it takes someone else to read it aloud. And writers are now entitled to fetishize this performance as much as the look of bold black marks on creamy, high quality paper. I suppose they’re even entitled to imagine their favorite actor’s silky voice.

This is all obvious stuff, perhaps. But I’m leading up to something important, I hope, which I’ll get to in my next post. (Can you guess what it will be called?) I want to make it very clear what a writer of scholarly of prose is doing when writing — what the scholar makes out of words. Like a painter and a sculptor, the writer makes something that must be beheld by another human being to be meaningful. The relationship of the beholder to the beauty of the work, however, is located, not in the eye, but in the mind. The mind’s eye, if you insist, but we must, in any case, not be distracted by the visual, manual, and auditory incidentals of the presentation. Writing is not intended just to be seen. And it is meant to be read not heard, we might add. We must, to use Roland Barthes’ phrase, find pleasure in the text.

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