Suddenly there are a lot of tall books in my life.
I don’t know where they all came from—except of course, with a little bit of thinking, I do. I acquired them. I bought them, or borrowed them from the library, and now here they are. Hammonds’ 1954 World Atlas, tall enough to accommodate all of late-colonial Africa in one spread. Fantagraphics’ reissue of Prince Valiant in glorious restored color, thin and wide, trim size 10-and-a-half inches by 14-and-a-quarter. Open it, and Prince Val springs into action against rampaging Vikings or unruly Gauls. Closed, he quietly rests sideways on top of a row of novels, because he won’t fit on the shelf any other way.
One of these new acquisitions, Chris Ware’s Building Stories, isn’t a book at all, but a cardboard box of books, or a book-in-a-box, or something. At the moment, it’s just a pile on the floor.
Help me, for I have sinned against the nature of bookshelves.
Is it just me, or does it seem like oversize books are making a comeback? A few years ago, fat novels were a mini-trend, with Joshua Cohen’s Witz, Adam Levin’s The Instructions and of course Roberto Bolano’s 2666 making the rounds of book reviews and blogs. (That’s almost 3000 massive pages all together. An NFL front line of literature, lined up on your desk.) And not just fiction, either. In Design Observer, Mark Lamster lamented the “mania among design professionals for obscenely fat monographs.” An architecture critic, Lamster is versed in recognizing how objects in our space affect us. He notes the power of these books: “Fat books feel good in the hand, and feed the ego.” He’s speaking of the ego of the writer, but what he says is true of readers as well. It feels good to own big books, even if we seldom read them. A big book says: I’m a serious object for a serious person. Look how many words I have! No small thinkers around here. This phenomenon, the transfer of intellectual credibility from book to owner, is partly why so many middle class households bought the World Book Encyclopedia all those years. It’s also why you still have your copy of Ulysses from grad school.
Now it seems as if the books have thinned out again, that bulk gone upwards and outwards. Fewer pages, larger trim size. Tall, flat colorful books. And the content has shifted too. No huge postmodern novels around here. Instead we are in the era of the Great Comic Reissue. Along with Prince Valiant traveling across continents and multiple volumes, I’m also reading Winsor McCay’s early 20th century dreamscapes–Little Nemo falling through world after world—and Fletcher Hanks’ fascinating and bizarre space operas, written during the war years, at the heyday of superhero comics, but forgotten for decades, until now.
These are big stories from low culture, and at a time when my children have begun to retreat into their own personal reading worlds, I’m grateful to have these books to bring them back to me. Anybody who reads to their own children knows the value of a big, beautiful book, spread out on your lap, with a child on each side, gazing at the illustrations. Try that with your Kindle! (Just kidding, Kindle. We love you too! You allow us to travel without schlepping the Collected Works of Percy Jackson. To every book technology there is a season.)
But that’s not the only attraction for me. In recent years, when publishing has felt like one unending austerity movement, with constant discourse about falling revenue and fewer resources, these books feel like foolishness of most wonderful kind. When I directed the university press here in Ohio, every book was a study in parsimony, a result of ever-fewer library sales, downward pressure on prices from digital publishing, and disinvestment in scholarship from the university itself. So we made books smaller. We asked authors to cut pages. We shrunk the fonts. We eliminated color and discouraged images. Anything to lower costs so we could keep putting the books out at all.
So whenever an announcement for one of these giant, lovely, expensive books shows up I hear a little cheer somewhere in the great stadium of the world. I don’t know how they pay to print them. I don’t know who buys them. Thank God they’re here.