What makes a book? For most people, rich pages, eye-catching illustrations, and smooth covers with a good feel in one’s hands all come to mind. We tend to associate the term book with a physical, tangible object that we can pick up, flip through, and slip onto a dusty shelf when we’re finished. Yet today, the rise of electronic reading options containing thousands of online libraries demonstrates that books themselves can occupy a variety of media and still hold the same ideas and influences. Still, even if the online story is identical to its printed counterpart, something vital is gravely lost in forgetting the printed word. Part of reading is touching the cover, smelling the pages, even getting paper cuts!
“What is a book? A book is an experience. …A book starts with an idea. And ends with a reader,” say authors Julie Chen and Clifton Meador in The Book. Without something to feel and smell and touch, we lose a major portion of that experience.
Take Pathways to Faith, a beautifully illustrated book of poems, as an excellent example. For the slender size, it carries an appealing–though surprising–weight. Its thick cover thuds softly back to the pages when released, and has the gentle roughness common to watercolor paper. It smells old, like a weary traveler, yet the brilliant sun beaming from its cover still reaches out and selflessly offers its warm embrace. Painted delicately, brown stalks of wheat peer at me, cocking their heads as if asking, will I open the book? As I run my fingers along the cloth spine, I sense a warmer, almost human touch, and the title, painted in gold, gleams in the window light. Opening the cover, I see stiff endpaper lifted ever so slightly to reveal the beautiful pages beneath; printed with brown flowers, which look like they’ve been pressed, the pastedown and flyleaf give the impression that the book is one of a kind, made just for me, even though the copyright claims otherwise.
Turning the pages, I encounter several other kinds of paper throughout: thin parchment giving a foggy hint of what’s to come and silky pages printed heavily with gorgeous illustrations that guide the reader through everything from lush forests to dazzling sunsets, and ensure that even the little moments—silhouetted birds in flight, tiny mushrooms, a squirrel delicately sniffing the air—aren’t forgotten. My fingers constantly stray to the edge of the text block, cut with a decided raggedness, yet smoothly done. Leaping in and out of the shallow gutter, thin string binds together the paper. Some parts of the book are allowed to lay open easily, while others require a little more effort on the reader’s part. The poem itself looks almost handwritten, though closer inspection would reveal that even some of the swooping cursive letters do repeat a little too coincidentally. Without the different feel of each page, the brilliantly illuminated pages, the aged scent…without having the poem as a physical work of art, could I have enjoyed the same kind of experience?
Pathways to Faith, by Dean Walley. Illustrated by Don Dubowski. Hallmark Cards, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, 1971. Hallmark Card Editions.
The Book, by Amaranth Borsuk. MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusets, 2018. Page 57, 78.