Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Book at Bedtime

A correspondent in the London Daily Telegraph pointed out the other day that, in the glossy mega-bookstores that now litter the world, there was an overwhelming number of what are referred to as “coffee table books.” In fact the shelves and tables were now groaning under their weight, and the customers were groaning as they carried them home.

It had escaped me, since my preference is for the fusty, musty style of hole in the corner type of second-hand book sellers, where one has a far better chance of finding something really interesting, and it will rarely be a coffee table book. In most of these, these shelves wouldn’t be strong enough to support them.

However, I then found that somehow I had acquired quite a number of these behemoths of the book world – many of which would indeed, given the addition of four legs, made very good coffee tables.

They are all lavishly illustrated, generally beautifully designed and produced – and quite incapable of being read in bed. In fact, the publishing industry would do well to supply the coffee table to go with the book – I’m sure it would boost sales as we only possess one of these bits of furniture, limiting us to one book at a time.

Sometimes, of course, rather as it is with airships, size is a necessary part of the formula. An old friend of mine, Dr. John Taylor in the Isle of Man, recently produced a magnificent volume entitled “Huyghen’s Legacy, The Golden Age of the Pendulum Clock.” It includes a stunning series of photographs of these clocks, taken by himself, and it would have been impossible to compress them into a smaller compass without losing much of the effect. Once again, however, it is not the sort of thing for a quiet read in bed.

And size bears no relationship, necessarily, to the quality of the content, and I suspect that some publishers, faced with the necessity of marketing a bit of a clunker (or even capitalising on a successful work) come up with the idea of inflating the size, sticking in a load of pictures and then inflating the price. In fact, I find I have one such volume but, of course, I won’t mention the title. I will say that the pictures do, in fact, make the book much more enjoyable than the vanilla version, which was a load of old tut.

At the other end of the scale come the paperbacks and, although I can’t say I’m enamoured with them as collector’s items, they do have their uses. Such as being easy to read in bed. And the Penguin series must be the best of the bunch, encompassing as they do a wide spectrum of the literary scene. They also fit neatly into the pocket and, even with the recent ballyhoo over aircraft security, I bet you could have smuggled one on board.

I believe in moderation in all things, and I am concerned about this apparent increase in volume. No wonder the new bookstores are so big, they just couldn’t cope with these jeroboams of the publishing world otherwise.

Presumably it’s only a matter of time before we have pop-up illustrated versions of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which will undoubtedly require to be more like dining table books than the simple coffee variety.

It may be that fewer people are reading in bed nowadays. I always have regarded it as one of those luxuries of life, rather like long, hot baths. Winston Churchill, I must point out, liked both. Not only did he do much of his reading (and work) from bed but, on being posted to the front in the First World War, carted a tub and a portable geyser along to supply the hot water.

So for me, the larger formats stay pretty much resting at peace on the shelves when they’re not gracing the coffee table, one at a time.

And for a book at bedtime, you can’t do better than a quality paperback, even if it does lack pictures – after all, the essence of good writing is to paint a word portrait in the mind. A good author should have no need for illustrations.

And then, of course, you can even read them in the bath.

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