February 9, 2010
Crossing the Equator
Today, my friend and fellow author and book reviewer, Dora Levy Mossanen, reminded me about one of the things that I have always loved about books — the aroma of print, paper and binding, a scent that I have associated with bookstores and libraries since early childhood.
Dora was one of the participants, along with New York Times reporter Motoko Rich and tech journalist Peter Kafka, in a broadcast of “The Politics of Culture” that I hosted on KCRW. The subject was the ebook revolution in American publishing, and both Motoko and Peter talked expertly about price points, “e-ink” and “Buy” buttons. But it was Dora who spoke articulately and movingly about the experience of reading books, both in print and on the Kindle ebook reader.
“I do very much miss the feel of the book, the riffling through the book, the smell of the book,” said Dora, who is an avid ebook reader. “This is why I often go to bookstores when I am reading a Kindle ebook in order to see what the book looks like and feels like.”
Dora praised the speed and ease of buying ebooks, the remarkable ability to carry small library of books with her at all times, the convenience of having an ebook at hand whenever she finds a few moments to read. But, like so many of us, she affirmed that she values and misses the sensual experience of the book.
When I returned home from the KCRW studio, I picked up my most recent book purchase — a copy of Joseph Heller’s memoir, “Now and Then,” which I purchased on the day that Equator Books in Venice finally closed its doors. For a couple of decades, Dutton’s Brentwood Books was my favorite bookstore, but I occasionally dropped into Equator Books when walking on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, and I took pleasure in its pristine first editions of American and English authors, recordings on vinyl, a small gallery of original art, and a chicory-spiked iced coffee that was a real eye-opener.
My copy of “Now and Then” is a perfect example of what Dora was talking about on the radio today. The end-papers — a traditional element of the printed book that is wholly missing from ebooks — consist of charming and evocative photos from Heller’s family album. The paper is soft and thick, the typography is exquisite, and the sewn binding is a relic of medieval book-making that has survived for five hundred years.
At the very end of the book is a colophon that describes the typeface in which the book is set — “Granjon, a type named in compliment to Robert Granjon, a type cutter and printer active in Antwerp, Lyons, Rome and Paris from 1523 to 1590” — and provides the provenance of the book itself: “Printed and bound by The Haddon Craftsmen, Scranton, Pennsylvania.”
I wondered: Where are The Haddon Craftsmen today? What remains of the art and craft of book publishing? And how much longer will Dora or I be able to find a welcoming bookstore where we can pick up a book and hold it in our hands?
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, can be reached at email@example.com. Broadcasts of “The Politics of Culture” are archived at the KCRW website at www.kcrw.com.