What’s on the Outside Counts Too

Two hands holding open a book on a cream background with flowers and dark brown text saying "the sensorial wonders of books".
Dive into why books are important not only as vessels for stories but also as physical objects

Reems and reems have been written about books, with most focusing on the text inside them as if it exists separately from the physical book. Today’s reading habits perhaps support this view, as most titles are available in eBook form and so are fully divorced from their paper-bound bodies. It is understandable, but it forgets the pleasure that books can provide as objects. 

This stretches from the joy of opening a new book, with crisp pages, tense spine, and unknown promise, to the comfort of returning to an old favourite, with its spine cracked to open in all the best places, drawing you back into the story at all the right places, or as old train tickets-cum-bookmarks slip out, reminding you of that trip you took with the book as company. 

Why Holding a Book Improves the Reading Experience

It is these physical aspects that separate books from other written media and, I think, elevate the pleasure of reading. Most modern book sizes are rather odd, being based on how many times an animal skin was folded, and even now terms for book formats are a mess with terms meaning different things in different countries. 

But what nearly all books have in common, is that they sit nicely in the human hand. From the reassuring weight of a hardback to the elegance of a slim paperback that can slip into a jacket pocket, books are rarely too ungainly to read wherever and however you want. This, coupled with the almost rhythmical turning of pages as you progress, makes reading a physical act. 

I would be very surprised if anyone could say they do not alter their reading speed, subconsciously perhaps, as they near the end of a book. This might be racing to the end, or savouring every last page, but it is facilitated by the physical measure that pages give to text.  

And as your fingers turn the pages, your other senses get involved. New books, which please the eye with their pristine paper and that smell of ink and almost chemical freshness. Or older books releasing a hint of must, as your eyes scan over the gentle foxing of time which is bound into the very matter of the pages. 

Sometimes the physical allure of a book can be more important than its text. For instance, I have a copy of all of Lord Byron’s poems which is a lovely old book (about 130 years old). It is a tactile delight, just the right heft and with some pages that are still uncut. It has a gentle leathery vanilla smell with just a touch of musky degeneration giving the suggestion of damp leaves and pepper—in other words, the perfect old book smell.

However, for all its physical benefits, I very rarely read any poems from it, as the text is tiny and crammed in making it hard to follow. Instead, I keep the book as an object, which I occasionally pick up and flick through. If a poem catches my eye, I will read it in another form, but that book is what has sparked my interest.

Books Are a Delight for All Senses

The sensory nature of a book is felt even before it is opened. To me, buying books always feels slightly self-indulgent, as if I am buying myself presents without any justification. This is tied up with them as objects. It would feel rather odd to send someone a long text document, as separate pages, for a present, but handing over a book feels natural. Books give body to ideas and emotions in ways that words alone never could. 

I have recently got into ordering lots of books online and love how they arrive. The way one shop (Fox Lane Books) wraps each book in orange tissue paper, so I can transfer them, still wrapped from the box they were delivered in, straight to my to-be-read pile, is perfection. Then each time I start a new book, I have a moment’s pleasure unwrapping it, feeling the delicate paper against the solidity of the book. This wrapping also adds a moment of time, and so draws out the anticipation of starting something new.

Once you are eye to eye with a book, you get to consider them as pieces of art. I will not go into cover design in any real depth as that would warrant a whole article, but there is something to be said for books as art. One bookshop near me has a lovely frontage, which it keeps lit for a while after closing, so if I am ever walking back that way after dark, say from the pub, I nearly always alter my route so I can spend a moment or two, admiring the books as you might paintings in a gallery. 

Books of course do not tend to exist alone. They crowd garrulously onto shelves with their spines competing for attention. Yet they maintain a certain beauty, even as they fight to be read and appreciated. They can be regimented with an ordered perfection by series, or a messy record of which took up residence last. Either way, they gain something from their grouping.

A shelf of books, especially one that is slightly overfilled, adds a sense of warmth and comfort to any room it is in. I suppose it is the knowledge that you could never be bored in that room, even if they are all books which you have read before.  

The Books Industry: A Sensorial Business?

It is not just books alone that have power as objects. It is also the surrounding apparatus that books seem to attract. 

Intentionally designed bookmarks alone, are not that interesting, although bookmarks can give a nice sense of where I bought a book. I prefer it when the last reader has used whatever was to hand. That way I get to see what they were doing as they read. 

Often, I find old train tickets used. This is especially enjoyable when it is a book I have read before, as it reminds me of what I was doing then. But other times it is more of an insight into a different person’s life, be it a receipt or forgotten shopping list.

Second-hand books also frequently have pages with corners turned down and other odd creases. This can be annoying when you want to hold a book and think of it as an untouched object waiting to be consumed, without reminders of the last reader. Yet with many books, these little signs of their previous lives can add an extra dimension. 

With any medium, the physical nature of it, and the paratext, will alter how you approach the main text. If the last reader has folded the odd corner or perhaps even taken a pen to underline points, you are nudged into a different way of approaching the main text. This can be a simple as reading an anthology of poems and starting on one that has a corner folded over, or it can radically change how you read a thriller, for the previous reader’s alterations might draw your attention to details that you might otherwise have missed.   

Second-Hand Books and the Marks of Time

Alongside these physical reminders of the past reader, I find book inscriptions and ownership marks fascinating. I am deliberately using the slightly woolly phrase ‘ownership marks’ as sometimes these are just names neatly written on the front flyleaf, other times elaborate personal ex libris stamps or bookplates, and sometimes library bookplates hinting at slightly dubious histories. 

There is something about reading an old book and then noticing that it was once part of a university library and so thinking about how this book you have read for pleasure might have been the source of many painful nights of studying. There is also something rather endearing about many inscriptions which record gifts and life events. Many of the old non-fiction books I have, start with inscriptions wishing good luck for a new school or university and so for a moment give me a glimpse into someone else’s life.

Of course, second-hand books tend to have a habit of acquiring many owners, and so there will be multiple marks alongside each other. You might see a book that has a school bookplate from the ’50, a crossed-out inscription and date from the ‘80s, an undamaged inscription without a date, and a mix of half rubbed-out prices in the faint pencil of multiple booksellers. In a way, it becomes like archaeology, as you work back through layers building up a history of ownership and wonder how each might correspond to the dents and stains the cover has gathered. 

This is why the physical nature of books matters. While new, they can be a pleasure for the senses, and offer the promise of a good read, but as they age, they gain interest and so move even further away from being just methods of presenting text. 

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