I’m starting a new project. I’m not talking about this one, the one I’m currently working on. I starting a new project for young readers and I need to get some information about trim sizes. So I pick up the phone and call one of the print-on-demand companies that I deal with on a regular basis. Even though I have half a dozen books with them, I still don’t understand everything on their file creation guide sheet. So I call them. I’d like to say “they” (meaning a person) answered, but, no; first I had to navigate a minefield of automated operators until finally, and only after some very loud and unpleasant music, I come face-to-face—well, really, ear-to-ear—with a real-live operator.
Operator: “Hello, may I help you?”
Me: “I’m looking at your trim size guide sheet and there are a few terms that I don’t understand.”
Me: “For instance, what does ‘pinched crown’ mean?”
Operator: “That’s a glued flat spine that lays flat when opened, at least theoretically.”
Operator: “Yes, you can count on it, I’d say 90% of the time.”
Me: “Ninety percent of the time? What about the other ten percent?”
Operator: “If you’re thinking about trim sizes, you really should visit our price calculator. It can help you make all of your trim size decisions?”
Me: “But right now I’m not sure what size…”
Operator: “The price calculator can help you.”
We hang up. Well, at least I do. It seems that this millennial has never picked up a book—a physical book, that is. If he had, he’d know how important the look and feel of a book is. How on earth can an electronic price calculator help someone make a decision about the look and feel of a book? The only way is if the book in question is an e-book read on an e-reader.
It may seem that I have books on my mind most of the time. And, I guess, you’d be right to think that. Recently, I made a pilgrimage to my doctor’s office for my annual physical exam. I was due, actually somewhat overdue, for the annual ritual. Although I’d like to report the results of the visit to you, I don’t have them yet. Nor are they important. What is important is the conversation that I had with my primary care physician, not about my health status or even about the state of Western medicine, which is something we often talk about. During this visit, we talked about books.
I’m curious about people. I stop and talk with anyone who piques my interest: total strangers often. It drives my wife crazy: she’s always telling me TMI! TMI!” But I’ve always been interested in what motivates people, what drives them. And what I’ve found over the years is what motivates a person often has nothing to do with his or her job. Take my neurologist for example: he’s fantastic, very empathetic, extremely intelligent, and it’s obvious that he loves what he does. However, in probing a little more, I found out that he also likes to write. Not only has he completed one novel and is working on another, but he just finished a screenplay, which he wrote in German. Whenever I see him, which is twice a year, he asks me about my writing and I ask him about his.
With my primary care physician it’s the same, only after we talk about my writing, the conversation turns to his interest in playing the piano. And we’re not talking popular show tunes that he plays for his cat at home. No, he’s a serious classical pianist who is completing a bachelor’s degree in piano performance at a local university. When he begins to talk about music, he lights up—literally—his eyes widen and his face flashes a brilliant smile. “If I wasn’t a physician, I’d probably be teaching piano somewhere,” he once confided.
It reminds me of the time my wife and I went to a financial advisor to get our financial house in order. We met with the local representative of a national investment firm. It was a painful meeting, with the advisor plodding over our finances and his company’s investment strategies, painful until I noticed some handmade ceramic vases populating the shelves behind him. “Excuse me,” I interrupted at a low point in the conversation, “are those your vases?” He paused, glanced at the vases behind him, and then lit the room up for the next fifteen minutes telling us about his passion for throwing pots. I remember telling my wife as we left his office that I would never give our money over to someone who was more passionate about his pottery than our pennies (though I certainly respect his passion).
Over time, I’ve come to realize that many people live dual lives: one preoccupied with the necessity of making a living, the other energized by a deep passion for the arts (or some other veiled interest). It’s only the lucky few who are able to integrate these two sides of themselves into their primary profession. Most people, like my neurologist, my primary care physician, and the young, but-not-hired financial advisor, live out—or, more accurately, live with—the split between their work-a-day world and their after-hour interests.
Now, as my primary care physician was hooking me up to an EKG machine (okay, so it wasn’t the usual annual physical exam), he casually asked me, “So, what are you working on?” When I told him about my current project, writing a book about books, he instantly launched in to tell me about his book collection, in particular his interest in the work of Émile Zola: “Some of the first books that I ever collected came from my aunt. After my cousin moved to Europe, my aunt offered me some of the books that he left behind. That’s how I discovered Zola.”
Aside from his love of Zola’s work, especially books in Zola’s Les Rougon-Macquart series, a couple of things struck me about my doctor’s declaration. First of all, in each of the books he had received from his aunt, his cousin had written the year and place in which he had acquired the volume: “Yes, and to this day I remember where and when I acquired books that I purchased. Several years ago I picked up three Zola volumes at a small bookstore in Quebec City published in the same Penguin Classics format, and for only three dollars a piece.”
After this proclamation, my doctor began talking about book purchases in the digital age: “I mean what associations can you possibly have with the purchase of an e-book?” he asks. I smile knowingly. “Can you possibly remember where and when you bought it, and, more importantly, where you were developmentally?” Interesting questions. Important questions. I’m reminded of the story about French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
Cocteau, a man with a singular artistic vision, recounts the time when he returned to the village of his youth. He recalled every street, every building, and every surface that he had trailed his fingers along as he strolled through the village as a young boy on his way to school. They were faint memories, barely discernible, until he bent down and touched the textured surfaces of the walls and buildings he had run his finger along at a height closer to that which he’d done as a child, at which point his childhood memories returned in full prismatic color:
Just as the needle picks up the melody from the record, I obtained the melody of the past with my hand. I found everything: my cape, the leather of my satchel, the names of my friends and of my teachers, certain expressions I had used, the sound of my grandfather’s voice, the smell of his beard, the smell of my sister’s dresses and of my mother’s gown.
How can we possibly have such rich associations with the e-book purchases that we make? If we cannot remember where and when we bought a book (without a tangible reminder of that purchase—the physical book itself—we are bound to forget those details), how can we possibly remember where we were developmentally at the time of the purchase? And why is this important? Because, as much as a book’s content is responsible for the impact it has upon the heart, mind and soul of a reader, the rich associations a reader has with a book are equally important and impacting.
Take Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund for example. Just picking up the volume elicits an excess of memories—of my high school girlfriend, my years surfing on the Florida beaches, the inner struggle between the intellectual and artistic sides of myself. Sometimes, when the air temperature is just right in Chicago, where I’ve lived for the past thirty years, I’m transported back to my young adult years spent in Florida—now some fifty years ago. Memory is body-bound; it is locked into the senses, as well as released by them. How can an e-reader transport us back in time? How can the mere act of picking up a sleek mechanical device unleash a flood of memories in us of an earlier time, a time of questioning, a time of developmental crisis? I don’t think it can. And because it can’t, I think we suffer a loss, and not just a loss of memory: we suffer an equal loss of being.
Remembering Cocteau’s reverie calms me down, but I’m still nonplussed by the phone conversation I had with the ill-informed operator. More than that, I’m burning with curiosity: along with “pinched crown,” what do these other terms mean—Demy 8vo, Royal 8vo, Crown 4vo? These were some of the other terms that I didn’t understand on the file creation guide sheet, and that we never got to discuss (remember: the price calculator knows all; please consult). So, I fire up my computer, go online, and start to search, finding most of the answers to my questions, and then some. The “and then some” is a reference to foolscap.
Foolscap? Now there’s a name. And it is: named after its distinctive watermark, Foolscap is the name of an oversized paper (generally 8 ½ by 13 ½) commonly used in Europe and the British Commonwealth before the adoption of the international standard A4 paper. Today, however, the term refers to the common legal pad. Perhaps I should send the operator one as a gift, along with a real “fool’s cap.”