Why (Some) Print Books Aren't Going Away

by Craig Stark

9 April 2012

An Analysis of the Heritage Press Edition of The Moon and Sixpence

Printer Friendly Version

By Craig Stark

In recent years many arguments for and against the demise of print books have been advanced. Arguably, some evidence for their demise is in: The growth of digitized books has exploded, after all, and many commodity booksellers have experienced sharp downturns in sales. Still, the antiquarian book trade remains healthy. Some of us believe that it will remain so indefinitely. Books as collected objects need not compete as efficient transmission of content; they are loved for what they are in our hands - seen, touched, subtly heard and smelled as leaves quietly turn ... and read. Digitized books, on the other hand, cannot yet offer a rich sensory experience, though efforts are being exerted in this direction with the addition of interactive e-content other than text.

I've probably read as many arguments one way or the other as the next guy - I've advanced a few myself - but I've not seen anything that really puts a finger on why print books will remain a force in the years to come. Assuming they will, will it be because they look pretty on a shelf? Satisfy an appetite for nostalgia? Possess historical value as artifacts? Something else? I vote for something else because, though all three of these reasons and more have merit, none really get to the heart of the matter.

Erstwhile hippies may recall a ca. 1960's study of media theory, Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McLuhan asserted that there is much more to content than content. The medium that delivers it matters hugely, and he likens the content of a medium to a juicy piece of meat carried by a burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. Content, that is, can provide information that's nourishing, useful, etc., but if that's all we're focused on, we can miss important structural things going on around it.

How does this play out in print media? I'd like to share an experience I had recently reading the Heritage Press edition of W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence. Frankly, I don't make a habit of reaching back into literary history and dusting off century-old novels that have long since passed into relative obscurity, but I came to this book on the heels of having read another Maugham novel, The Razor's Edge - a book that some of you may be familiar via seeing the ca. 1984 Bill Murray movie of the same name. Actually, this movie was a remake of a ca. 1946 Tyrone Power vehicle. Both movies failed, in my opinion, to deliver the real goods, and to be fair, I think it's a tall order to succeed in dramatizing somebody's search for the meaning of life itself, which is what this story is about. It's almost too big to take on; things so often get either heavy-handed or just goofy. Notwithstanding, it's human nature to want stories like this to work, and it was in the spirit of the-book-is-almost-always-better-than-the-movie that I gave Maugham's book a shot.

Ironically, the one and only chapter I disliked in The Razor's Edge was the second to last, chapter six - Maugham's valiant attempt to present what protagonist Larry Darrell had discovered about life's meaning. Interestingly, Maugham prefaces the chapter with a warning, which in a sense gives him an out: "I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps have not thought it worthwhile to write this book." There's a big "however" here, however: The story itself minus this chapter was pretty darn wonderful. I vaguely recall being assigned Maugham's best known book, Of Human Bondage, in high school, though I may have ducked it and bought a Cliff's Notes summary instead, but whatever the case, I was not at all prepared to enjoy this book as much as I did. If you haven't read him, Maugham is an extraordinarily clear, readable author with a remarkable gift of observing and reporting on the human condition. Small wonder he never really made it with critics.

As so often happens when you encounter a truly good book, you don't want it to end, but since it does anyway, the next best thing is to reach for another book by the same author. In this case I reached for The Moon and Sixpence - Maugham's fictionalized account of the life of artist Paul Gauguin. As with The Razor's Edge, I had a built-in interest going in - Gauguin is one of my favorite artists - and appropriately, a recent estate sale delivered a Heritage Press copy.

At the risk of sounding goofy myself, I find that all print books have ... let's call it a presence. My copy of The Razor's Edge doesn't have presence in spades, actually; it's a 1944 Doubleday book club edition - a Blakiston printing with cheap WWII-era paper. But the dust jacket design replicates the first US edition near exactly, and it was printed in the same year. It has the feel of its time, therefore, and its black complexion exudes a quiet, appealing presence that was soon strengthened by way of its having being read.

By contrast, my copy of The Moon and Sixpence is all about presence, and the experience of reading it was significantly more rich. As you probably know, all Heritage Club editions were issued in slipcases, and, with the exception of more recent printings, all included laid-in pamphlets - titled The Heritage Club Sandglass.

In the first place, slipcases change books: An otherwise slipcase-less ho-hum book takes on an aura of enhanced importance when a slipcase is brought into play. And often an enhanced monetary value. If you're like me when facing a bookcase of books at a sale, all things being equal, my inclination is to reach for slipcased books first. The payoff percentage is better. Reading them is no different. The mere act of extracting them each day to continue reading feels almost reverent.

But let's talk about the Sandglass. Have you ever actually read one? If not, it can be an eye-opener. Some predictable background information is present, but what separates this publication from more typical introductory matter is the painstakingly detailed description of the book's design and how, by design, design elements interplay with content. McLuhan would take notice.

From The Moon and Sixpence Sandglass:

"Out of this story we got the idea for the building of a book which is, to say the least, unusual; and which has proved, to say the most, a noteworthy demonstration of the arts of the book. For it can be said that that book is most successful in its physical appearance in which the arrangement of the type and the decorations aids the reader to a greater and more enjoyable comprehension of the story."

And specifics follow. First, size - large 8vo. Larger than a typical novel but smaller than a typical art book. Since this book is both, one could say that it's a synthesis - and what do you know? Gaugin (fictionalized as Charles Strickland), most often categorized as a post-Impressionist, pioneered Synthetism - a style of painting characterized by emotionally infused natural forms and purity of color, form and line.

In keeping with things natural, the book is bound in a natural linen cloth, and note the front panel design:

The Moon and Sixpence is a two-part book. Part I dramatizes Charles Strickland's drab pre-Tahiti life in Paris; Part II his life in Tahiti. It's generally accepted that Maugham got the title from a review of Of Human Bondage in which protagonist Philip Carey is described as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." A later Maugham letter reinforces this: "If you look on the ground in search of a sixpence, you don't look up, and so miss the moon." (And of course one hears the echoing Zen phrase, "Don't mistake the finger pointing to the moon for the moon itself.") All front panel design elements match up - six coin-shaped floral designs above, Tahitian-like designs below, and two radically different typefaces for "The Moon" and "AND Sixpence."

Speaking of typefaces, two different, De Vinne and Walbaum, respectively, are used for Parts I and II of the text.

From the Sandglass:

"It [De Vinne] can scarcely be called a beautiful type. It is used because it is our intention to make the first section of the book look, physically, like the drab and gracelessly decorated life which Charles Strickland lived, and hated, while he was eminently respectable .... This type, named after him [Theodore L. De Vinne], is a reflection of the taste of the latter half of the nineteenth century, a type devoid of quality, devoid of interest; each letter-design unobtrusive, but uninviting.

"It [Walbaum] is full of beauty, but full of a mannered beauty. Every letter is conscious of its own design, as conscious of its own design as any picture Paul Gauguin ever painted. It is warm and rich in color, as rich in color as Tahiti itself."

As you might suspect - and here's where things get dramatic - illustrative content differs between parts as well. Part I features 14 Frederic Dorr Steele drawings "which might for all the world have appeared in the English magazines which Charles Strickland read when he came home of nights" - again, as drab as the early life Strickland led.

But then, in the final Steele image appearing on the second page of Part II, there is this wonderful Wizard-of-Oz-like transformation, a Gauguin still life painted in Paris and placed on an easel:

And finally, 10 stunning, full-color Gauguin paintings illustrate the remainder of Part II and neatly coincide with related content in the narrative, including captions from the text:

And have a look at the endpapers:

It's safe to say that my experience reading this edition of The Moon and Sixpence could not be replicated in another medium, and I seriously doubt that it could be improved upon. Seldom have I encountered a book that felt more fully alive in my hands. The deliberate care taken by the publisher to create this result is somewhat unusual, granted, but what's important to take away from this, I think, is that all books, at least to some degree, do what no other medium can. This bodes well for their future.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

| Forum | Store | Publications | BookLinks | BookSearch | BookTopics | Archives | Advertise | AboutUs | ContactUs | Search Site | Site Map | Google Site Map

Store - Specials | BookHunt | BookShelf | Gold Edition & BookThink's Quarterly Market Report | DomainsForSale | BookThinker newsletter - free

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC


Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment Comment