Artefacts are made to the measure of a human hand. A spoon balances between thumb and forefinger, a cigarette between forefinger and middle finger, a ring between the knuckles of the fourth finger. A keyboard letter fits on the tip of one, a smartphone fits in the grip of all five.
Physical books are no different: their shells are designed to be held and manipulated (from the Latin manus meaning hand). Size, weight, shape; cover quality, binding; texture, thickness, stickiness of pages. Certain values of these parameters confer certain “paravalues” on the content, even if spuriously. Larger is lengthier is deeper or broader. Slimmer is smaller is sleeker or sparser. Weightier is weightier. Lighter is lighter-weight.
Test it on unfamiliar content.
Unfamiliar content is more serious in hardback, more grand in a large format, more fancy on glossy paper—than it is in mass-market paperback. The content ought to vaguely match the paravalues implied by a particular shell, and usually does. Or else, for example: A jolt of incongruity strikes me every time I see an airport novel bound solid and shiny for the centuries, like it’s a compendium of philosophical wisdom.
Test it on familiar content.
The same content in a sturdy shell and in a flimsy shell is not the same content.
Conventionally, visual aspects of the shell feed prejudice, hence the saying: do not judge a book by its cover. But the saying omits to warn against judging a book by the overall feeling of its shell—edges, friction, and gravity—when hand goes to cover.
The shell’s physicality also imbues the reading process. Via the visual aspect, as usual: font, layout, print quality. But also via the tactile: size, weight, shape, etc, like above. The landscape between the palms, with a broken spine or dog-eared pages or an annoying French flap, integrates, over the formative period, a reader’s proprioception with their mental representation of the book’s content.
This is why the e-reader experience, where the “shell” of all e-books is the same, sometimes feels like a bobbing about of the mental faculty, disconcerting and abstract, in the absence of the body—it’s discombobulating.
Which hints at one of the two underappreciated aspects of a book-shell: its finiteness.
The finiteness of a book-shell manifests itself as the ability of a reader to survey the shell’s physical aspect within a practical amount time. As such, even were they otherwise made into book-shells, someone’s DNA or the Moon would be considered infinite despite their measurable and limited, if vast, size.
(The finiteness of a book’s content is a rather less well-defined concept. As is what actually constitutes the content of the content. The book-figure, an associated idea, will be discussed next time.)
Whilst e-readers can store libraries, each book comprises a limited number of e-pages, making its virtual shell finite. For the truly infinite book-shell turn to Borges’s Book of Sand:
He suggested I try to find the first page.
I took the cover in my left hand and opened the book, my thumb and forefinger almost touching. It was impossible: several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as though they grew from the very book.
(Translated by Andrew Hurley)
In a book with no first page, where to begin? If there is always an earlier beginning, then why bother beginning at all? These questions disturb every serious reader. The disturbance is magnified if no end exists either. Grappling with these issues recreates the rebellion of a mind meeting for the first time the integers … -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, … and trying to grasp this (countable) infinity by its two tails.
Borges endows his Book of Sand with a further level of complexity: page 40,512 is followed by 999 which is followed by an eight-digit number, and—he posits—the reader is never to see those pages again. Therefore, I suggest that the pages of his book would be better enumerated by the (uncountable) infinity of the real numbers, assigned out of order.
Which brings up the second of the two underappreciated aspects of a book-shell: its linearity.
Together, finiteness and linearity of a book-shell define a book’s physical ambit and the preferred (if not unique) path through this ambit. They allow books to become consolidated, structural knowledge repositories, essentially roadmaps through the wilderness of infinities. Aren’t we lucky that this is the case?
Borges’s narrator realised that The Book of Sand was a monstrous, obscene thing of nightmares which defiled and corrupted reality. It consumed him. He wanted to get rid of it, but he feared that the burning of an infinite book would lead to infinite smoke. Finally, he stashed the book on some shelf in the National Library, hiding, as he said, the leaf in a forest.