The Shell of a Book

On the finiteness and linearity of book-shells, inspired by a quote from Borges’s “The Book of Sand”.
Study of hands by Leonardo da Vinci (c.1474)


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.
A book with an extraordinary shell: The Japanese Book by William Merritt Chase (1900)

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

18 thoughts on “The Shell of a Book”

  1. Beautiful post, as usual, that conjured up some great imagery. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a great book in hand…a great sensory experience. This post is really inspiring me to revive the old Library Lusting series!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s an really interesting to read! I have never paid this much attention to a book cover, but I love hard cover books, and big books which have an even bigger binding! Sadly, all I read these days are only with e-books, because of price concerns. I would never buy a hardcover book for sometime, because they are literally four or five fold the price of it’s normal or e version.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh cool! I don’t know many people who love big hardbacks, and when I do meet someone, I invariably ask: how do you interact with such a large book?

      You mention e-books are convenient, if for no other reason than because they’re cheaper. I used to admire big hardbacks, enjoy flipping through them, but then I realised I didn’t actually get much reading done (comparatively) because I was always juggling with the weight or size of the book, getting either a painful forearm or a crick in the neck. For this reason I switched either to paperbacks or e-books (with a few choice exceptions).

      So if you’ve got any reading tips, I’d be curious to hear them. Do let me know! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are right on that, I have done more reading on e-book than I will probably ever do from a hardback. Yet I long to hold them in my hands, and let them let me know not only their words weigh, but they do too. The heavier they are, I fall hard for them,

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I like the feel of a book in the hand. I have never actually completed reading the only e-book I have. And I like French flaps. Years ago I wanted to get a class of boys who had never been in the school library to just pick up a book and get the feel of it. Any book. Just the feel of it. So I told them I had hidden a ten shilling note in a book between pages 59 and 60. They spent all lunchtime in the library to the delight of the librarian. When they came to class most of them had worked out that it was impossible and I got a “Are all books the same?” And we spent the whole lesson talking about books in many different ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope that anecdote is going on the teaching blog! (or is already there)

      Over the past few years I’ve been learning more and more to combine e-books with books, out of practical concerns like price (I’d rather own a book I will reread than a thriller I’ll forget soon after finishing it; or I’d rather be able to access/read the thousands of out-of-copyright books on gutenberg that are there for free), and weight (it’s much easier to handle and transport large volumes when they’re electronic).

      However, it’s definitely true that I still prefer a distinct book-shell with all its concomitant worries and pleasures… The landscape within orients my reading in ways that, so far, I haven’t been able to replicate (or even emulate) electronically.

      You have a single e-book? Here’s another fifty-seven thousand:

      At least for sampling or reading choice passages, it’s a great resource.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t know offered that many!

        They have quite a few scans (unlike textual Gutenberg), which I’ve enjoyed flipping through on a number of occasions but sometimes the pages are a bit slow to load due to their size. In any case, it’s a veritable literary trove and one I appreciate more and more, especially when it comes to old, large, dusty volumes that I’d never be able to find locally or that I wouldn’t be able to manage efficiently “in the flesh”.

        What’s your experience been like with free e-books? Anywhere close to browsing (dare I say, reading) your fill?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. They have multiple versions available for most books – you have to scroll down to see other formats. I only use the scans as a backup when there are too many errors in the text.

        I avoid browsing – too many good books and all for free. There isn’t even enough time to bookmark all the books I would want to read, never mind read them.
        I usually go with a specific book or text in mind, something to look up, a classic I want to read.

        Essays and ‘lighter’ texts, I can read on a screen. Denser books, I print out in booklet (to avoid using too much paper) format. I’m more comfortable reading physical books, however, I call it a preference based on having grown up when that was the only option and there are too many advantages (price, space, selection, “try before you buy”) to discriminate against ebooks.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. So you’ve gotten annoyed with the errors in the text too? I thought it was me just being picky. Sometimes they do get too much, but not that often.

        The browsing is downright dangerous. I have to consciously close all GoodReads windows (browsing is easier there) after a certain period of time, or the shelf “suggested for you” on one page, leads to another such shelf on another page, and soon my search is taking me elsewhere, looking up authors and genres and books.

        As for ebooks, I’ve actually started using handwriting-annotation software which works well on scanned pdfs. I can doodle, draw arrows, use different colours etc, and then later I can easily clear or change what I’ve done. I figure, if I’ve already got to deal with digital, I might as well find a way to take full advantage of it!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. I know of all the benefits of e-books. It’s just that I miss walking down the street or getting on a tram and being able to catch someone’s eye and just nod or smile or say ‘good morning’.
        The other day I had bought a ‘John Le Carre’ from an Op-shop for $2. There was a girl who was obviously very nearly blind. But she could see enough to know I had a book. She asked what it was, I told her, we discussed the merits and otherwise of spy novels and John Le Carre and she expressed a lot of interest. So I handed her the book and told her to keep it. She said she wouldn’t be able to read it but she would cherish it. She had a beautiful smile but she didn’t have an iPhone or an iPad – just a smile.
        That was a nice day for me too.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. “It’s just that I miss walking down the street or getting on a tram and being able to catch someone’s eye and just nod or smile or say ‘good morning’.” — I wasn’t sure: was this a reference (amongst other things) to reading while travelling? If so, I agree there are advantages and disadvantages. Always the balance.

        Second hand bookstores, or book stalls, or even just one-man operations are rather touching in their own right. The books are so cheap, it’s saddening when you think how much work went into them and how now they’re worth less than toilet paper in cost per unit of weight. (Gifts or free e-books are an entirely different matter.) The act of holding a book, tattered or well-preserved, annotated or coffee-stained, and seeing it priced so little is to me like seeing an orphan, abandoned and sold off for a pittance. (Again, gifts being more like adoption, and free e-books being more like a way of spreading equality, reaching those who cannot be reached otherwise, as well as preserving that which would otherwise be hard to preserve.)

        Your anecdote is painfully sweet. A short story pointed straight at the heart.

        As for smiles: you know, I recently realised I didn’t know what someone I’d met by chance looked like. Not even their smile. Not properly. (Let alone their phone accessories etc.) I only remember their words, and not even those as a matter of precise recollection. Most accurately, I remember the echo of who they were in the interaction we had. Their presence was enough to make my day; the memory of their presence, enough to make me smile now.

        Liked by 1 person

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