The Shell of a Book

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. Continue reading

Imaginary Architecture: The Cathedral of Mist

Other World by M. C. Escher (1947)


Looking at the diverse collection of M. C. Escher’s sketches, it’s hard to believe there exist impossible architectures he has failed to conjure.

Throw in everything else described on this site, Impossible World, with its historical and modern explorations of the subject, and you’re in a genuine tight spot to think of something new.

Visually speaking.

So take a sidestep and look at the problem linguistically. Instead of asking about the impossible, ask about the imaginary.

(Note the synaesthetic idioms we swallow daily: you can speak visually—apply the eye to an action of the mouth, and look linguistically—apply language to an action of the eye.)

The sidestep works. Words can paint pictures more bizarre than pencils can. What a warped, inconsistent visual geometry does for sight, a description of an imaginary, non-existent wonder does directly for the brain—many times over and uniquely so for every individual. This shouldn’t be surprising: on paper, a drawing is constrained by two-dimensions and utensil type, while a story is only loosely constrained by two hundred thousand words and some grammar rules (amongst which linearity is chief).

So if you’re not a naturally gifted draughtsman with an instinct for the optical paradox, literary expression is another potential outlet (assuming learning how to write comes more easily to you than learning how to draw well).

If all else fails—read! Inhabiting the worlds that rise from the rows of black squiggles is your prerogative. Continue reading