These prints aren’t charm­ing

Country Life Every Week - - Spectator - Les­lie Ged­des-brown

HEW and I have taken to read­ing old books made a long time ago in the hey­day of pub­lish­ing when writer and pub­lisher re­spected books.

The first we tried was Tales of a Grand­fa­ther, a se­ries of 12 vol­umes by Sir Wal­ter Scott. Hav­ing been forced to read Ivan­hoe for my English GCE, I had re­solved never to dip into his pages ever again, but I was wrong. Un­like Ivan­hoe, which seemed to have more de­scrip­tion than ac­tion (pad­ding as it’s now known in the trade), Tales of a Grand­fa­ther is full of ac­tion. It could hardly be any­thing else as it’s a his­tory of Scot­land writ­ten for Scott’s own grand­son, John Hugh Lochart, nick­named Mas­ter Hugh Lit­tle­john, who would prob­a­bly have walked away if the waf­fle got too much.

We think these vol­umes are 32mo or 5½in high. Just right to put into a ca­pa­cious 19th-cen­tury pocket. The sto­ries were pub­lished be­tween 1828 and 1831 and ours is the fifth edi­tion. Hew has had them re­bound ex­actly as they were orig­i­nally—brown­pa­per cov­ers with a leather spine. The first three have blue leather, dark green for the next three and light green for the fi­nal three. The re­main­ing vol­umes (claret coloured) were a his­tory of France.

Of course, there was plenty of ac­tion, be­cause Scot­land was never ex­actly serene and peace­ful. I loved his de­scrip­tion of Mac­beth’s three witches: ‘No­body would be­lieve such folly nowa­days ex­cept low and ig­no­rant crea­tures, such as those who con­sult gip­sies to have their for­tunes told.’

Hav­ing read Scott from cover to cover—all 12 of them—hew pro­gressed to the Winch­ester edi­tion of Jane Austen, an­other 12 vol­umes, but, in this case, printed in 1911, so still more than 100 years old.

This is a crown oc­tavo size, its cov­ers blue buck­ram with gold em­bel­lish­ments on the spine. Like the Scott, the vol­umes are ev­ery­thing a book should be: the pages are pleas­antly sturdy and the type­face eas­ily read­able. In­deed, a pleasure to read. Hew is cur­rently on Vol­ume 10, Per­sua­sion.

Which brings me to to­day’s mis­er­able apolo­gies for books. In­stead of buck­ram, the cov­ers are of stamped card­board, which at­temps—with­out suc­cess—to feel like buck­ram. All the in­for­ma­tion about the au­thor and his/ her pho­to­graph along with snip­pets from re­views and a syn­op­sis of the writ­ing are put on a flimsy, point­less dust jacket, that’s soon ei­ther lost or torn.

The way the leaves are at­tached to the cov­ers is of­ten a kind of glue known as ‘per­fect bind­ing’, which should fall se­ri­ously foul of the Trade De­scrip­tions Act. It’s about as im­per­fect as a bind­ing can be. I have nu­mer­ous pa­per­backs in which great chunks of text have got them­selves loos­ened and fall out of the book.

The worst book I’ve so far come across is, ac­tu­ally, an am­a­teur’s so can per­haps be ex­cused a bit for that rea­son. It is, of course, se­cured with this per­fect bind­ing and, as a re­sult, is fall­ing apart. Worse still is ev­ery­thing about the text. For a start, it’s printed on art pa­per (the shiny stuff), which is good for il­lus­tra­tions and hope­less for read­ing the type.

Sec­ond, the type size is, I would judge, about six point—roughly the same as is used for stock­mar­ket prices in news­pa­pers and not in­tended to be read by any but in­vestors. Fi­nally, each line of type is 7in long so that you need a ruler to keep your eye on which line you’re read­ing.

I know it’s a bit un­fair to crit­i­cise an am­a­teur, who was only do­ing her best, but my ad­vice to all am­a­teur writ­ers—and, good­ness, there are armies of them —is to look at books cre­ated dur­ing pub­lish­ing’s hey­day (mostly the 19th cen­tury) and copy what you see.

The vol­umes are ev­ery­thing a book should be

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