These prints aren’t charming
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