On the heft of a book

You can love a book for all sorts of reasons. It might be the way in which the plot takes you by surprise, or pushes you along, so that (for a short time at least) the book fills your consciousness, and is the only thing that really exists. Maybe it’s the way language is used, with every page seeming to contain a beautiful, memorable or thought-provoking image. Or perhaps it’s the characters – people who seem so real that you could call them on the phone, if only you knew what their number was.

I’ve had all of these feelings towards books, but a more mysterious emotion concerns the item itself rather than what it contains. For me, it’s the literary equivalent of love at first sight, and it’s about the physicality of a book – that first time when you pick it up, and weigh it in your hands, and it’s just nice to hold. It’s almost as if the book were a natural extension of your arm, filling a void that you weren’t previously aware of. I like to think that what these special, and rarely found, books have is balance.

I used to fence a little bit (and I do mean little), and I’ve heard other people say similar things about swords. A sword has something called a centre of balance, the point at which you can rest it on the tip of one finger, and the weight is evenly spread. Not only that, swords also have a centre of percussion – defined as the section that (because it vibrates the least) delivers the most efficient, powerful blow. Constructed correctly, I think books can have one, if not both, of these things. The second is centred around the quality of the writing, whilst the first focuses more on the quality of the object.

invisible formsMy own favourite book in this regard is Kevin Jackson’s Invisible Forms. It’s one of those indispensable books that I frequently return to, both reading it from cover to cover, as well as dipping into specific chapters. Whilst much of this enjoyment stems from the text of the book, it’s equally pleasurable to appreciate it as an object – to hold it, feel the quality of the paper, and enjoy the typeface.

All of which is entirely appropriate, given the subject matter. Jackson’s title comes from those ‘invisible forms’ within a book which don’t get properly acknowledged. He includes chapters on titles, dedications, epigrams, first lines, last lines, stage directions, indexes, as well as looking at a host of other literary quirks. Whilst these features lie hidden in plain sight, properly examined they can say a great deal about the text itself, and sometimes more so.

What is missing from Invisible Forms is a chapter on why some books feel especially good to hold, perhaps because this feature is so difficult to pin down. So, in a brave attempt to fill this gap, I measured my copy of Invisible Forms, breathlessly awaiting some form of revelation. And guess what I found?  It weighs 448 grams, and is 214 millimetres long, 146 millimetres wide and 30 millimetres thick. All of which is meaningless without the book itself, and highlights how difficult a book’s centre of balance can be to pin down. Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.

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