What is a book?

August 21, 2007 at 2:39 am (books)

trent.jpg I received an interesting shipment of books from Amazon the other day; it contained Trent’s Last Case by E.C. Bentley and The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. You can see from the above that the Bentley title arrived in the book equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. But there is more. As issued by an outfit called Hardpress.net, the book has no pricing information, no cataloguing information, no copyright date. Essentially, there is no title page. It is strictly the text of the novel, no more, no less. Physically, the volume is well made; the print is small but crisp and relatively easy to read.

gk-chesterton.jpg Here, on the other hand, is the Modern Library Classics edition of The Man Who Was Thursday. Not only do we have this wonderfully evocative photograph on the cover, but there is also a short biography of Chesterton, an introduction to the novel by Jonathan Lethem, then the complete text of the novel, followed by several pages of critical commentary in the back plus a Reading Group Guide. Needless to say – but perhaps I had better mention it anyway – the title page contains all the usual information concerning copyright and Library of Congress cataloguing-in-publication data. Oh – and the list price: $8.95.

At first, I was upset about Trent’s Last Case.It seemed to me a very un-book-like book, a factory-issue entity that distressed my book-worshipping sensibilities. But my husband, playing the devil’s advocate, pointed out that the book was well made and delivered the text of the novel in its entirety, in a readable form. Hardpress has done a reasonable job of making available a new, relatively inexpensive ($13.95) edition of a novel which it is not particularly easy to obtain. I allowed myself to be argued around to his way of thinking on this matter, but I still would make no concession concerning the copyright date; I feel really strongly that this is essential information about a book and ought to be included in any print edition of it. Now there’s a funny little irony here: the Chesterton book does provide copyright information, as I’ve indicated, but it is for this particular edition, which contains new material. The date given is 2001; I had to read through the (uncredited) author biography to ascertain the actual year in which the novel first appeared: 1908. Still, this edition of The Man Who Was Thursday is a absolute gem; Trent’s Last Case looks sadly naked next to it.

What the question comes down to in the end is: What is a book? I guess I can live with Hardpress.net’s print-on-demand product – as long as it doesn’t represent the future of books in general. For that, I look to Modern Library’s lovely Chesterton – and hope!

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