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Books are more than just their words

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I’ve been thinking a lot about books as physical objects lately.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is how they have been used in ways they were not intended.

In the English class I’m taking right now we are learning about the Exeter Book, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon literature made from thousand-year-old vellum.

Researchers have analyzed the book itself and found traces of beer on it and particles in grooves on the book which suggest it was once used as a board for cutting cheese.

The office I’m editing this column in had a book propping up the leg of a wiggly table for several years.

Even when books are used the way they were intended, there’s a lot to consider and appreciate about their form.

It’s funny. I’ve been a big reader my whole life and, on the whole, prefer print books to ebooks. But, up until recently I hadn’t put much thought into the act of making the book itself.

Sure, I knew that most of the time books are released in hardcover first, followed by a paperback run, and I knew artists put a lot of thought and effort into the cover design or image.

It never occurred to me that there would be other designers working behind the scenes to make a book what it is when you see it in a bookstore.

I attended a publishing program in New York this summer and it was an amazingly in-depth overview of the publishing industry and what it entails.

I already knew what people like editors, publicists and literary agents were and did (though I learned an incredible amount of new things about those professions, too), but one day we had a presentation on book production and it was so surprising to me because I’d never heard of it before.

Book production is essentially the creation of the book that you see in bookstores.

The dimensions of a book, paper used for printing, whether or not the outsides of the pages are smooth or ridged or colored – all of this is the job of the book producer. And yes, the cover designer lays out the look of the book.

But if the cover is embossed or has a cut-out or the paper has a textured or holographic element to it? That’s the realm of the book production department.

Another thing we learned in that program is that around five to ten years ago, publishers were very worried that the physical book would soon become obsolete, replaced by the ebook.

If you look at the charts, there was a boom in ebook sales and a decline in print sales for a while, but eventually the levels plateaued and, actually, ebook sales are declining.

I’m sure there are multiple factors for this, but I think a big part of it is that people  really do appreciate books as physical objects, not just words on a page, and have for thousands of years.

Hopefully, people appreciate the physical book more for its beauty and design like the Book of Kells, and not its utility as a cheese cutting board like the Exeter Book or a block for propping up a wobbly table leg.

Either way, books have an inherent value as objects that cannot be replicated in digital form, though it can be argued readers gain from the convenience of being able to read on their phone and on-the-go.

The next time you take out a book, I encourage you to really look at it. Examine the things that you might normally overlook like the type of paper it’s printed on, the textures on its cover, whether the pages lie flat or have ridges, how the spine is bound – and know that a team of people spent hours weighing options and looking at price points to bring you the final product that rests in your hands.

How does the book itself, the medium, help tell the story in its pages?