The Feel of a Good Book

I was stunned to receive the first copy of my new book, Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive, in the mail the other day. Stunned because it is beautifully produced physically; in all the tumult of writing and revising and editing and proofs, I had almost forgotten that a corporeal book would emerge out the other side.

Bee Time is encased in a vibrant cover, with bees fading in and out of focus, shades of brown color that would be comfortable in a real beehive, and the tactile feel of highly sanded stone. The opening and closing pages are slightly thickened and lightly textured, while the intervening printed pages are colored the lightest of cream, with crisp, precise print.

There also will be an e-book, and I’ll be pleased to have readers purchase an electronic version (authors actually receive higher royalties on e-books than hard copies), but there is something lost in the digital, that intense physical pleasure that comes from experiencing a really finely made book.

There are other books on my shelves that evoke similar pleasure, enhanced by their age and my own history with them. I have an 1897 sixth edition of Darwin’s The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, a treasured gift from former students and colleagues. I love the description provided by the antiquarian bookseller who provided it:

“Complete set. Volume one and two. Original maroon cloth covered boards. Gilt top edge. Gilt lettering on spine. Light wear to edges of spine. Nice set and solid.”

The book itself makes a point of telling you it’s the “Authorized Edition,” which makes me wonder what shenanigans were going on with someone publishing an unauthorized edition. And reading the words of Darwin from an old edition evokes images of 19th century naturalists traipsing the world trying to piece together how the natural world came to be, and ultimately our place in it.

I also have a copy of a Hebrew bible, the Five Books of Moses, a gift for my Bar Mitzvah in 1963. It was a very solid book when I received it but has been well-used, held together today with strapping tape on the binding, a number of pages bent, with stains in places where I must have spilled food and drink over the years.

The inscription inside says “To Mark: This is an Important Book, not so much for what it says, but for why it was written!” I have puzzled over what that means since I was given the Book; it’s either a deeply profound comment or one of those vague nice-sounding thoughts that doesn’t actually mean anything.

Another personal treasure is a well-read 1929 copy of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, its binding cracked and pages yellowed. It’s a Modern Library book, published by Charles Scribner’s Sons. The Modern Library was designed to make the idea of a formal home Library affordable for the growing middle class, reflecting a cultural sea change as knowledge became more publicly accessible.

It was branded as “The Modern Library of the World’s Best Books,” and was a dependable arbitrator for upwardly mobile readers aspiring to quality tomes, providing volumes that looked elegant on a bookshelf. Modern Library still sells books today, although readers are more likely to buy the paperback editions these days, and yes, they do have eBook versions for sale.

It’s particularly satisfying to see that the art of making a well-crafted book lives on, even in this most electronic of ages. What a joy it is to think of a book I’ve written, modest as it may be, creating the kind of pleasure for others that holding many finely fashioned books has brought to me.