A Perfect Thing

I am holding a book. It is small, 5 x 7, an easy to hold paperback about 300 pages. The pages are uneven, deckle edged. On the slightly heavier cover page is a drawing of a villa high on a hill in Italy.

The colors are Tuscan—green, bright pinkish sky, earthy brown villa walls, red tile roofs. A vegetable garden, olive trees and tall pines are shown in the valley below.

The sky was turning gray … The outline of the mountain across the valley etched against the dawn, gradually darkening and growing distinct against the awakening sky. Lower down, mist caressed the slopes, catching like tufts of wool on the treetops.

The scene is bucolic, with one exception—warplanes are flying overhead. The tale takes place during the Allied invasion of Italy in World War II.

I am thinking the book I am holding in my hand is a perfect thing. I am reminded of Iris Origo’s The War in Val d’Orca. It may very well be a fictional account of Origo’s experience at her estate, La Foce, in southern Tuscany during the War.

For a bookmark I am using one from a small independent bookstore in a far off land where the culture of reading has a long tradition. The bookstore is a perfect place.

Together with the book I bought there, it is also a perfect moment, a moment that cannot be planned or expected and only arrives unbidden every now and then.

On the Web I read about an exhibition at the University of Amsterdam, The Printed Book: A Visual History. The exhibition is said to trace of the evolution of book design through the last 500 years.

In the Google translation of the exhibition brochure, "the cannon of Western book design is said to be a work of art and the printed book more and more a statement against “the e-book to be.”

In describing the exhibition, Alice Rawsthorn wrote in the Times: “ Some things seem designed to do their jobs perfectly, and the old-fashioned book is one.”

Later she admits there are “some wonderful e-books” too and they have their well-known advantages. Still, she holds fast to the belief that “…there is still something very special about an adroitly designed printed book.” I am of the school, call us “old school,” if you must, that couldn’t agree more.

Not long ago, Kathryn Hughes wrote in the Guardian that 2011 was a year of beautiful books. She notes that Julian Barnes, in his Booker Prize acceptance speech, singled out the book designer of his prize winning novel The Sense of Ending. He called her the “best book designer in town” and had turned his prize-winning novel into “a beautiful object.”

Other commentators have recently made particular note of book cover designs, a topic that rarely receives much attention. You the Designer recently posted the covers of 86 beautiful book covers. And the Millions compared the design of US and UK covers of the same book. Here is one of a book I greatly admired last year with the US version shown first.

What is it about the design of a book that appeals to so many readers? According to Hughes, Barnes suggested that the design of printed books matters so much right now is “because of the challenge of e-readers, which tend to make all novels look alike.”

For me it is more a matter of art, the sheer beauty of a book’s cover and the way a book is bound and how it feels. I walk into any small bookshop and am immediately struck by the varied colors and shapes of the books on the tables and shelves.

Oddly this effect is strongest when I walk into an Italian bookstore. I pick up one of the books, may recognize the title if it’s translated from English, open the cover and begin reading. More truthfully, try to begin reading it. All I can think of is how much I wish I knew how to read Italian literature--the sheer beauty of those unknown words.