The Whole Book Experience

I’ve been pondering something lately, something vague about books and e-books and libraries and hardcovers and paperbacks… and something I like to call the Whole Book Experience. I wrote a little about this before, and it’s still weighing on my mind a bit. I think it’s important.

Here are some things that I think are important to the WBE:

  • text (what the words say)
  • font (how easy it is to read)
  • the book’s physicality (size, weight, hard- or soft-cover, etc)
  • illustrations (or lack thereof)
  • pages (how they feel to the fingers)
  • cover art (gorgeous, good, neutral, bad, or awful)
  • indexes and extras (glossary, author biography, recommended reading, bibliography, and, especially for non-fiction, a good index)
  • publication info (I write a lot of essays and therefore a lot of Works Cited pages — you’d be surprised at how many books don’t include information like the city of publication)
  • where, when, how, and why the book was read

The biggest part of how much a book is liked has to do with its text. Stellar prose can overcome a lot of problems with the book itself, like bad/distracting illustrations, strange typesetting, or a poor index. If you think of a book as a person, then the text is the soul; the extra bits are just body.

Right now I’m reading a Tom Clancy novel, Red Rabbit, and the only thing on the back cover is a big ol’ picture of Tom Clancy. That drives me crazy. I don’t care how famous you are and how many people will buy the book just because you wrote it, the back cover still needs to have more on it than your face. The book survives in my esteem because the text — the soul — is good.

The body, however, is also important. I don’t like fiction to be illustrated, unless it’s something like a children’s book. I find it interferes with my conception of the characters, and distracts in a negative way. The distraction of the illustrations will have an impact on my impression of a book. So, too, the other factors mentioned.

Something I’ve been thinking a lot is the last bullet point: where, when, how, and why the book was read. Are you reading it because you’re bored? Because it’s on a required reading list? Because you’ve always wanted to read it? Because a friend gave it to you and so you feel as if you have to read it? Because it was the first thing you grabbed in the morning? These things matter. They will affect your reading experience.

Where are you reading? In bed? On the train? In the library? On the couch? On the john? At work? In the tub? Do you read by sunlight, lamp-light, or candlelight? Do you have a special reading corner?

When are you reading? Is it night or day? Are you reading for long periods at a time, or snatching the odd paragraph when you can? Do you have specific times set aside for reading? Do you read as soon as you get up, or right before you go to bed? These also make a difference.

How have you read this book? Quickly or slowly? Furtively or brazenly? Interestedly or indifferently? Analytically or absentmindedly? Angrily or joyfully?

Right now I am also reading Nabokov’s Lolita. I read it on Tuesdays and Thursdays between 3:10 and 4:00 pm, in a small non-loaning library on campus. The room is almost exactly what I want in a library: cozy, with book-lined shelves built into the stone walls, large windows, leather couches and chairs, a fireplace, and near-complete silence. I sit either in one of the window chairs with my feet up on the ledge, or on a couch, most likely curled in the corner. Sometimes I nap a bit as well as read. When I come in, I retrieve Lolita from its accustomed spot on the shelf; when I go out, I leave it behind on a table or chair as requested by library staff (who, it seems, are universally opposed to the idea of patrons shelving material).

I’m sure that the setting and the time restriction will have an affect on how I read and process this book. It’s an utterly peaceful environment, perhaps the better for a not-always-peaceful book. My time with the book is limited to my hour-break between classes — it’s enough for a few chapters at a time, certainly, but days go by between readings and it will take me weeks to finish. Surely I will relate to the novel differently than if I read it all in one go, or even over a few days instead of a few weeks.

This all is part of why I am extremely dubious about eBooks and appliances like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader. Regardless of the legal issues as to whether or not you own the electronic texts you buy — click here to read more about that, it’s fascinating — I can’t comprehend the appeal of books read only as naked texts. Whatever their other merits, eBooks all look and feel the same. What about the inherent tactile experience of reading a book? Haven’t books always been about more than just the text they contain?

An electronic copy of a text is like a soul with no body. Around here, that’s what we would call a ghost.

3 thoughts on “The Whole Book Experience

  1. There's just something experientially easier about reading a book. Ebooks will do if I'm stuck at a computer. But books on PDAs just don't work with me. I know how to use them but I don't enjoy it.Only thing I wish—if books could have a search function! 😉


  2. True, that would be useful. I do find I have a pretty good memory for where things are in books, though; it's quite handy around essay time (though if I'm writing an essay on a book I'm probably also sticking in post-it notes everywhere). Remembering authors and titles is another story. Usually I can only remember one, unless for something very famous or something I know well.


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