By Ketil Svendsen
In the age of the electronic bookshelf, who’s to spot your favourite when it’s not greased, creased and well thumbed-through? And when you go, who’ll remember you from the digital books you leave behind?
As the recent return of the vinyl LP has shown, there is more to the media itself than what’s on it. I can still remember the smell of my first LP; the shrink wrap had just been torn off, I was seven and it was 1981 I think, and Sgt. Pepper — gatefold, cut-outs et al — finally hit home. Or the summer cottage, as it was. No running water, no electricity, no record player. For two months.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first longplaying record that wore it’s lyrics on the sleeve, so to speak. My first serious dive into the english vocabulary happened that summer. The vibrant colours, the strange two dimensional people that made the busy cover, the words to learn (I scratched my head over the within/without wordplay), the smell of cardboard, print and vinyl — they all added to the magic. And a needle had yet to hit the grooves …
Needless to say, the music hit home as well. Not only due to Sgt. Pepper being a swell record, but also for me being prepared and quite ready to like it: the wonders of good packaging, great design — and it being a physical object. Total experience. And never mind the sound quality debate.
It’s a brain thing. Spaghetti and macaroni: two different beasts with different rôles: same dough, though.
My consumer experience is to a great extent about objects of desire (several religions, some of them are quite popular, turn to fetishes to focus their beliefs. That’s ten Ave Maria and home you go). It’s not that the music or words play second fiddle, or can’t manage on it’s own: what would, say, rock’n roll be without myths, great characters, sleeves and packaging — the whole public image? A great deal of musical identity is lived out by fashionably crazed stars, and their drug fueled aura is pressed into the grooves of a spinning disk. The recipient — the user, listener — adds his or her life to it: crackles, pops and scratches tells their story.
Separate the music from the backstory, and something is lost …
Books can also tell stories of their own, and of their owners. Pulp covers may set the tone for reading — as does a serious hardback copy. It’s a physical object, and much can be judged from holding it — a stiff, anonymous, hardback cover might send one kind of signal to the future reader — right or wrong — the same way a cheap paperback with a scantily clad girl up front can.
Typesetting, paper quality and smell: it might lie about it’s actual content, but it’s still an important and nowadays endangered first-hand user experience. And human contact leaves it’s mark: From scribbled, down-handed bibles, to worn out paperbacks: they’re live objects, and live objects do age … Patina is a fine word. Quality age well. I have great respect for quality book binding, and treat great books with great care. As for paperbacks, my pillow can easily double as a bookmark (so can a sausage for that matter). A cheap paperback will thus tell one story about me, and a leather-bound coffee table book another. Electronic publishing might be great for statistics, but they have no physical memory and cannot even hint at a life lived.
My granddad, Norwegian musician Monrad Nyheim, had his Ex Libris made by actor and graphic designer Hans Stormoen — who had just been arrested by the nazis after a theatre strike, and by 1941 was serving time at Bergen Kretsfengsel. Beat that for book ownership memorabilia.
Well, lots of words for one purpose: explaining why it’d be nice to add an Ex Libris — a personal mark — on my books. After all, we’re just passers-by; while real books will last for generations to come. I’m onboard for the ride, after finally finding a clever way to combine K and S. Tricky, it was!