Summer reading – or print and e-books revisited

It ‘s the time of year when the broadsheets and weeklies carry pages on ‘summer reading’ – reviews of books deemed especially suitable for the summer, plus literary people’s picks for books to take with them on holiday.

How ‘summer reading’ is defined isn’t entirely clear. Evidently, it has something to do with the texts themselves – light reading is preferred to heavy (though the holidays are sometimes seen as an opportunity to read a lengthy classic  – Proust, say) – and also something to do with their relationship to their readers (summer provides an opportunity to go off piste, as it were – so a professional historian is free to select, say, a fantasy novel).

My own holiday reading was at a pleasant remove from my professional concerns. It began by finishing The Station – Robert Byron’s account of a trip to Mount Athos in the 1920s – and finished by starting a novel by Rachel Cusk – In the fold. Between the two, I read John Lanchester’s murder un-mystery (or do I mean cookbook?), The Debt to Pleasure (Picador, 1996).

Despite my keenness for e-books, I read all three in paperback. I was struck – and somewhat surprised – by how the paper form contributed to the aesthetic experience. Take the Lanchester for example. Part of the pleasure of the book derives from the cover: the content, texture, tonal qualities, and style make it both attractive in its own right and appropriate to the book. Of course, cover design is important for e-books too – the front cover forms the icon for the book on online retail sites. But this cover, when reduced to an online icon, does not come across – the delicacy and classiness is lost – and e-paper screens (i.e., those best suitable to the reading of e-books) cannot handle such a cover at all.

A further pleasure derives from the paper itself. And here there arises a paradox I cannot explain. Whilst for hardbacks the use of cheap, low quality, paper always detracts from the enjoyment of the book, somehow with paperbacks the reverse is usually true – grainy is good.

Had The Debt of Pleasure existed only in e-book form, I doubt I would have bought it at all.  Though online retail sites can offer an excellent browsing experience, they don’t score highly for serendipity – one moves from book to book by association of some kind (e.g. genre, topic, buyer behaviour). Because The Debt to Pleasure is so far from my usual reading fare, the chances of discovering it that way would have been remote.

I came across the paperback in The Clerkenwell Tales , the excellent indie bookshop in London’s Exmouth Market, after a visit to Profile Books. I overheard Peter Ho, the bookseller, discussing Whoops!, Lanchester’s 2010 book on the credit crunch, with a customer. The conversation nudged me into looking to see what else Lanchester had written. I don’t know, but I guess Ho was stocking Lanchester’s backlist for precisely that kind of eventuality.

In effect, then, this year summer’s reading has, for me, provided a celebration of tradition – in reading, publishing, and retail.


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