The Book Collector, or “Does this edition make my bookshelf look funny?”

[this essay first appeared at www.StorytellersUnplugged.com, a year ago this month…but discussions on book collecting are ALWAYS appropriate so I ask you to forgive me – in the throes of editing the latest novel – if I offer you up this for reading and discussion while I make a dent in that MS… enjoy!]

I think that anyone who has the book bug has been to this one single strange place at some time or another during their book collecting days: the aesthetics of it all.

There is something innate, a sense of beauty, a sense of symmetry, an aversion to helter-skelter chaos on one’s bookshelves, that demands that if you own a book which belongs in a defined series then you owe it to – I don’t know –yourself, your bookshelves, the look of your library, a higher force – to have your series books be good soldiers. You have to be able to glance at a shelf and see a matching set of spines and know that you are looking at “a series”.

Trust me, I know. I’ve done it myself. I have an early paperback edition set of the first three books in Mary Stewart’s Merlin saga, and they have been well read, thank you very much – their spines are raked by the fine cracks of having been held open by avid hands. These are the editions that I know and love. I could probably find you any passage you wanted in the context of the books because I know where in these editions those passages fall. These have held a proud place on my bookshelf for many years.

But then the fourth book in that series came out, the Mordred one, and uh, alaaaaarm, it was a different edition, different cover, different everything. It looked… odd and mismatched next to my old loved trilogy. And not just because it was pristine and new when it was added to the shelf beside the well-worn books which had graced it for years. It was other stuff. It was the presence of color next to the black spines of the other books. It was a different font and typeface in which the title and the author appeared. It was… an accretion of all of these things.

And so I caved. I now have two sets of the Stewart Merlin books. My old trilogy, as beloved and well known as ever, and a whole newly reissued and now matching four-book set of the original three books plus the fourth novel. Which now looks perfectly at home next to these new books, because it matches them perfectly. But here’s the thing. The three books in the “new” trilogy, there on the shelf – they look wonderful and it all fits together again but will I ever read THEM? Those books, as opposed to the old editions that I own and know so well? Or are they just window dressing for the Book Collector within me…?

This popped out into the open because of a similar situation brewing with my own work. On my blog I had announced the reissue (with different covers) of the first three books of my Worldweavers trilogy to be followed in turn by a Brand! New! Story! set in that world – a finale, if you like.

A reader by the name of Kat left a comment giving voice to exactly this conundrum – that she is looking forward to reading the new novel when it comes out but that she’ll be leery of putting it on the shelf with the rest of what she calls “these wonderful books” (thank you, Kat!) because “it won’t match the original covers”.

Let me now circle back and do a devil’s advocate argument. I started out by saying that I collect matched-set series and have been known to purchase an entirely new set of books so that things will look right on the shelf.  But I don’t ALWAYS do it, and I have books on my shelves that definitely do not match  at all – and without which my shelves would be the poorer. There are books I wish to own NO MATTER WHAT – and if the price of owning them is that they look ridiculous next to the rest of their ‘book family’ on the shelf then so be it. Sometimes the price of having what you want is giving up a little of what you think you absolutely need – and when it comes to HAVING a book I want or NOT HAVING it because I can’t find it in a matching edition, well, there is no contest.

Let me use another example from my own shelves – books by a breathtakingly good historical novelist by the name of Sharon Kay Penman. I own three of her books that vaguely “match” – the rest of the novels with her name on their spines are a mismatched hodgepodge of editions (paperback, trade paperback, hardcover) depending on which book I could lay my hands on at any given time and how badly I wanted to read it.

There are, in other words, instances in which CONTENT really truly trumps APPEARANCE – and I think that those of us who truly love books  eventually gravitate to that place and away from how things “look” on our shelves. It is not at all the same thing and this is not what I am saying but in one sense I am personally aware of this basic choice in the context of turning away from that concept of “books as decoration” and “books as an aesthetic value” to just “BOOKS, dammit, and I want THAT book and I don’t care what it looks like” – a turning away, if you like, from the ultimate awful hell to which the books-for-looks system can take you, and that is buying books “by the yard”, for the binding, in order to make a statement of décor in your home.

Physical books are, in that particular instance, irrelevant – because there comes a point where you realize that you own the book because of the story which it contains and which you love. And you almost stop seeing the covers of the editions in which you own these stories at all, because they’re filler, they’re irrelevant, they’re just the brackets which are necessary in order for the rest of the book, the important bits, the pages with the words on them, to hold together in a format in which you are able to hold it and read it.

Book covers have morphed amazingly in the ebook age. The criteria are different, because ebooks, seen on the computer screen, have to “work” as tiny thumbnail images. That requires large readable fonts spelling out the name of the work and its author with the background as simple as possible. There is no real room here for the intricate and lovely art of some of the tomes of yore because, frankly, you barely SEE that cover, and often if you have just a plain black and white reader even things like color doesn’t really have an impact never mind some of the really detailed background. If you were looking at a steampunk cover in a “real” book format and an ebook you would probably find that the paper book’s cover may have teeming details on cogs and levers and wheels and what have you and the more you look the more you see while the ebook has a cover “code”, with only a few plain and well chosen images which need to convey the idea of the whole steampunk thing without its clutter and intricacy and drama.

It would not occur to anyone reading ebooks to “match” the covers of any particular series.

There may be some of the sentiment left in the marketing of the ebook – because you are still visually buying it, and a set of covers which actually manages to keep a certain look that alerts you that you are actually seeing a new book in an ongoing series which you might like is a marketing tool which draws the buyer’s eye to an extent of that buyer realizing that oh, I own books #1-3 in this series, here’s #4, click “buy” right now. But after that… it doesn’t matter.

The virtual bookshelf is a far more forgiving place than the packed old-fashioned and warmly familiar shelves in your study.

I don’t know that there’s a bridge between these two things, or not an immediately obvious one, anyway. These are two ways of thinking about the book (and of judging it by its cover, in one sense) that run on parallel tracks and do not really meet.

For the collectors (this is for you, Kat), all I can say is that the reissued Worldweavers books are hopefully going to be graced by a “set” of covers which will now include the new material that will thus be taken under the mantle of the series and declared to be canon (because of the visual signals that it is so) – but also that, at least initially, these reissues are going to be in ebook format and so the problem of the new novel “mismatching” the books already someone’s shelves won’t actually arise, in real terms.

Down the track a ways the new Worldweavers books might well turn up in a new set of paperbacks – and at that point the collector will have to make a decision, as I did with the Merlin books, whether to invest in a whole new set of books because they need to match one another properly… or to decide to discard the “it’s gotta match” view and (hopefully) purchase the new book anyway because the story inside… the story that picks up the tale of Thea Winthrop and concludes it in sparkling style, and it’s this story, the finale, the end of the story that Thea had to tell, that will matter more than the font on the book’s spine and the fact that it is different from the books that came before.

This I leave to the readers, and their decisions will likely be much like mine – arbitrary, and irrational, and perfectly fine for any one given individual no matter what they do. But I very much hope that Thea has achieved enough of a presence, as a character, as a protagonist, to deserve her fans stepping across the great divide if they see her standing on the other side holding out a hand.

All I can promise you is that Thea and I will do our best to make that choice one which no-one who has read and enjoyed the Worldweavers books will ever have a reason to be unhappy with.

Even if the font on the spine of the book is different to the rest of the series.

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