I have a problem, people. I recently came across the Penguin Little Black Classics box set, one that contains 80 black books in a white cardboard case, and is actually reasonably priced. And I want it.
Even though, I cannot justify it. First, I don’t have the space to store them. Second, most, if not all the titles on this little mammoth collection are out of copyright, barring the translated texts which Penguin always does well. Third, I don’t really need it, because I am always buying books I actually do need. But, oh, the packaging. The packaging.
I even found out there is a Mini Modern Classics box set that came out a while ago, which tempts me further because those texts won’t be out of copyright. But, plenitude of tempting options isn’t the point. It is the simple, progressively rarefied case of wanting to buy a book because of the physical aesthetic it satisfies in you, which you could have easily justified by saying you’re more interested in what’s inside. I lust over those little black books more because of what’s outside. Is that wrong of me?
I can’t exactly rue like some people do over not buying physical books from a physical shop in an unforgivably long time. I was in a shop last month, and I bought a couple from a shop the month before. I even bought a Penguin title earlier this year from a shop, the hilarious Sylvester by Georgette Heyer. But, I’ve rarely, if ever, allowed myself to be bended into monetary submission by packaging. I don’t do box sets or hardbacks or cute or leather-bound covers.
First of all, I can’t. I buy too many. I have a scattered attention span, which means I’m always reading multiple books. I rarely read blurbs, or remember author names while I’m reading if they are ones I’ve never heard of before. And I never, never read the last page. I know this sounds totally obnoxious, and probably against the grain of book bloggers across the galaxy, but I have a very modest defence for it: I’d rather buy the cheaper edition and get more books on the same budget, than the costlier edition. I’ve never let any book escape me because of its packaging, and perhaps that might redeem me to authors.
But, this box set is so contradictory! The price actually doesn’t deter me at all, it’s having too much of a good thing, especially when I don’t have the means to house it. Perhaps, I could have given some away as gifts, but people rarely read dead-tree books. Probably, most that do are book bloggers or Goodreads listers, but lately whoever I’ve gifted books to, have let them sit while they read on their devices.
Some compare physical books to vinyl. I never got to reasonably experience it so I can’t compare, except for one thing – I really wish physical books don’t become luxuries or rarities. Even if I have no place to store them, I’d still like to believe that I can easily pick them up in the next five or ten years. Even a cheap, second-hand paperback with brownish-yellow pages is still an experience that adds to the overall reading of a book. There is something about having this little, turnable, bendable object with its distinct smell, particular font, page numbers that adds a sensuousness to the emotional experience of what it intrinsically contains, that you don’t find reading on a device. You remember it.
It makes me sad that books with movie tie-ins that generally adhere to the YA genre are the majority of physical books available in a shop, while cheap, bleak-looking paperbacks that actually are well-written and not pulpy are increasingly becoming extinct. I am not valuing one over the other, I miss the possibility of both existing simultaneously even five years ago in the same physical space. Finding a bookstore that doesn’t smell of coffee is even rarer, but I’d rather have them with coffee, as long as they have different genres of books with a greater number of titles.
I know all this is very geographically and culturally distinct but somehow, at least in literatures in the English language, there has come to exist an unimaginative formula when it comes to publishing and marketing books. Book blogging has certainly helped in bringing young people back to books, and if there is attractive packaging/affordable ebooks to draw them in, why not? But, there are other markets, or let’s say, other kinds of readers that might also be successfully enticed were there more such products, like the Little Black Classics. It even seduced me, though I found out about it from a YA booktuber.
I might not get the box set, because it is too, overwhelmingly good, but I’m sure I will get many new books, both new and used, in the coming months, that will probably fill up the very same space I find myself wanting now. There is even a likelihood of the majority of them being Penguin books. They might even sit more prettily than the box set, but they won’t fulfil that editorial and aesthetic concept that makes this box set admirable. They’d only be new members in my ragtag gang of books, waiting to be devoured.
Do you judge a book by its cover?