For all the pleasure that reading provides, the sensual pleasures you get from a truly special edition of a book heighten and expand the experience.
This time last year, I was helping my parents move from their home in Maryland to a house three doors down from where I live in Pennsylvania. They had lived in their house for over 40 years, and there was a good deal to sort through, purge, pack, argue about… It was an emotionally charged and prolonged process.
The one thing that was never in question was my father’s collection of leather-bound books: we were going to find a place for them in their new, modest living environment. Among others, my father had collected various series of books from The Franklin Library, and while I always admired their beauty, lined up on the dark oak bookshelves of his home library, I had never actually read any of them. They were heirlooms — works of art.
As I began packing up the library, I was struck by just how impressive these books are and what a tragedy it was that I had not taken advantage of having these exceptional tomes available to me. I vowed that when unpacked and realigned on the shelves, I would change that.
Fast forward a few months later. I was reading a pocket paperback version of To Kill A Mockingbird, printed in 1962 (two years after its original publication) and admittedly having a difficult time losing myself in the work when I remembered that it was one of the titles my dad has in his library. I pulled the stately gold-gilded and stamped book off the shelf and began a sensual exploration into reading.
The leather-bound edition of the book has a burgundy hardcover — or perhaps more the color of dark red clay — adorned with a gold-stamped design of leaves (elm?) on both the front and back. The book’s title appears only on the embossed spine, also in gold. The outer edges of the pages are gilded in gold, accented by the lime green bound ribbon bookmark that matches the silk end paper at the front and back of the book. The pages of the book, while not white, are a bright cream color that provide a stark contrast to the thin text characters, which are not quite black.
The reading experience was vastly different, visually, from the saturated, crowded, uneven type on the orange-tinged, practically newspaper-grade paper of the pocket book. And while there is something alluring about the ’60s aesthetic of the cover of the Popular Library publication, you’d never guess the two books contained the same story when you compared them side by side.
The Franklin Library edition also includes charcoal pencil illustrations of scenes from the story throughout, which adds another element of class and character.
A 60-year-old pocket paperback has a distinct smell, and not an unpleasant one. My old version of To Kill A Mockingbird has that singular, almost floral bouquet of a mass-produced paperback book. How to describe it? Pleasing. Dusty. Uniquely “bookish.” It has enjoyed a life of prominence on a bookshelf in a well-ventilated room.
The smell of the Franklin Library book, though, is in a class of its own. It hearkens to expensive shoes or a quality, warm leather couch. It has a deep smell, a refined smell, and I was surprised and delighted by it every time I reached for the book to read. Every reading session began with me taking a few seconds to inhale the scent and appreciate how special a book can be.
Along with the smell, this was another sense I didn’t expect would be engaged whilst reading, but the crisp sound of the page as it would turn and the distinct sound of the pages peeling away from one another as the seal of the gold paint was broken is not something you hear from a standard paperback. Certainly other hardcover books have a crisp sound as the page turns, but the quality of the pages in this book were another reminder that reading can be an immersive experience, not just because of the story within the pages, but for the pages and components of the book itself.
Okay, I haven’t tasted the book, though the depth of its scent is akin to taste. But the weight of the book is something of note, and that’s a sensation worth describing. In some ways, it’s a limitation. It’s much harder to read a heavy book while lying on your back or in any position where you have to support the weight of the book with your arms. It’s not that heavy, but there’s a reason why a pocket paperback is better suited for the beach or an airplane. Which returns me to the stateliness and refinement of this edition. It is best enjoyed in a plush chair with a glass of brandy. Maybe that’s where the sense of taste comes in…
Unquestionably, the way this book feels is what I find most alluring. The soft texture of the leather with the subtle nuance of the stamped design; the raised ridges along the spine; the silky smooth, heavy paper of the book’s pages; the corduroy texture of the end paper; even the soft smoothness of the bookmark — this book is made to be touched and held and demands that good care is taken of it.
For all the pleasure that reading provides, for the escapism and knowledge and provocative ideas a book presents, the sensual pleasures derived from engaging with a truly special edition of a book heighten and expand the experience. Whether it was just a matter of getting farther into the story, or if it were truly the pleasing experience of reading the Franklin Library version of the book, I had no trouble getting lost in Harper Lee’s tale of reckoning and flawed justice when I switched editions. Next up… Franz Kafka’s The Trial, though I may have just talked my 15-year-old son into reading it first. No matter, there are plenty more on the shelf. Very fortunate for me.
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