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Hard times

23rd April 2012 - Gary Perry


While many readers are abandoning paperbacks and turning to ebooks (have you tried our new ebook site yet?), the hardback is flourishing. Gary Perry from our Charing Cross Road branch explains why, for some books, only a hardback will do.


Isle of the Dead by Gerhard MeierIt took me a while to appreciate hardback books: they were too bulky, too heavy to read on the bus. Above all, they were too durable. The binders had the gall to create pages that didn't fall out at the minutest touch, spines that didn't crease at the merest bend. Damage is the paperback's magic; cracked spines like drought-ridden earth, pages that hang on tenuously and heroically. The hardback takes effort to harm. I wanted a book that responded with eager sensitivity to my touch.

This desire remains. But the hardback has reclaimed my affection. Its pleasures are different from the paperback. The durability is, to a large number of readers, the hardback's main selling point. And, convenience aside, there is something beautiful about a book whose resilience reflects the strength of both the imagination and the written word. These are books that have the brilliant audacity to declare: "I am important. I am a thing of value. I deserve to take up space on your bookshelf." Compared to a paperback, owning a hardback is like inviting Rocky into your study, all confidence and muscle. Or an erudite uncle, rotund and self-important. That they pin you to a chair provides an opportunity to really engage with the material in a way that is difficult when reading on the Circle line.

Having said that, not all hardbacks are huge. Dalkey Archive produce gorgeous slips of hardback novels (such as Gerhard Meier's Isle of the Dead). They fit nicely into coat pockets and suitcases yet assert that their value with gusto.

To own a book in hardback is a sign of respect. A growing trend amongst readers is to buy a hardback edition of a classic that has earned their love, either in one life-changing sitting or over the course of years. Regular readers of this blog will be more than aware of my love of Dickens. Paperbacks were my initiation into this obsession. My Penguin Classics editions of The Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol are well thumbed and well highlighted, Dickens' words melting into my own marginalia. They remain part of my library but have now been joined by beautifully bound Duckworth hardbacks, based on the famous 1937 Nonesuch Press editions. These new versions are a tribute to Dickens. They say that these are the works of an author who I understand and who has kept me company. That they were bought as a gift is a testament to the givers' knowledge of the receivers' passions.

The Great Gatsby by F Scott FitzgeraldHardback editions make perfect gifts for those we care for. You may have seen a parent read The Great Gatsby several times and, therefore, opt for an elegant hardback version. Or you may want to share a book that you have loved. The latter is my favourite form of giving and receiving. Just recently, a good friend of mine had a birthday and I waited patiently for my intuition to guide me toward the right gift. In a secondhand bookshop in Bloomsbury, I unearthed hardback editions of Sentimental Education and Madame Bovary. 'Unearthed' is the right verb. There was all the excitement of discovery and the knowledge that these precious objects had to be shared with somebody important. I care for Flaubert, I care for my friend - the two had to be brought together.

Ultimately this is why we buy hardbacks. Their durability and strength reflect the value we place in literature and in each other. They are objects that pay homage to the best of our emotions and traits: love, loyalty and understanding. Those two hardbacks are a tribute to two friendships - one with Flaubert and another with the receiver. I have no doubt that he and Flaubert will get on very well.


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