Africana Votes & Views #10
The time has come to share with you all, readers and writers alike, some of the characteristics, failings and foibles of authors and publishers, that absolutely stick in my craw and refuse to be ingested without a Herculean struggle.
Some of my pet aversions are purely personal - such as my dislike of dustjackets or dw's as they are often referred to. I love the feel and look of a book attractively bound in cloth, paper or leather-covered boards instead of a slithery plastic-coated concoction in garish colours, frequently bearing advertising, bar codes, pictures of authors, their biographies and forthcoming attractions, over the cheapest possible machine binding job you can get. The dw costs a great deal to produce, I believe; money that could much better be spent on materials and binding of the volume it covers. Once the book has been read a few times - or even just removed from the shelf and replaced again, the dw starts getting first edgeworn, then a few tears appear, making it tatty or scuffed; a few more passages from hand to shelf and extended rips appear, and possibly even a chunk is torn off to scribble a telephone number on or to be used as an instrument of cleansing - making a description of torn & chipped inevitable. Readers have become brainwashed to the necessity of having dw's to such a degree that such deficient pieces of scrap paper are occasionally pasted down onto other sheets so as to reassemble to best ability the jigsaw puzzle they have become; they are lovingly encased in plastic protectors, (as if this confers de facto virginity to them once more), and more disturbingly, crime has raised its ugly head with forgeries starting to appear on the market, courtesy of high quality copying machines. Ag shame!
Let us linger on the exterior of the book. How about size? The first book that leaps to mind is Rourke & Lincoln's tome Mimetes (Tiyan Publishers, 1982). This book weighs in the region of 8 kg, and my colleague who has a copy, informs me that it is about 70 x 50 cm in size. His classic comment was that "All the publisher needed to do is to sell four legs along with the book to make it into a coffee-table". A A Balkema published a few so-called 'elephant folios' in his time - reprints of Angas' The Kafir's Illustrated, and Daniell's African Scenery and Animals; themselves no lightweights and only a few centimetres smaller in each direction. Problem is, you need to have a clean table, big enough to hold the thing, you must have both hands free to turn the page (for fear of tearing it) and preferably you should have someone with good eyesight standing on a chair next to you, who would be able to bend over the book far enough to be able to read the text at the top of the page which is not within range of your bifocals. Then you have the problem of storage. No bookshelf will hold it, as it would protrude far enough to snag every passer-by, leading to eventual damage. You can put it on top of a cupboard to gather dust and fishmoths, but that way you can't enjoy the book, and the same goes for putting it into a drawer for safety. When I have copies of these monstrosities in my shop, they are stood on the floor, leant against this wall and that one; being turned about weekly, so that they don't develop a permanent slouch. Meanwhile I pray that no stray tomcat will come in to mark off the outer limits of his territory in time-honoured fashion against the priceless volume.
Seriously though, size matters. A book of a thousand pages or more is fine as a reference book, not as a bedside companion. If you would dare to fall asleep while reading one of these lying down, you could end up with facial surgery. The abovementioned dw's are another plague while reading larger books in a prone position. They tend to slither and slide out of their jackets, while the wrappers themselves are not immune to the abrasive qualities of bunched-up bedclothes. Then there are softcover books; at best a necessary evil, which to me will always reek of 1950's shilling dreadfuls like Peter Cheyney's Dark Wanton or Dangerous Curves - but not Wolpoff's six-hundred page quarto tome entitled Preliminary Publication of Paleoanthropology (McGraw Hill, 1994), which is a textbook that is intended to be consulted often and enthusiastically. To add insult to injury, there is that pervasive practice of cheap and nasty bookbinding called 'Perfect Bound'. Anything less perfect is difficult to imagine. The pages of the book are assembled, clamped, ruthlessly guillotined on all four edges if necessary, a lick of sticky, hot gunge is applied to the long side, and a softcover sleeve is applied with some pressure to make it all stick together. Hey presto - you have a book. Or do you? The unsuspecting purchaser doesn't always look at the spine, or the construction, especially if they are bewitched by the resounding title on the cover and the promise of virgin literature on the pages, so they take it home and read it. The monstrosity might survive, one two or even a few more readings, then suddenly a page drops out, the another, then twenty or thirty, as the space-age glue hardens, dries out and loses its tack - rather like space-shuttle glue holding on ceramic heat-shield tiles - you remember the scenario?
One last peeve concerning the book's exterior: since I read books in a number of languages, I have perforce to browse shelves on which the titles are displayed in various ways. Generally I prefer a label or a horizontally broken-up and printed title and author. That is good if the shelf is in front of me, at eye-height. It is an unfortunate fact that my eyes are fixed in my face and do not run up and down my body on tracks at will - meaning that inevitably, the book I want to look at, is at the height of my knees or lower, and if I bend down, the title is upside down, which at my age, shape and station in life, does not facilitate browsing. If the title is too long or the book is thin, the other convention is to have the wording run from left to right, if one is holding the book front cover upwards in front of one. Not so the Germans; they run the title from right to left - as does Anderson with his book Blue Berg - Britain takes the Cape (Privately published, 2008) as well as a few other authors in various languages that I have run across. This makes for cricking noises of the neck, something that all browsers of boxes of books on the tables at charity and other sales have experienced, as the books' titles are displayed this way, and then face about. Most vendors just don't seem to realise the basic fact that they should try to make the browsing of their stock as painless as possible for their clients - thus achieving maximum sales. Instead it becomes a circus of cerebral contortions until the hapless buyer gives up in considerable discomfort.
All sorts of sizes are problematical. Why produce an A4 softcover of fifty pages, when you could just as easily fold the text in half and have an A5 which will stand properly (even in softcover), and on the spine of which you can legibly inscribe a title and an author? What does one do with an oblong quarto, or even an oblong folio? You either have to have a special shelf with extra depth to prevent the problem mentioned above with those whoppers, or you have to park the offenders on edge, spine upwards, where you also can't read the title as it is obscured by the shelf above. At the other end of the scale there are tiny books, some no higher than 100 mm, about half the height of a normal octavo. These tend to get lost among their tall companions on the shelves, like toddlers in a crowd of grown-ups. Equally bad are books which pretend to be octavo in height, but their depth is half that of a normal book, making them a bastard-size which is just asking to be squeezed to the back of a shelf, thus making it impossible to find.
From the exterior, which is after all, only skin-deep, let us delve into the innards of the beasties. A well-designed, considered publication is most desirable; preferably on paper that looks as if it could have had a tree or vegetable fibre as a parent material instead of some of this fashionable shiny junk that owes most of its components to a mine, that won't burn properly, weighs more than a brick, and refuses to take printers' ink without fading to some anaemic grey. Paper should be of sufficient bulk and opacity to prevent the print on the other side from interfering with the text. It should be slightly matt, if at all possible not the dead white which reflects any incident ray of light causing eyestrain to the reader, rather shading into ivory - but avoiding fancy bubblegum colours so beloved for the kiddies' library - or even worse, what I call negative printing, that is white font on a shiny black background as favoured by publications like the National Geographic Magazine and other glitzy productions. Trying to read a nine point font of this type with artificial light is nearly as bad a trying to read the tiny white English subtitles in a Bollywood film production filled with people dressed in white robes, striding through blinding sunshine. Fancy fonts may have their place on greeting cards, advertising signs and directions to the nearest toilet in public places, but they make reading a chore when it should be a pleasure. I don't profess to know much about typography, but an 11pt Garamond, Ariel or Times Roman or suchlike, with a decent spacing between lines, say single or one and a half, means that even those who are not fortunate enough to have 20/20 sight can enjoy the read.
I have been told by reliable sources that there are conventions in publishing. I attach so little importance to these that I can't actually remember exactly what they are - but here goes. Your top margin is, let's say X mm, then your bottom margin should be bigger, say X+5 mm, on the left hand page your outer margin should be Y mm, while the inside margin should be Y + 3 mm, and the opposite should apply to the facing page. All this is surely based on some deep-seated logic which evolved somewhere in the 15th century, but I fail to see the relevance to anything except individual aesthetics. What I do remember is the completely irrational rage I felt the first time I looked through one of those Scripta Africana reprints. Here is a set of so-called de luxe editions (poorly bound) with a poor facsimile of text lifted from a page 22 x 15 cm (including margins) and plonked down in the same size in the middle of a page the size of a toilet lid, resulting in margins about half as wide as the text, or more, all round. What a waste of paper! Other volumes from the same publisher, like Conan Doyle's The Great Boer War, go to the other extreme, and you have the same large pages with huge blocks of text and very small margins. On the other hand, I must admit to binning books which have ten millimetre margins at the spine, and being bound so tightly that you would need stalk-eyes to be able to read the text to the end of the line, since you can't open the thing wide enough to make out the last word. Talking of which, I have just seen the most awful product that it has ever been my misfortune to view: a combination of three books in one, entitled History of the BSAP 1889-1980 by Gibbs & Phillips (Adcraft Publishing, 2000), which sports 5mm wide margins top and bottom of the page, while the side margins are about ten mm wide. That is taking economy to ridiculous lengths.
One can understand the amount of physical effort, trial and experimentation that was needed in days of yore and lead slugs for type, to obtain text that was properly justified on both sides. However, I can refer you to numerous books on my shelves, that were published in the 18th century, which are all perfectly set out - so why was it that some indolent slobs of typographers were permitted or encouraged by their bosses the printers and publishers, to foist a bunch of untidy, unfinished-looking prose on the purchasers of their wares? In this regard, our own Guus Balkema was a prime offender, with several shoddy works among a goodly number of workmanlike volumes. I seem to recall trying to read an experimental book once, which was printed like modern poetry - lines of any length, no punctuation, no capitals. Talking of which, I abhor correspondence which I have to read, written without using capitals. Aw, come on, it doesn't take that much effort to press the shift key. Whenever I get a missive like that, I am tempted to reply in full upper case. It's damn nearly as difficult to read - don’t ask me why, but my brain must have become fossilised in 'standard mode'.
There is a justification for breaking up text on a page into narrow columns, like in a newspaper. I have been told what it is - but I forgot. Whatever it was or is, books are not newspapers, so there is presently no need for this. A very beautifully produced book I have recently looked at (and sold) had this type of configuration. On each landscape small quarto page there were three columns divided by vertical lines - but the text columns aren't justified, making the whole thing look ragged, though in all fairness stretching and squeezing the text alternately to make it fit in between the tramlines would have looked pretty awful too - so why columns? I believe it is easier to place illustrations using this configuration, but here lies another problem for me; imagine an ordinary page, divide it vertically into two, then spread a picture across the middle, with two blobs of text in two columns on top, and again at the bottom. Now how do you read this? Do you read the first blob, top left, then skip the picture and read the blob at bottom left - or do you read the top left, then go across the page to the right hand top blob, read that, and then go back to the bottom left, then the bottom right? See what I mean? You can imagine how lost I can manage to get on pages with multiple columns and multiple pics like in an encyclopaedia.
Especially authors dealing with historical subjects need to check and recheck their facts, and especially spelling. One such author who brought his work for me to sell on his behalf, chronicled the valiant exploits of a distaff military ancestor. Now what I know about matters military is dangerous - but I picked up mistakes in the spelling of an international incident, a renowned engineer, an iconic machine-gun as well as a batch of typos and one glaring factual faux pas - all in the space of half the book. I lost all confidence in any information he presented. To be sure, the author was very grateful to have these problems pointed out to him, but that should have happened before the book got into print. Another beautiful production, a quasi-scientific botanical work on a region that interested me greatly, was sent to me on publication and I started devouring the contents with great enjoyment. Much to my disappointment, lack of proofreading became all too evident within the first fifty pages, with some dozen or two mistakes being spotted and this spoilt the whole, otherwise very worthwhile effort, which represented years of work. When in doubt, get someone to proofread the thing, then get someone else, then ask your worst enemy, then your best friend - then pray that the printer doesn't make a hash of it. When all else fails, put your computer to work and ask MS Word to do a spell-check - trust me, it works wonders, though I must admit to the basic human failing of having the inability to spot my own typos, even if they are underlined in red by the programme.
As I get older and crankier, I frequently find myself in a quandary as to whether a word should be ending in -ize, or ise, such is the pervasiveness of the American word, both spoken and written, that one begins to wonder who has the etymological right of way in this and many other aberrant versions of common words. After all, what is correct, is merely a matter of opinion in the compilation of dictionaries. However, if spelling should not be an entirely arbitrary matter, open to the whims and vagaries of any who would put pen to paper, then surely a similar courtesy should be afforded to foreign languages. I am in full agreement with writers who insist that English doesn't have adequate words to express the nuances of words like weltschmerz, schadenfreude, zeitgeist, soupçon, raison d'être, cris de coeur, praia and a host of other choice, foreign mouthfuls that one can choose from; but then one should at least take the elementary precaution of checking the spelling. If an author doesn't have a dictionary of say, Amharic, Finno-Ugric, or Bulgarian - help is at hand - Google has an idiot's manual programme which will actually translate in a very rough-hewn way almost anything you enter into the search form, or give you the correct spelling thereof. Which does not mean you can go ahead with that typically British insouciance and permit your literary creation to state emphatically something idiotic like der Sonne scheint und die Mond strahlt, since some languages actually use gender-specific articles, and the sun is feminine while the moon is masculine to all good Germans, although the exact opposite applies in France and Spain, while the English have managed to neuter both heavenly bodies by some Anglo-Saxon alchemy. John Buchan, who happened to be one of my early favourite authors (though his corona has waned a little with the passing of decades), managed to imprint himself indelibly on my youthful brain with a supposedly German injunction uttered by his spy: 'Schnell, schnell, der Boot' in The Thirty-nine Steps.
Maps are a necessary adjunct to any book which deals with history, exploration, natural sciences, even biographies and a host of other subjects. A book with maps as endpapers is not to be despised, as long as the scale is adequate, and the legend is legible. A map, or multiples thereof loose in a pocket at the rear of the volume, is a risky business, as all too often they/it go AWOL, and the incautious purchaser ends up with a deficient work, of little value. This happens regularly to bookdealers, believe me. On the other hand, a map folded three times horizontally and eight times vertically unfolds into a huge and unwieldy thing requiring a double bed or a large dining-room table to be spread out properly. In addition it needs to be made of the flimsiest material so that all twenty-four thicknesses of it don't exceed the total thickness of the book, so as you unfold his diaphanous creation, you are greeted with the sweet, low sound of tearing paper, as the right angle at the hinge parts under the strain of your amateur ministrations. I've repaired dozens of maps with Japanese tissue on both sides - so I know all about it. On the other extreme, the canny publisher has shrunk his map to a mere fourfold size of the book, but in the process the font labelling the rivers, mountains and dorps has shrunk to about 2pt, which means that even with a microscope you cannot make out the letters between the fibres of the paper. I've tried that as well - promise.
Lastly, let us consider the crowning glory of the book, the illustrations. Finely crafted colour plates by virtuoso illustrators and artists will always enhance the look as well as the value of a book. From early woodcuts, to coppergravure and steel, on to the different lithographic techniques, many of which resulted in intricate and finely reproduced work (with the inevitable poor examples scattered among them); from simple sketches, cartoons and vignettes to elaborate hand-coloured plates - there was sure to be something that would delight and charm almost any discerning viewer in an illustrated volume - but alas, no longer. The advent of photography has obviously revolutionised printed illustrations. From the poor, grainy, black and white images, to remarkably fine sepia and collotype reproductions and on to the early colour photographs to spectacular modern photography as cameras and chemicals reached their zenith of development, right into the digital age, when computers can embellish, edit and indeed, create scenes for our edification. Why then is it seen fit to produce large, so called coffee-table books, consisting mainly of illustrative material with very little text to flesh out the pages, in which almost every page consists of a photo containing a large expanse of out-of-focus foreground and background, with about half of the actual subject matter (totalling maybe 5% of the surface of the picture) actually properly visible ? If any feature of a book is guaranteed to evoke page rage in me, this is it. This is not arty; this is not clever; this is ineptitude on the part of the photographer; this is sloth or carelessness on the part of the editor and publisher, and it is an abomination in my eyes.
There, I feel a lot better now that I have got all of that off my chest !