It occurs to me that I’ve probably read more nonfiction since starting this blog than I have since I graduated college. Which is weird, because I read a lot of nonfiction as a kid. I had a complete set of the Peanuts encyclopedias (volume 9 was purple and about space!), a bunch of miscellaneous Usborne books, some DK Pocket editions (some of which are still in my library), The Big Book of Tell Me Why, etc. I still read more fiction than nonfiction, but it wasn’t as high a ratio as it is today.
Mulling over this change, the biggest conclusion I can draw is textbooks. They are the driest, least engaging nonfiction books I can think of off the top of my head. And we’re talking textbooks and editions from several years ago at the latest – my sister tells me that some of her new textbooks haven’t even been edited properly for grammatical mistakes. I don’t remember many errors like that in the textbooks I had, but I honestly can’t remember much about them.
Don’t get me wrong, I learned the material and not just for the tests. But aside from conveying information, there was nothing memorable about the books themselves. I guess you could see that as a good thing from some perspectives – that there’s nothing getting between you and the information – but that’s a flawed view at best. Any time information is being conveyed, whether it’s verbally, textually, or any other method, it is being altered. Whether it’s the emphasis placed on a particular word, the choice of vocabulary, or even the structure of the sentences and paragraphs, the author is leading the reader to look at this piece of information in a particular light – though they may not even realize what it is they’re doing.
Back to my point, most textbooks are boring. In fact, the books I remember enjoying were the “atypical textbooks.” That is to say, books that aren’t really textbooks. This includes the poetry and novels I read in Native American Literature as well as the books for Barbarians in History. Yes, my university offered a junior-level history course titled Barbarians in History, and it was absolutely wonderful. We talked about the big ones – Vikings, Huns, and Mongols – as well as less-publicized groups like the Vandals and Visigoths. There were three “textbooks” assigned for that class, and not a single one was your typical specialized encylopedia.
One was a translated account from a monk who had visited the court of the Mongols, another was a look at Viking life as seen through the finds at a specific archeological dig, and the last is a collected series of lectures about the fall of the Western Roman Empire. That third book, The Invasion of Europe by the Barbarians by J.B. Bury, was by far the best of the lot. It wasn’t cluttered by measurements notes from the dig, nor was it couched in language that I found difficult to understand even though my copy was translated into English. It was written in a factual, objective manner by someone who was an expert in his field – likely one of the first modern books to be so objective (originally published in 1928). The only complaint I personally had is that, as a book, the collected lectures lacked a conclusion. But the reasoning behind that is simple when you remind yourself that yes, this was just a series of lectures that were printed and bound for public consumption.
(I really should find out what happened to my copy of that book. Or I should get a new one. It’d be worth rereading now that I don’t have to write a report about it.)
Anyway, I generally haven’t read much nonfiction for myself, unrelated to classes and grades, in years. Sure, there’ve been some scattered volumes throughout, but those were about as frequent as my forays into other genres. And yet, there’s something about that bookstore at the Renaissance Faire that just seems to get me to buy nonfiction! First it was The Time-Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England, and then it was Cary Elwes’ As You Wish. Today it was The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston.
So, what was it that attracted me to this particular Book? To start with, I am a sucker for a well-designed book. And I don’t just mean a book made to look nice, with quality materials. I mean a book that’s been laid out and designed by someone who is as much a designer as I am, and who understands that there is so much more you can do with a physical product than pinpoints of light on a computer screen.
The design is apparent from the start as the book describes the elements of its makeup and layout from the cover in. It’s not on every single page, of course, as that would distract from the text, but when a new element is shown, there’s usually a descriptor alongside, just like the ones shown here.
Now, what is this Book about? It is, quite simply, an overview of the history that is behind every single book we read today. Houston discusses the materials, the methods of conveying text and images, and finally the actual physical shape and form in depth. And he does so in a manner that I found to be interesting and engaging, as opposed to dry and interminable. Of course, when you’ve got a quote from The Princess Bride snuck in there, I’m going to have a more positive opinion.
This book managed to hit so very many of my buttons – in a good way! I mean, we all know I love books in general and we’ve looked at the design. I think I’ve also made it clear that I do enjoy history as well, but that’s far from all. There’s also etymology (the origins of words), art, typography, and just a friendly and open way of writing. I found myself on multiple occasions hearkening back to recent reads like The Cat of Bubastes and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The Book is the kind of book that takes what you know, reminds you of what you’ve forgotten, and then builds off of that to take you to the next level of understanding how all these disaparate pieces fit together.
Now, it is not the lightest of reads, given the subject matter and the fact that it takes more attention and time than a simple fantasy adventure. But it does help that the last hundred pages or so (the total book comes in at 428) are reference material. Suggested readings, sources, index, you get the idea. So it has taken me a bit longer than usual to plow my way through. And, as you can tell, I was thinking about other books at the same time. Kind of like what happens when I reread Les Miserables. Except in that case my brain says “I’m having a great time but dear sweet gods above when will it end!?”
All in all, I did enjoy myself with The Book and found it quite educational and informative. At this point in time, I cannot imagine myself rereading it, but I am keeping it anyway. Design scores big with me. If this post wasn’t already over twelve hundred words in length, I’d probably talk about The Octopus Rises as well. But I’ve already digressed enough for one day.