What matters, the book or its contents?

800px-Harvard_college_-_annenberg_hallThe vast and labyrinthine libraries of Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA, have within their collections at least three books which are bound with human skin.

These types of volumes – though understandably rare today, given that they give right-thinking people the heebie-jeebies, were not unknown up to the 16th century. The practice even had a name – Anthropodermic Bibliopegy. The confessions of criminals were occasionally bound in the skin of the executed convict for example.

It’s the most extreme example I could muster of a point where the physical book itself, rather than its contents, becomes an object of interest. A more savoury example of course would be the historic books held in the treasures of the British Library – the illuminated medieval gospels, the original Beowulf manuscript and the rest. With these items the book itself is as important as the words with in it.

Whether it’s wondering at the wonderful illustrations, marvelling at the historic value of the work or indulging in a ghoulish fascination that the binding was once someone’s skin, we would look on books like these primarily as objects in their own right rather than holders if information.

Personally I’ve always considered that the content of a book is all which really matters to me. I’ve always bought paperbacks rather than hardbacks for example, because I’ve never understood why one would want to pay more to read the same thing.

I would never be the sort of person who would collect first editions or historic books – I’d rather have a nice new one where the print was clear and the pages didn’t smell musty. And, though I keep the books I’ve read, I do so because of what’s in them rather than what they look like or feel like.

Given all this I should be a great lover of ebooks. After all, what greater statement could there be that the physical book isn’t important and its content is king than to dispense with the book altogether? And I do like ebooks. But part of me still yearns for physical books too, and I buy many more of these than I do downloads.

I don’t value the book as an object so much as I value ‘books’. I like the feel of them, I find them easier to read for long periods than a screen, I like the way they can be handed around – which you can’t really do with downloads.

I can see why a special, beautiful or ancient book deserves to be in a museum. I might even go and take a look at it (except for the skin ones) but for me the point of the book, its beauty, its truth and its value, will always be what it contains.



Words worth

How important are words? Very! Don’t ask me, don’t ask writers generally – ask marketers, brand managers – they will tell you how powerful a word can be.

Here’s an example, from history, which illustrates just how important what you call something can turn out to be. The place where I live, Gloucestershire in the UK, used to be apple country – they made cider in these parts and cultivated apples in a seemingly infinite variety. Every country lane you turn down still, to this day, has a cider orchard in it full of ancient trees, their bent backs held up with wooden props like little old men with walking sticks.

Red_AppleAmong the many varieties of locally cultivated apples, now sadly all consigned to the pantry of history, was one which was considered particularly tasty and useful – yet you will not find it on the shelves of Asda and Walmart. Why not? you may ask. Well – the name of this sumptuous fruit ladies and gentlemen was the Hen’s Turd.

Mouth watering it may have been but you won’t find it in a hopper next to the Golden Delicious in your local hypermarket. Because, essentially, what the Hen’s Turd had was a branding problem.

It had clearly been named after what it looked like in a ‘say what you see’ kind of way – but when Farmer Giles came up with this label he obviously hadn’t been thinking through the long-term marketing strategy. So, sadly, the Hen’s Turd resides in our fruit bowls no longer.

The truth is that the Hen’s Turd didn’t die out because of how it tasted, which was nice, it died out because of words. Which is why we’ve ended up eating the Golden Delicious, which tastes like wood shavings dipped in citric acid.

And that, my friends, is how important words can be.

Words worth their weight

I’ve written before about economy in writing. I believe that, often, the way to go is to make each word count, rather than throwing a big mixed bag of them at the reader in the hope that some stick.

800px-Leonidas_King_of_the_SpartansSo here’s my favourite example of economical writing. It comes not from literature but from ancient history and the dry wit of the war machine which was Sparta.

In 346BC, the mighty Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, had used the power of his imperial armies to conquer most of the Greek territories and finally turned his attention to the Spartan city-state. He offered them a deal, they could avoid the devastation which would surely follow by surrendering and submitting to his rule. He sent them a letter:

“You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.”

The Spartans replied to this with a letter of their own. When Philip opened it he found it contained just a single word:


How ever many thousands of words they wrote, the Spartans could not have been more eloquent than that. Philip considered his options, maybe read over the letter from the Spartans again a few times, then avoided Sparta entirely, as did Alexander during his great empire building mission some years later.

That one word, ‘if’ is the first example of what has become known as a laconic reply – Laconia being the name of the lands around Sparta.

So I say again, you don’t need to say a lot to make an impact, you just need to say the right thing.

You’ll struggle to find a modern novelist who doesn’t weigh his or her words carefully I think, but I’ve been struck that some novelists who started out as poets seem the most inclined to write in this spare way. Example? James Dickey. He was already an American poet of some note when he wrote Deliverance. It’s a book I would recommend to you as it’s beautifully written. It has a prose style you might describe as sparse, it does the job wonderfully, but without adornment. It seems Dickey’s time as a poet had taught him to write not in a florid, showy way – but economically, like the Spartans.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.