Diminutive Books I Have Loved

August 19, 2019 at 4:20 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Once upon a time…

I was on a book hunting excursion at the Recycled Bookstore in Denton, Texas. That night I purchased and read a book by Paul Collins called Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. I loved every minute of it and proceeded to hunt down everything the man had ever written. When pressed, I will tell people this is my *favorite* book. As a book lover, it hurts me to choose just one, so I must admit I don’t even know if this is an accurate proclamation. But it is the one I claim.

Later, I would get a job at Half Price Books and not only re-read this gem, but purchase any copies that came into the store. I’ve given several copies away, I think I own a few still, the one I will always keep is the polypropylene covered first edition I bought in Denton. Of all the parts of the book, one quote regarding dust jackets and marketing is the one that has always stuck with me, it’s something I have even told other booksellers when training them:

“Woe and alas to any who transgresses these laws. A number of reviewers railed against ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ because it used the diminutive hardcover size and muted color scheme of, say, an Annie Dillard book–thus cruelly tricking readers of Serious Literature into *buying crap*. Not to be outdone, the Harvard University Press issued Walter Benjamin’s opus ‘The Arcades Project’ with gigantic raised metallic lettering. One can only imagine the disgust of blowhard fiftysomethings in bomber jackets as they slowly realised that the project they were reading about was a cultural analysis of 19th century Parisian bourgeoisie–and not, say, a tale involving renegade Russian scientists and a mad general aboard a nuclear submarine.” 

I am a sucker for diminutively sized hardback books with matte finished covers, especially if they are about books or nature. Case and Point: the hardback edition of Sixpence House is 5.7 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches in size. It isn’t small per se, but it is definitely smaller than your typical contemporary New York Times bestselling fiction, like Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, for instance, which is 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches. Or, if your flavor is more sci-fi/fantasy, Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings hardcover stands at 6.4 x 2 x 9.6 inches. 8.6 inches to 9.6 inches is a meaningful jump in the publishing world. It tells you something about what is lurking inside those beautiful, beautiful pages.

Imagine how much more significant a leap from 9.6 inches down to 7.3 inches, which is the height of the hardcover edition of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. I plucked this book up sometime before I separated from my ex-husband. I read it just a month before I finally said enough was enough. I remember reading it and craving the calm of being bedridden and having nothing to do except think and watch a snail creep around the house. I was aware that it was probably ridiculously unhealthy – to crave someone else’s pain, but I was very much exhausted of my own. Much relief comes from evicting an abusive drunk from your home, but before you’re free it’s nice to find comfort in books like this one. I’d like to re-read it again, and soon, so I can appreciate it more fully for what it is rather than using it to hide from what it isn’t.

I’m in a good place now, much healing has occurred over the last few years, but I still occasionally crave tiny and textured books. Keeping an eye out for calming and similar reading experiences, and knowing what I know about book covers, imagine my glee when I discovered Grayson by Lynne Cox.

One of the most lovely qualities of such books is that they can be read in one sitting by nearly any audience, but they rarely talk down to the reader and are often articulate and well-researched. These are the books written by amateur observers – remember the Latin root for amateur is amo, “I love.” An amateur is not someone who is less competent, as the connotation has evolved, but someone who has learned something for the sheer passion of it. They didn’t study for a grade, they aren’t necessarily doing it for their job, instead it is their passionate hobby. It is what they pursue at the end of the day when their bones are tired and their eyelids weak.

Lynne Cox loved to swim in the ocean. She swam every day for miles. I read about her swimming habits and am in awe. Several times I looked at my fiancé and said, “I would have drowned.” I definitely would have probably choked on the grunion when it slithered into my mouth, and then drowned. But Lynne Cox didn’t drown the day a baby whale found her during her morning swim. In fact, she swam and tread water for hours so she could help him find his mama. She didn’t go back to shore when her lungs were burning and her body freezing, because he would have beached himself and died. Lynne Cox loves the open water and the beach and you can experience how deep this love goes when you read about just one morning of her whole life. So much quality is packed into 150 pages: quality time (my love language), quality writing, rich and genuine details about sea creatures off the coast of California. I loved every second of this darling book and I’m grateful Cox chose to share it with the world.

This experience, to me, defines the genre of diminutive books. They aren’t separated out in any particular way in any bookstore I’ve ever patronized (again, I’m using the less commonly used definition here: “frequently shop”), but they definitely reside in the same file folder in my brain… and yes, my brain is actually a series of files and folders (and boxes and “gently raining post-it notes”) I spend hours sorting through. The books, and an assortment of others, all belong in the same place in my mind – not just belong in the same place, but belong to each other, I think.

Each one is a small nod of knowing to another, whether they are aware of it or not, guiding people ever so tenderly down a cobblestone path lit by fireflies and dreams…

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“Bad” Habits and Edna

January 25, 2012 at 11:34 pm (In So Many Words, Reviews) (, , , , , , , , , )

I have a really bad habit, that I have no intention of breaking, of judging books at a glance, by their cover.  This habit our parents and grandparents warned us against, is justified to me by two things: my marketing degree and a blurb Paul Collins wrote in his book Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books.

Regardless of that justification, it has led me to some horrible mistakes (I thought Rudolf Steiner’s Festival series was going to inform me of the historical significance and establishment of festivals, not be metaphysical ravings of his take on religion butchered by an editor) but also to many happy mistakes.

Directly, it led me to Tanya Egan Gibson’s (Yes, I have a writer crush on her right now, forgive me) How to Buy a Love of Reading, whose cover is amazing, but what’s inside is unexpectedly ten times better.  Indirectly, I have discovered the delightful Edna St. Vincent Millay, and that story is a little more intricate.

You see, I once belonged to an online book club.  It was lovely place that I adored, where as a group, we read lots of British things.  We had fabulous nicknames (I was Lady Klemm of Deasa Manor) and were only required to read the selections and maintain our character.  At first… later there were a whole host of requirements, like reading and participating more each year than you did the last and agreeing with the admin of the group on every particular.  I was kicked out- “expunged” the admin liked to call it – indirectly for getting pregnant and having a child, directly for knowing the proper definitions of literary terms.

In this group, the Mitford Sisters were often referenced, Nancy the most often for her Pursuit of Love.  Browsing my favorite bookstore one day, I saw a book which I presumed was by Nancy Mitford, but only at a quick glance, and impulsively added it to my stack of purchases.  I took it home without further survey.

You will laugh when I reveal that instead of Nancy Mitford, I had grabbed a book by… wait for it….

Nancy Milford,

but didn’t realize this until months later as I was reading through my TBR pile, something every voracious reader has stashed about the house and never seems to diminish no matter how quickly you pluck through it.

Alas! It was a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford.  Well, who is this?  I asked myself.  I can’t read a biography on a person without reading their work first.  I want to have a feel for the quotes, I want to understand their mood they were in while writing my favorite piece, and I can’t get the full picture without having a favorite piece!

So, back to the bookstore I went and found myself a hardback of Edna’s poems, a collected works.  It’s been heavenly.  Reading her poetry has made for some of the sweetest moments with my baby.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Late at night, when she’s teething and can’t sleep, we rock in the glider and in the lamplight of my library I whisper lines from Edna.  When the kiddo is at her crankiest, she sometimes crawls into the chair ahead of me and points to the white spine, she is aware that she is soothed by the rhythm of these poems.  When it’s raining, like today, and we’re feeling scratchy and feverish, all the singing and hot tea in the world is no match in comparison to the calm that is offered by reading Edna aloud.

Poetry is not something I read often; it’s not my “go to” genre.  But I appreciate it, usually the sarcastic and simple like William Carlos Williams, a pre-teen favorite of mine. Edna St.Vincent Millay has changed that for me, I think.  I’m prepared to seek out more poetry in the future, especially as I raise this kid, my beautiful daughter, in hopefully the most literary household anyone has ever seen.

Buy Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Work Here

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