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WHEN BOOKS WERE BOOKS

Alan Bennett in the London Review of Books (July 28th) writes on the difficulty of presenting on stage a convincing library, library in this case meaning not the august municipal public institution, such as Armley Public Library in Leeds where Bennett says he was educated as much as at school, but a private collection of books, “someone’s working library”.

“Books and bookcases cropping up in stuff that I’ve written means that they have to be reproduced on stage or on film. This isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. A designer will either present you with shelves lined with gilt-tooled library sets, the sort of clubland books one can rent by the yard as decor, or he or she will send out for some junk books from the nearest second-hand bookshop and think that those will do. Another short cut is to order in a cargo of remaindered books so that you end up with a shelf so garish and lacking in character it bears about as much of a relationship to literature as a caravan site does to architecture. A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot.”

This is all very true, but the problem of constructing one’s own “library” at home is equally difficult, not the buying of the books but the accommodation and ordering of them on the shelves. Forty years ago Penguin and Pelican paperbacks were a standard 180mm by 110mm. Then the publishers discovered the marketing possibilities of various other sizes and looks. So-called B format, in which glamorous fiction brands like Picador (and its many imitators) began to appear, were, officially, 198mm by 129mm. My old Picadors are in fact only 196mm, but perhaps they have shrunk over the years. And then, as the children of the 60s took over the publishing industry, edging out the decent and disciplined chaps who’d had a good war and believed in doing things the way they’d always been done, a book could suddenly be any size whatsoever.

But if a book can be any size, what height should a bookshelf be? Should my old Penguins be shelved separately from my slightly less old Picadors? This would indeed economise on space by allowing the construction of individual shelves of differing height as part of the bookshelf ensemble. But what then about classification? By alphabetical order of author, of course; by subject perhaps (but that way madness lies); but by height? Surely not. And can I stack horizontally as well as vertically? What are the rules here? Must I keep my DVDs in a separate piece of furniture?

French, German and Spanish publishers never abandoned the old standard size for popular paperbacks for the fleshpots of B-format glitz. (Consequently, their products have always remained much cheaper.) These neat little 180mm by 110mm artefacts have never gone out of fashion and are as handy and portable as ... well, as a Kindle, except slightly more so. The continental ones are not of course called paperbacks but pocket books ‑ livres de poche, Taschenbücher, libros de bolsilla, and, yes, they can still be shoved comfortably into your pocket. If you want to attract stares on the train, try taking them out in front of all the young folk and intently texting into them.

 

17/08/11