Cover to Cover

June 26, 2015

The search for knowledge is a crucial piece of humanity that traces back to the beginnings of man. Our ability to contain knowledge began as an oral tradition and slowly developed into readable texts, from ancient cave drawings to scrolls and, finally, to books. In the Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon claims: “We see then how far the monuments of wit and learning are more durable than the monuments of power or of the hands. For have not the verses of Homer continued twenty-five hundred years, or more, without the loss of a syllable or letter; during which time infinite palaces, temples, castles, cities, have been decayed and demolished?” He continues, “[S]o this excellent liquor of knowledge, whether it descend from divine inspiration, or spring from human sense, would soon perish and vanish to oblivion, if it were not preserved in books, traditions, conferences, and places appointed, as universities, colleges, and schools, for the receipt and comforting of the same.” The tradition of literature is as important and vital today as it has always been.

Henry David Thoreau also mentions the importance of books and their effect on knowledge in his journals. He wrote: “Spent the day in Cambridge Library. The Library a wilderness of books. The volumes of the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries, which lie so near on the shelf, are rarely opened, are effectually forgotten and not implied by our literature and newspapers. When I looked into Purchas’s Pilgrims, it affected me like looking into an impassable swamp, ten feet deep with sphagnum, where the monarchs of the forest, covered with mosses and stretched along the ground, were making haste to become peat. Those old books suggested a certain fertility, an Ohio soil, as if they were making a humus for new literatures to spring in. I heard the bellowing of bullfrogs and the hum of mosquitoes reverberating through the thick embossed covers when I had closed the book. Decayed literature makes the richest of all soils.” The idea of old and new that Thoreau addresses is important also. How do we continue a vital tradition in an ever-changing world?

The ability to create and market books has changed greatly over the past few centuries, and for this reason, books themselves have changed. What remains is a strong curiosity, demonstrated by an overly abundant market for reading material. Books are available for mass consumption at Costco and Target and Amazon (among many others). This is different from 200 years ago, say, when only a noble elite could read and maintain a library or afford a book. Nowadays, most people read and bookstores and libraries abound. How wonderful it is to be surrounded by books!

But it begs the question: What is next? Man will always have words; it is a definitive characteristic of our nature. However, despite that, do we at times take our abilities for granted? We write books like we drink water. We crave words. And sometimes, we drown among them. What is it we seek from literature? Are we in love with being human, celebrating our humanness by reading it and re-reading it? Are we caught up in dramas and entertainment for the betterment of mankind, of ourselves, of souls? Do we approach each book asking for a certain sort of enlightenment? We have amenities now that earlier generations did not have...we can buy a book a week if we want to (or a book a day). We have means and markets. We have tablets and e-readers, libraries and book clubs.

Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret C. Sullivan may offer some insight on the subject. Sullivan pairs images of book covers from the past two hundred years with a short description of the content, art form and a short statement on the era that created it. Beautifully crafted, this book focuses on the books of one author in order to demonstrate the dramatic transformation of books in general. In approximately two hundred years of print media, the artistic tastes have changed as well as the book market itself. Sullivan writes, “In Jane Austen's time, the entire bookmaking process was done by hand. Once a book was accepted for publication, the printing stage swung into action. Type was set manually from the author's handwritten manuscript, with the composer correcting spelling and punctuation errors while placing rows of metal letters into page-sized holders called galleys. Since printers rarely had enough type to set an entire book at once, the composition was done in batches. Multiple book pages were printed on a single sheet, called a signature, which was then folded and cut to form the leaves in a proper sequence.” One can see from this short description alone, humans spend a lot of time in an effort to transmit thought. We have dedicated a great amount of time in pursuing the written word. And an obvious result, technology has advanced and changed the way we consume literature today.

According to Jane Austen Cover to Cover, paperback readership began to soar in the 1960s. “All great inventions arise from necessity, and such is true of the paperback. The idea was the brainchild of Allen Lane, an editor at the Bodley Head, who was having a hard time finding a cheap, decent read at his local railway station.” Romance novels, for example, focused on paperbacks and as a result became wildly popular. As romance novels grew, so did readership in general and paperback novels solidified the market.

Jane Austen Cover to Cover also claims that in the 1980s, publishers began to package the books of Jane Austen (and one assumes many other classics) for the three following purposes: commercial, collectible, and classic. Books were now not only published, but the market had grown immense enough to incorporate a variety of types and uses for books. Publishers devised and grew their own markets. Sullivan continues, “The elegant 'classic' editions produced in the nineties and beyond found a sizeable audience of academics and scholarly readers eager for additional pages of notes and commentary on the life of this treasured author.” Entire societies have gained knowledge enough to read. We have a mass population that reads often enough to support many publishing companies and a variety of book markets. Is this success in itself?

As markets change and grow, they also begin to merge. Even more recently, books have been made into films. The book covers are then updated and reprinted in reference to the film, hitting two markets simultaneously. As one example of a merging market, Marvel Comics quietly entered the field of classic literature. Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, has been rewritten into a modern graphic novel: . The more markets we can engage in serious literature, the better. But do we lose something in letting the market define the package (and rewrite the text)? For purists, maybe. But for those who depend upon the transfer of ideas, maybe not.

Francis Bacon, it seems, would disagree. In the Advancement of Learning, he states, “[T]he great quantity of books maketh a show rather of superfluity than lack; which surcharge nevertheless is not to be remedied by making no more books, but by making more good books, which, as the serpent of Moses, mought devour the serpents of the enchanters.” Education and literature are inherently complex. So many factors affect the way we consume literature, and as a result, knowledge. Scanning through Sullivan's Jane Austen Cover to Cover offers a concise, lovely, quick historical portrait in order to examine where we have been, where we are, and where we might be headed.

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