Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Old Books

I enjoy the whole process of reading a book. The cover, the smell, the font and the edition all add to the experience of reading as well as the worlds themselves. I think this why I am fascinated by all of the E-readers that are currently being produced, especially the Kindle which is beautifully packaged.

I can see the appeal of having one of these, you can hold a huge number of volumes in something the same size as a paperback and not just books, you can also subscribe to magazines and online publications. There are also things you can do with them that you can’t with books, such as searching the text for words or quotes. I have not used one of these, and maybe I am being very cynical, but despite all of the advantages I don’t think I would enjoy having one.

You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but sometimes the care taken over a book really adds to the experience of reading it. Vanessa Bell designed many of the covers for Virginia Woolf’s books and they really make the books stand out, you know that it is a Woolf book you have picked up.

This gets lost when you transfer over to an electronic book. I love reading old books and it is the smell and feel of these books that distinguishes them from modern books. ,The feel of the paper and the worn covers, not a sterile clean screen or the hint at the books past from the previous owner’s name written inside.
I have several books that date from the 1940’s and you can really feel the difference in paper quality due to the rationing of paper during the second world war. A reminder that reading was important to people even during a time when the whole country was at war.

I don’t know what Virginia and Leonard Woolf would have made of E-readers or blogs? For them, the need to be able to publish their own work drove them to set up the Hogarth Press. I hadn’t realised, until a visit to Sissinghurst Castle in Kent last year that the Hogarth Press was a manual press (I’m not sure what I thought it was!) and that Leonard and Virginia actually set the type themselves. You can see the press in a small exhibition in an old barn at Sissinghurst castle.

The process of setting type by hand is very labour intensive, which must have made the end result of the finished book all the more rewarding. I don’t know if Virginia would have enjoyed the immediacy that you get from publishing online. She was renowned for revising her work many times over to get them just right. Compare this to the modern online world where your thoughts are published immediately and (sometimes) spontaneously.

With all this in mind, I am going to try to read only old editions of Virginia Woolf’s books. Ideally I would love to be reading first edition Hogarth Press copies with Vanessa Bell woodcut dust jackets. Unfortunately these are both rare and expensive, so instead I have tried to track down editions that were published in Virginia Woolf’s lifetime and that her readers, the common readers, may have read.


  1. mate you have a very good way with words!

  2. An interesting thought here on what e-books could do to the world of publishing and it is not all bad!