Tearing up the rule book

Dog days. The traffic outside is light. The café in my workspace is closed for the summer break. People I want to talk to are away.

Dog days. The traffic outside is light. The café in my workspace is closed for the summer break. People I want to talk to are away. Commissions are becoming less urgent. Phone calls are rare, e-mails even more so. I indulge in displacement activity – tinkering with a website, paying some awesomely huge bills. I start thinking about getting out of town. Then – bam, bam, bam – who’s that at the door?

A bike messenger in full industrial leather and mandatory Darth Vader helmet hands me a stout parcel, takes my signature, and dematerialises. I hack through layers of cardboard, bubble wrap and rustly brown paper to the object within. Hell’s teeth – it’s the book!

I plunge into a filing cabinet and retrieve my contract. It’s dated two months short of three years ago, though meetings and discussions about the thing went back a lot further. There was a long research phase. Then a long writing phase, followed by a long re-writing phase. Then a seemingly endless proof-checking phase. And then a final phase of radio silence. Even though I’d seen the publication date in the catalogue, even though I’d been involved in negotiations over the launch party in September, even though I’m already contracted to write another book, and even though I’m no stranger to this publishing thing – somehow I still wasn’t ready for the thing to arrive.

It is very big. That’s the first thing I notice. Again, I knew it was going to be big, but in my small and cluttered room it seems almost unnaturally large. Perhaps this is because it’s an advance, hand-sewn copy. The machine-bound ones will be a little tighter, but no less heavy. What very physical, sensual objects books are, and how important weight and texture and smell are to them – the colour stock in this one gives off a wonderful odour of fresh emulsion paint when opened. Its 512 pages, 14 sections, 140 000 words, about a squillion pictures and drawings and a lot of design work translate into one mother of a book. To read it in bed would be to risk severe distortion of one’s internal organs.

The bookness of books is, of course, a giant confidence trick. We are taught to revere them as symbolic objects, and the consequence is that anything in hard covers – and a fair amount in paperback – is treated with a respect not accorded to other media. We hoard books, we are loath to throw them away, even if we have plenty that we don’t like or don’t rate or have never opened. On my various lightning visits to overseas cities, I tend to save weight by ripping out and taking with me only the absolutely relevant pages from the guidebooks. People are sometimes horrified at the thought of the vandalism involved. Hell, I say, it’s only information. And what use is an out-of-date guidebook anyway?

I once suggested to my multi-section Sunday newspaper editor that he should place a separate small cover price on each bit, and let people buy only the parts they actually want. Bad idea, he replied. Not enough people would buy, say, the arts section, so they’d be sure to close it down. Bundling all the bits together gave mutual support. But was I wrong? I can’t help noticing that the on-line versions of such newspapers – my own included – allow people to cherry-pick the bits they want in exactly the same way: they pay only for the time getting through to the appropriate section.

But that is because anything on a computer is treated very differently: it’s only information; it has no iconography. CD-ROMs have a habit of getting lost down the floorboards in a way that a great big heavy book does not. What we need is something in between.

So in a recent meeting with my publisher, I tried out this sectionalising approach again. As my gigantic book contained so many reasonably self-contained parts, why couldn’t we all make pots of money by slicing it up and selling each of the sections separately? He seemed almost persuaded. But not, he warned, until the mother volume had had its conventional sales run.

Now the hand-sewn copy is here, I take hold of a section at random to gauge its possibilities. Yes – if you rip out the slender wad of pages, and sling a paper cover round it, it would do very nicely as an independent publication alongside a dozen others from the same source. It is only information. My fingers tense, then relax. I can’t do it, and I won’t. Thousands of years of conditioning have kicked in. If I’ve produced a symbolic object, then there’s no way I am going to pull it to bits.

Hugh Pearman’s Contemporary World Architecture is published by Phaidon Press on 20 August.

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