Monday, April 25, 2005

How does presentation affect flavor?

posted by Todd T @ 12:23 PM

I posted this at alt.books.ghost-fiction in March, and I wonder what you think about the subject:

"You raise an interesting issue here: how does the format in which we read a work influence our reaction to it? Although I have not done scientific side-by-side study of this (in fact I can't because a second reading is different from a first anyhow), I think it matters a lot in my reading. I do react to the arrangement of stories within a book, or as a book, as John is talking about, but also these:

I find myself trying to read faster from an imposingly large book than from a smaller one, perhaps because I feel as though I'm not making much progress vs. the pages still to be read.
I can't hold a large book easily in bed, which is where I do 75% of my reading, so all of these books are read in a different environment than most others, and in some way this affects my concentration, mood, something. It seems to matter whether it is bright or dark outside, whether it is raining, whether I'm comfortable or not (say on a bus or subway).

In some way that is hard to describe, I get a different "feel" from stories in books with particularly small or large page margins, books that are heavy and substantial, books with very small or large fonts, books with lots of small illustrations or flourishes that are there just for visual appeal of the page, books with musty odors or new-glue smells. I would even say that the cover art I see every time I pick up the book affects my reading instrument in some small but real way.

None of these factors overwhelm the effect of the work itself, but they all do somehow affect precisely how much I enjoy it or get out of it, even how I interpret it.

Am I crazy? Am I just a poor reader? Is that laughter I'm hearing? Have I gone way off the po-mo deep end?

Assuming there's some such set of effects, how does one be sure that their reaction to a story is fair and appropriate?

- Todd T. "


At 9:55 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

I definitely get annoyed by bad book design. An extreme case in point is the Tartarus complete Aickman; I'm still putting off reading it, despite having plunked down lots of cash, because the volumes are too heavy to carry around easily, and the typography and printing are so poor that they're hard to read in anything short of broad daylight.

At the other extreme, I get a nice frisson of pleasure from a well-designed book (although, fuss-budget that I am, books where I wouldn't change a thing are quite rare). Unless I'm feeling particularly broke I'll usually spend extra for hardback or trade paperback.

But if my opinion of the design rubs off on the text, I'm not aware of it. For example, both the Montaigne and the Marquez were mass-market paperbacks (although the former was a Penguin Classic, and hence above bog-standard).

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Todd T said...

I too care about book design pros and cons, but here I'm thinking about the interaction between the physical item or surroundings and the transfer of the work to my brain.

It may be mostly a concentration issue. I seem to have such, as for example I cannot read for more than about an hour before needing to take a break. Possibly, normal people who can focus better do not notice all the peripheral stuff at all.

I think (but am not certain) that my overall reaction to a book is not changed substantially by these peripheral issues, but the experience is colored around the edges. And I say 'I think' because I don't know how to be sure.

You're certainly right about the unfortunate Aickman (and you don't even mention the typo problem in the first printing).

At 10:50 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

Just last week someone made fun of me for reading (the Montaigne) during heavy turbulence on a flight.

Like Army guys and sleep, I can read anywhere, and do it all day long.

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Matt said...

I think the Tartarus problems you cite are common to most of their editions (that I've seen, anyway).

Which is too bad, because they reprint some amazing stuff--all that Machen & other supernatural fiction of the time. Speaking of small-press niche marketing (or is that a pleonasm?), I've been collecting Ash-Tree Press like crazy lately. Much more in the "genteel ghost story" line than Tartarus, but some excellent stuff (E F Benson, H R Wakefield, and a host of other stodgy old men known only by their initials).

I am finishing COUNT ZERO today; I read it in the late 80s and decided it was time to revisit it. I'm surprised by how well it holds up as fiction, and how oddly similar to Steve Erickson (not the military fantasist) Gibson's prose is. Or was that some sort of 1980's zeitgeist?

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

The only other Tartarus I have is The Sound Of His Horn, the design of which is fine (although there are plenty of typos). The problem with the Aickman is that they tried to stuff way too much into two volumes, so the type is tiny and there's no margin. As a result, the lines are something like twice the normal length (in character count) and very little leading, which is just brutal to read. Plus, the paper's a bit grey.

Initial-guy ghost stories are more Todd's thing than mine, although that may change if I ever get around to reading the M.R. James collection that I picked up.

I've never read Erickson (actually, I'm not even sure I know who he is), but I also re-read Count Zero a few years ago, and thought it held up quite well--a bit more polished, and yet more moving, than Neuromancer. It stopped just short of being too cynical/nihilistic. I should probably check out his more recent stuff.

At 9:57 AM, Blogger Todd T said...

Tim is right - I'm an Ash Tree addict and dig a lot of those Jamesian and ghosty sub-sub-genres.

I also have eight Tartarus hardbacks and a trade paperback, and there are some others with small fonts and too many typos, but none quite combine the traits of the Aickmans. I wonder whether the Old Earth Aickman edition will ever materialize. Of course then we must decide whether to buy a reading copy of all the same work, having blown big bubbas on the Tartarus. Tartarus (for all of their admirable qualities) also kind of perturbed some of their loyal customers by adding a story to the 2nd edn. of their 'complete' Oliver Onions compilation. To be fair, the story was discovered between editions, but now those who went for the first edition are faced with a dilemma. Luckily for me, I was slow and got the 2nd as a result. If I had the 1st, I'd try to obtain a photocopy of the extra tale. I'm not quite as edition-conscious as many of the ghost fiction collectors are.

The small horror presses have these quirks. Arkham House occasionally diddled with the work, and quality of the work rose and fell, but then they left it in print for decades at the original price. Durtro and Ghost Story Press editions were not immediately loveable to everyone artistically - what is spooky to David Tibet is not universally spooky to all. The first Midnight House Donovan/Muddock collection had odd design and unfortunate colors. The Sarob Lisa Tuttle collection is in a font that my eyes simply cannot focus on, as though part of THE KING IN YELLOW and imbued with ill magical traits. Ash Tree really has not made a mis-step, although there are those who do not care for their former, fairly uniform and colorless jacket design.

I'll be interested to see what Tim thinks of old Monty. It is certainly possible that his stuff will strike you as period curiosities. They're well written, but the chills are the point and if they don't do it for you, then there's only the craftsmanship left. I wonder: which ghostly writer would be most to Tim's taste? I'll have to give that some thought.

At 11:33 AM, Anonymous Matt said...

I'll be interested to see what Tim thinks of M.R. James. For me, he's the summit of that tradition, and I could never get enough of his spooky old cathedrals and chapter houses.

I've not yet seen a Sarob Press edition. I agree in general with your statements about the other horror/dark fiction small presses, and will add that I've found dealing with Midnight House in general to be extremely irritating in terms of placing an order and having confidence that they will receive it or fill it.

I am about 3/4 of the way through Stoker's JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS, and concluded about 50 pages ago that DRACULA was the one Great Book that he had in him. Tedious, and full of strange contradictions and errors.

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

Having let Brian Aldiss talk me into reading The Last Man, I can testify that Mary Shelley is another one-book wonder. Man, that was dull (and primly Victorian).


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