Browsing for Books: Why we buy the best

I spent the holiday season in eastern Canada and the US this year and found some excellent bookstores. Barnes and Noble in Burlington, Vermont, is one of my favourites, but I also visited the original and quite wonderful Borders bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Bookstores and libraries are meant to be browsed slowly and carefully (or erratically) following our instincts and random thoughts. Titles appeal to us, covers attract.

A book has only a few seconds to catch our eye. We might be attracted to it because of the size, cover, the title, or the author but if none of those attracts us we're off to look at other books. The contents of the book might be fascinating but if we're not compelled to open it we'll never know. We see a book, pick it up, look at the front cover, then the back cover; only after that will we open it.

We may buy a book just for the content. It may be a business book or a computer manual and we know that we need the solutions it offers. However, in most cases the physical qualities of a book have a great effect on whether we buy it.

I'm fond of poetry books which are well designed and well written. We at Spotted Cow Press have received a lot of positive comments on the poetry books we have published, including Beneath the Horse's Eye, ICE: new writing on hockey, and, most recently, Getting to Know You. These books are not standard sized volumes; each has been designed with great care and attention.

I'm very excited about two other poetry books this holiday season. I found Grayscale by David Huddle (or perhaps it found me) at the Barnes & Noble store in Burlington, Vermont, just before Christmas. I now want to read Huddle's other work and to investigate other books by Louisiana State University Press. I was also given an autographed copy of Michael Ondaatje's the Cinnamon Peeler from my son for Christmas. Both books combine qualities of design and writing which make them favourites in my collection.

Quality of design is important in every facet of our lives. The public demands books, automobiles, chairs, buildings, websites and cities that are well designed. Excellence is the rule, not the exception. The words in a book may be well written, the engine in a car may be the best on the market, and a house may have wonderful plumbing: but if they are not well designed and attractive no one will buy any of these products. Furthermore, no one really wants to live with anything that's poorly designed or unattractive. Mother Nature does wonders with form and function. Why can't we?

My New Year's message to you is:

  • If you are a publisher, publish books that you will be proud of, both in terms of content and design. Remember that they will last a lot longer than you do.
  • If you are a buyer of books buy those that look great on your desk and on your shelves, books that feel good in your hand. Buy books that you will be proud to pass on to your children or grandchildren. Encourage publishers and authors who care about design and quality. Leave the junk on the shelves.
  • If you are a bookseller tell people about the finest books that you have. Help your clients buy the books that will give pleasure for years and years (and, yes, I know that most of you do this already).
  • If you are a teacher of literature, consider some new books this year. Find a new author or perhaps a new publisher, and, above all, use books that your students won't want to sell at the end of the year.
  • If you are a librarian, you're already doing a fine job, so have a great year.

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