Wednesday, June 4, 2014

When the UVic Press was just a photocopier, stapler and a paper cutter...

Browsing in the stacks of one of my local university libraries a while back,  I discovered that the "academically-correct police" there had missed a few 'bad taste' errors from the past in their pogrom to get rid of unread books.

It was a massive three volume monograph from the University of Victoria (BC) Press -- about 200,000 words in total -- dating from the mid-1980s.

That is a big work by any standards - for an academic work or a commercial novel.

Interesting to me (and shocking to many) it was just three simple staple bound (aka saddle bound) volumes with soft paper 'selfcovers'.

Their text was laid out in small newspaper-sized type in a two column arrangement.

Each volume was 8.5 x 5.5 inches in size and 120 pages long.

(A successful staple bound book that long really requires a print shop grade folder, paper cutter  and stapler. And perhaps even the use of thin (45 pound weight) paper.)

Interestingly, because the text lines were so short as a result of the two column layout, I actually found it much easier to read with my aging and poor eyesight , despite the small font done up on a cheap offset press.

But then this has always been the secret of the daily newspaper.

Even the tiny type on cheap newsprint (and faintly printed in fast-drying ink at that because of the need to print 6 million copies in just hours) of the UK's massmarket newspapers of yesteryear were always easy to read .

Certainly a lot easier to read than the UK's current 'very well printed on very good paper' upmarket magazines like The Times Literary Supplement with their ultra wide columns of type.

I estimated the words on a few typical pages of this UVic book to arrival at a total of about 200,000 words for the three volume 'book'.

Each page was two columns 56 lines deep , with an average of six to seven words a line unjustified,  giving a page count of about 600 words , allowing for a few small subheadings and a few small line illustrations.

About 65,000 to 70,000 words for each little 'booklet' times three to get the total.

Now a commercial hardcover novel of about 65,000 words would be about two inches thick and a little heavy for children or older hands to hold up for long.

But these UVic booklets were only about an half inch thick and much lighter and actually easier to read, because each page-spread opens fully in staple-bound publications.

And the short lines of text make reading and comprehension a joy.

But could you get away with charging $29.95 Cdn for a novel in a simple staple-bound version ?

Of course not.

It isn't really greed from publishers, authors and bookstores that makes a $9.95 staple-bound version a non-starter.

Because past evidence across time and nations shows that cheap literature sell so many more copies that volume makes up for lower prices.

It is that almost all of us treat books less as cheap physical vessels holding valuable abstract enjoyment and information and more as objects to be displayed as proof of our intellectual worth.

The French were, as usual, of two minds on this point.

They led the world in designing books as expensive objects of beauty.

Ornate leather covers concealing coloured illustrations, hand pulled on a press by the famous artist himself - of beautiful naked women in acts of love.

But their works of the mind were often very short and inexpensive - merely of long nonfiction essay length or fictional novella length -  put out in cheap plain staple bound booklets with soft paper covers.

I like best their poetry chapbooks, letterpress printed in dense black ink biting deeply into the soft cream-colored laid textpaper, with attractive line illustrations and with an oversized deckled soft cover. Staple-bound or hand sewn.

These seem to combine the best of both ideas.

Today, I believe - and my own books will put into practise - that the multi-part publication and soft covered saddle-bound books of Charles Dickens' day are long overdue for a revival.

Its all thanks to the internet allowing readers to easily download a pre-imposed PDF and print it out on their own home computer and then fold (and maybe staple) it to assemble a book themselves -- in as many little 64 to 96 page booklets as their 'book' word length requires.

My books will be free, but commercial books would only require an online payment to receive an unique code to access your download.

But would professors get tenure if their 60,000 monograph was only available as an e-book or a staple bound multi part set ?

Rather than as a $95 hardcover printed up in only a few hundred copies to match its expected lifetime world sales ?

(If our dear old auntie only prints up a few hundred copies of the family history, we all treat it as a big joke.

But when the department head/ full professor of big research university does the same , he gets reverential reviews in all the world's top academic journals. Go figure ! )

Of course the tenure candidate would not get their wish - most professors on tenure committees merely say that they are left wing , progressive and pro the planet.

 But deep down they are as snobbish as the rest of us when it comes to expecting 'books' to be visible physical talismans rather than mere wrappers holding founts of knowledge or enjoyment.

So how did these UVic staple-bound books ever slip past the tenure committee and into existence ?

Back then new, small, poor universities didn't have the money to buy the kind of super expensive equipment that commercial book printing firms had.

The dozen copies of father's PhD for the University of Ottawa were all pounded out at the same time, on a big manual Underwood typewriter by my small mother.

 The copy on the top on regular paper and the others below on layers and layers of onion skin paper between carbon paper.

This sandwich was about a half inch thick and a real bugger to make corrections , insert end of page footnotes in foreign languages etc.

We found no electric typewriter had the strength to make an impression through 25 sheets of paper - mom had arms of a coal miner by the time the ordeal was done.

And just imagine the joy of trying to understand the obscure thought of Hegel off the faint smudged type on the 12th copy 'onion skin' bound book in some university library !

But once universities started feeling some real money, all this was out - verboten - left to third world universities - now the efforts of the book publishers of New York were the minimum acceptable for tenure consideration.

Tory taxpayers support this left wing professor hardcover book fetish.

Indeed they do - because they fully share this fetish.

But you don't have to - maybe because you are neither left nor right but rather a frugal earth-loving tree-hugging Green instead...

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