I had a book once (I think it was stolen from the library) and it was the most boring looking book I had ever laid eyes on. That may sound hard to believe when you think about all those antique books that contain poetry and really long Latin words, but there is something romantic about a book that has survived the years. At their core they’re just decorated card and paper bound together, but the time and care that has gone into creating them can’t be ignored.
I remember seeing a Lord of the Rings collection in an old second-hand book store when I was working in London. I thought it remarkable that this collection had managed to stay together all these years. Each book was bound in the same way. The hard covers seemed to have been wrapped in material and stained in different colours; green, red and blue. I spent a few minutes studying the colours and wondered what they would have looked like in their prime, on the shelf of a rich family somewhere in the City. Years of sunlight had drained a lot of the vibrancy from the dye, but I could tell that these books had been cared for. The owner of the shop had placed them in chronological order, with their spines facing out of the shop window. I doubt the shop keeper could employ this tactic with another books series. Publishers these days spend a lot of time designing (and not enough time considering) their covers before mass printing in my opinion.
I felt like applauding the owner of the shop for displaying this trilogy in such a way. The spine of the middle book was a faded red colour, with a black tree trunk embroidery down the spine. The branches of the tree spread out over the edges of the book, only to reappear on the spines of the books either side. I wondered if this red book could even exist alone, as its beauty was reliant on the others.
The base of the tree managed to root itself across the bottom of the trilogy books, and it rested just above the gold stitching that displayed the name of the publisher; I think I made out Harper Collins through the window I had been staring in to. The top of each spine carried its unique identifier in the form of a star for those who may not know what order to read the books in. All the stars bore the same gold thread as Harper Collins, but the third book was my favourite. I don’t know whether this was because the three stars sat so nicely at the top, or the fact that the branches that appeared on that spine had more swirls and curvy lines than the others. I’d be lying if I said I wanted to buy these books so I could get stuck in to a classic work of literature. I don’t think I could bring myself to touch them, even if I could afford to buy them. I would get them and leave them on my book shelf for everyone to admire; they were far too precious to risk spoiling the colour or making the pages dog-eared.
The stolen library book I used to use was not precious. I could understand why the second-hand Tolkien books were encased in dull colours, but I could not forgive this publisher for printing something in such a menacing shade of green. The book was encased in a plastic cover to protect it from damage, and it hurt the palms of my hands if I held it to read it. It was the size of a piece of paper, and I had no trouble opening it up and using my hands to make it a double spread. There was no chance this book was ever going to be returned to the library, but I didn’t dare remove the cover because it still did not belong to me. The front cover was a mess of words randomly placed on top of the green swampy colour. I couldn’t help but imagine some apprentice messing about on his computer and printing off random fonts, which he had then accidentally left on the photocopier when he started printing this book cover.
It was a book on typography and the contents were not appealing to me in the slightest. I even struggled to look at some of the designs. Each font had its own two-page spread with the alphabet equally divided across the two pages, adding to the rigid structure the book commanded from its reader. Even the prettier alphabets that had less symmetry and more rounded edges made me stand to attention. The repetitiveness of the alphabet and that fact that such lovely letters could be printed and stamped so brazenly and carelessly on the page made me detest the publishers, the printer, and even the library for enabling this act of vandalism.
Despite how uneasy the green cover and cheap plastic made me feel, I made a point of drawing out each letter as it was printed in the book. Every style was given a new lease of life thanks to my pencil and paper; and each letter was given the attention that only a bored 14-year-old could devote to it when it’s not quite bedtime yet. I got a lot of satisfaction from breathing life into these characters, and I loved imagining what era they were from and what they were used for. I could see the strong ‘ye olde’ type printed on the signs of taverns and inns in the middle of large towns; buildings so grey and dull they were only distinguishable from the rest of the dirty, crowded street by the drunks and the board hanging above the door outside. Then there was the elegant ‘false free hand’ style, which I Imagined some depressed European noble woman using when she was writing letters to her secret lover. It was all very wonderful.
When I had finished my copying, and felt a certain affinity with a style, I started to break away from the repetition of the alphabet and create some words. I began with my full name in ‘Vivaldi’, before writing it again in ‘Gothic’, ‘Script’, and then some other pretentious style of calligraphy that allowed my pencil to glide across the paper effortlessly. Eventually I ended up with multiple sheets of paper with my name repeated again and again. To this day I still write my name out in different sizes and styles. Sometimes the pen barley touches the page when I write it, other times it forces the letters to be so bold that they indent the page and I spend the next three meetings trying to stop my notes from falling into the paper pot-hole I created several pages ago.
It was only when a colleague commented on my habit that I realised why I had devoted so much time to that ugly book in the first place. Each ‘Arabella Halley’ was trying to say the same words Sylvia Plath had declared all those years ago.
‘I am, I am, I am’.