Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Most Cuddled Book in the World

WRITING UPDATE: Ahem. My mother asked me to edit something she wrote so I'm working on that at the moment. I have a long, blissful, empty afternoon ahead which may see my main character actually leave the maternity ward. Once that's done, she's out of the novel, and it's bye-bye Rosie til the next draft, leaving me alone with Hannah. A fate worse than just sitting here drinking tea and ignoring my novel :)

The title for this post comes from Thud! by Terry Pratchett. The most cuddled book in the world was Where's My Cow? which Sam Vimes read to Young Sam every night.

I don't cuddle books myself (I have been known to wake up with a book on the pillow next to me if I fall asleep reading, though) but I do get attached to them. And I don't mean to the story or the characters - I mean to the actual, physical object.

It was a discussion about e-books that put this into my head. I should be a great candidate for an e-book reader - I like gadgets, I read a lot, I re-read books, and I comfort read. Even if I'm halfway through a brilliant new novel, I may wake up one morning and think 'No. Not today. Today I need Cold Comfort Farm.' (Everyone needs Cold Comfort Farm. Imagine Flann O'Brien was an English woman).

And when e-book readers get cheaper, and when there are more books available for them, I probably will buy one. They are very cool. But you'll have to prise my paper books out of my cold, dead hands (which made knowing how to vote on Nathan Bransford's poll this year very difficult).

Part of the reason why I am so attached to paper books is that I have noticed that I consider the 'trappings' of a book to be integral to the book itself. The cover, the typeface, the size of the print are all part of the story for me.

A few years ago, I found a copy of I Capture the Castle in a Women's Aid charity shop in Dundrum, on sale for one euro (or a mere 79 old p). I had never read it, but India Knight said it was her ultimate comfort read, and I am a big fan of the comfort read (on which, no doubt, more anon).

I Capture The Castle is a strange book. I'd classify it as YA rather than children's literature, as the protagonist is 17, and if the book has a central message, it may be summarised as Life's Not Fair and Love Equals Suffering. Also, to quote Yapping About YA, it is a coming of age novel and does involve a character dealing with issues beyond her maturity level (I swear, in spite of all this, it's a great comfort read. Don't take my word for it, read it!). The edition of it that I bought in the charity shop has an illustrated cover, which I think makes the book look far more childish than its contents actually are. I've trawled the net and can't find a photo of that cover - suffice it to say, I think it's a poor reflection of the contents, although Cassandra is drawn the way I imagine her.

Last year, I bought my aunt a copy of I Capture The Castle for Christmas. She's a voracious reader and a big proponent of the comfort read, and I thought it would be perfect for her. I was right. She loved it. And it occurred to me that I should buy a new copy for myself - Dodie Smith may no longer be with us, but her estate is, and since the book has given me so much joy it seems only fair that Ms. Smith (or her estate) should get something in return.

The edition I bought for my aunt had the cover that you see above, which I think is perfect. The model's arms are just plump enough to suggest how young the protagonist is (no offence, Cover Model, should you happen to read this - hi! - I mean 'plump' in the 'youthful, unlined and full of collagen' sense). Her pose suggests a level of abandon that often goes with first love (it looks like an unrealised swoon to me, actually), and the bluebells she's holding play a huge part in the story. I can probably guess the scene this cover is supposed to be taken from and it's quite a pivotal one. All in all, I approve. Damned good cover.

I hate it.

The right cover is the cover of the first edition of it that I ever owned. When I curl up with I Capture The Castle, I want the blue pencil-drawing. I want Cassandra pouting over her journal. I want the grey tower in the background. It is that simple. I want the font to be exactly as I remember it. I want the end of the lines and the pages to fall at the same points. If I had to turn the page when Stephen said 'Cassandra' by the fire on my first reading, then I bloody well want to turn a page there on my fiftieth reading. I can buy a new edition to support the author, no problem, but I want my old edition for reading, because that edition is The Book.

Well, until last night when I noticed there was mould on the old copy, so I have to buy a new one and read it. Hmph.

My point is (and many thanks to anyone who's still with me at this stage) that as a reader, I feel a lot more goes into the creation of a book than just the words. As a writer - as a writer who reads a lot about publishing, at any rate - I know that the author has no control over the cover, or the font, or any of the little things that matter to me so much. I'm okay with that as a writer, but as a reader, these things are important to me. And publishing houses spend a lot of money hiring people who are good at them, to make sure that every aspect of the experience complements what the writer has done. A great example of this is the font that was used for the UK edition of Sarah Rees Brennan's book, The Demon's Lexicon. The font is small, dark, and has little irregular-seeming angular serifs, which suggest darkness and spiders and ravens and secrets and old manuscripts and all manner of things that combine to enhance the darkness of the book's atmosphere.

I know that e-books come with cover designs, and I know that the fonts can be changed, but ultimately every reading experience will involve the same streamlined electronic object. Personally, I'm far more attached to my mp3 player than I am to any individual album or song on it, and I feel that if I ever own an e-book reader, I will still come back to paper books for the first reading of most novels, just to allow the novel a chance to create a full experience in my head using all of those elements that normal people probably don't obsess over in such a fashion. Essentially, I see e-book readers as an incredibly valuable and innovative back-up solution, and I know that when e-book readers take off, I will be one of those people who buys every book they love twice.


  1. Now I want to find the book you wrote about! Sounds so good--and I'm checking out the Yapping about YA link, too. Such a lovely post. You are so lyrical!

  2. Thanks, glad you liked it - and if I can get more people interested in I Capture the Castle, that's always good! It was made into a film a few years ago, which I haven't seen, although I love Bill Nighy and he's in it, so I really should.

    It's set in England between the wars and it's about a 17-year old girl who lives in a crumbling, broken-down castle with her famous-but-broke novelist father, wonderfully eccentric stepmother and two siblings. The author wrote it when she had just moved to America and was finding it hard to settle, and in some ways it's a very long love letter to England, but that definitely comes second to characters and plot - as it should!

    I just found Yapping about YA today and I really like it :)

  3. I knew I recognised that title, I've seen the movie (also, you've mentioned it various times before). It is very good.
    I would love to read the book as I adored the story!

    I agree with you on the eBook front, for me they will never replace the physical experience of a book.

  4. For some reason, I think I've read this book. I will have to look for it and see if my brain is on the ball. I do prefer a "real" book to the idea of curling up with an e-reader. But I can see where I'd love the e-reader: stuck at an airport or wherever and wanting a book to read ... easy peasy to download!

  5. The cover you describe - is Cassandra sort of sitting in a window in it, with a hill and a tower in the background? Drawn with a lot of lines - the kind that looks faintly reminsicent of a contour map? I think that's the edition I have in my parents' attic. If it's the one and if it's still there, you may have it as soon as I am allowed back into said attic (whenever that may be - it's full of builders and Off Limits at the moment).

  6. Charlotte, the cover I have sounds similar but that's not quite it. It's mostly blue, and Cassandra is in the foreground so she takes up most of the cover, and there is a hill and a tower in the background but she isn't at a window. She's also wearing a big, purple, 1980s style cardigan for some reason that escapes me.

    It's the Red Fox edition and the cover illustration is by Lee Stannard, if that helps.

    And I'd love to take that copy of your hands, but only if it's no trouble. Otherwise I will make do with the Vintage Classics Plump Arms Edition.

  7. I know how you feel! I've read I Capture The Castle lots of times over many years, and the cover I have is this one -

    Even though I know that the girl on this cover looks far too "modern-day" to be Cassandra in the 1930s, I would feel uncomfortable reading the novel with a different cover! My friend has a copy of the book with the actress from the film on the cover - it just feels wrong, somehow.

    The blue line-drawing you described sounds interesting though, I'd like to see that.

  8. I must scan it sometime, but my scanner and my laptop live in different houses.

    The girl on your edition has always reminded me a little of Keira Knightley :)


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