A publisher was once left speechless (which sounds improbable, but it can happen) when asked: "Why don't you publish only best-sellers?" A very good question indeed and I thought of it when one of my close relatives asked me, looking at my new bookshelves, "Why don't they make books in a uniform format?"
Standing in front of a bookshelf was the right place to pose such a question, as it is essentially one that concerns place, or rather space. Any book owner who ever systematically organized his books on shelves knows how frustrating it is to discover that there are never enough books of the same format to fill one shelf, and to cope with the fact that it is difficult to balance books that are laying down on top of a row of books that are standing up.
The answer to the question that was posed seems to be self-evident: The book as a product is of a uniform nature - you've seen one, you've seen them all - pages, bindings, cover, spine. But each book has its own personality, reflecting the author and the publisher, and hence, it also has its own size.
The roving eye and the organizing hand of the book owner may long sometimes for a kind of "equalizer" - a word which, in slang, may mean a weapon, usually a gun, which makes unequal opponents even - which will "cut" all the books down to one size. The mind tends to forget that "the great equalizer" is a euphemism for death, which indeed makes all of us equal.
But then the eye roves to the left (or right) and encounters the shelves with the CDs. The CD is a product that closely resembles a book: Both have a content of a spiritually uplifting nature, packaged into a tangible form that is destined to give pleasure to the user - but all CDs are of virtually the same shape and size! And so were the records which existed before them (admittedly of three sizes, the 33-and-a-third, the 45s and the 78s, according to the number of revolutions per minute). Why is it that such a phenomenon, so natural with music, is such an anomaly in connection with books?
I assume that the reason for this situation is that, in the case of personal enjoyment of music at home, the technology was first on the scene. In the past, music lovers either played music themselves at home with and for their friends or attended public concerts. The technological invention of the gramophone - and the further development of registering and playing back the digital sound - created the product, and the inventors dictated its shape and size, compatible with the technological demands.
But in the world of books, the technology was developed long after the product was created. This made production easier, but the book, in its many shapes and formats, did not "dream" of adhering to technological demands.
Bunch of pages
Suetonius writes that Julius Caesar was the first to use the book in the shape we know today - as a bunch of pages, one following the other. That was in the first century B.C.E., when his colleagues, the other consuls, were still sending each other letters in the form of scrolls. It took the codex another 400 years or so to become the preferred form of the book.
Caesar probably took a page of paper and folded it once, creating the "folio" size (a book whose size exceeds 30 cm. in height). Theophil Gautier wrote that that was the most convenient size for a book that one can sit upon. Another fold of the folio created the "quarto" size, and yet another created the "octavo" size, the most popular format of the book until this very day. The exact size of each format varied, as there were times when each book owner was binding his or her own books, and could thus make them fit his or her shelves.
Prayer books and scholarly volumes were traditionally big and impressive in their size. The average reader, on the other hand, preferred a smaller book that would fit into his hand or her pocket. That was the ingenious marketing ploy of Aldus Mantius of Venice, whose octavo editions of classic literature were immensely popular in the 16th century.
Folding a sheet of paper into 12 created the duodecimo format, produced by Elzevir, scorned by the 16th-century scholars who favored large volumes. The technology of printing and binding enabled book lovers to create many variations of size within a few basic formats. It fostered variety. It did not enforce uniformity.
But this variety was not popular with all.
Alberto Manguel writes in his "History of Reading" that the French king Francois the First ordered his printers to adhere strictly to using a few accepted sizes of paper in producing their books. Probably even he encountered difficulties in arranging his various royal books on his royal shelves.
But what would be the use of books were they all to be of one size? The eye would glide, bored and careless, over them.
Samuel Beckett writes in his "Waiting for Godot" that "habit is a great deadener" (in French, he uses the word "sourdine"). I have this book in my library, in three various sizes of octavo.
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