“I bought an orange once when I was in Japan. It was wrapped in several layers of beautiful rice paper, and then placed into a little box. The box was an extraordinary piece of paper engineering that folded into itself so it closed without tape or string,” Zoe Sadokierski said.
Ms Sadokierski, an award-winning book designer and writer, studies the evolution of books in today’s digital age. In her talk On Reading With Our Hands, she explained how the physical form of a book is just as important as what is written on its pages.
“The thing about an orange is that it doesn’t need packaging. It already comes in a natural wrapper – its skin. It smells good and looks appealing.
“Opening the box and unwrapping the delicate layers, each one a slightly different texture, was a beautiful experience. It felt like Christmas.”
Ms Sadokierski used this experience as a metaphor for the material form of a book. “A book is perfect. It’s light and portable. It doesn’t require electricity or software updates.” Similarly to unwrapping the orange, the packaging of a book prepares readers for what they are about to experience.
“A publisher once teased me by saying you could wrap a good book in a brown paper and it would still sell. What he was trying to say is that a good book doesn’t need fancy packaging, it is already a perfect thing.”
She said e-books prove this. “We are buying a book as a text, opposed to a book as an object. ”
An e-book has no tangible form until it is displayed on a device. E-publishing, she said, renders book design largely irrelevant.
“So the teasing publisher was correct. A good book will sell, even in the digital equivalent of brown paper – a generic template.”
But there are several benefits to physical books, where we form a relationship with a material object.
“Reading a book is a tangible experience. It is a ritual and it delights your senses. There is something comforting in knowing that a book will never change.”
The packaging of a book prepares readers for what they are about to experience. Its shape and form tell part of its story. “A book says, someone cared enough about me to turn me into a thing.”
But what does the increasing use of e-books mean for the future of physical books? Publishing is a commercial enterprise with a heavy focus on sales statistics.
“We hear a lot about how print books are doing against e-books, or how independent publishers are doing against the big five publishers.” She said people are always asking how can we sell more? But Ms Sadokierski feels there is a more important question we should be asking. “How can we get people to read more books, or continue to read books at all?
“I think to keep people interested in reading books we need to foster a sense of ceremony around books and the enjoyment of reading. We need to make books and reading special enough, so that they have a future.”
Returning to the ceremony of unwrapping an orange, Ms Sadokierski reflected, “One of the things we’ve lost with e-books is that sense of specialness. With an e-reader, I’m not carrying around one orange, I’ve got the whole tray of oranges and if I’m reading online, I have access to the whole orchard.
“I can never just do one thing at a time. I don’t have time for ceremony or ritual. Holding my e-reader, I feel the weight of all the other books the thing contains, or may contain, waiting for me. And suddenly nothing feels special.
“Or maybe everything feels special. So the orange doesn’t need extra packaging, but the package creates a sense of ritual. It delights my senses. The design of a book puts me in a focused, receptive mood ready to appreciate the one thing in front of me.”