Monthly Archives: April 2013

Sensual Pleasures: The Book as Physical Object [Part One: Nostalgia]

Heritage Books

Heritage Books. That phrase may mean something to those of you of a certain age, who like me can remember when Wonder Bread was health food (“Helps build strong bodies 12 ways!”). Back then there were Heritage Books, and we had a whole bookcase full of them.heritage books moll flanders

These weren’t just books, they were Books. All hardcover, of course, but there was more to them, much more. Each one had been carefully designed to be a beautiful and inviting embodiment of one classic work of literature. They had Size. And Weight.

Not that they were big for the sake of being big, like some giant, glossy offering that would work better as an actual coffee table than a reading experience. They were well balanced and easy to handle. Many were smaller than an 8 1/2 by 11 piece of paper, though they were usually quite thick (most classics are pretty long, after all).

They had substance. Just picking one up, feeling its solidity, you knew you were about to enjoy something wonderful.

Delicious Design

Unlike most hardcovers, they didn’t have dust jackets—they had slipcases. Holding that case in your hands, gently sliding the book out, was like opening a treasure chest, because you never knew quite what to expect, but you knew it was going to be special. The cover design, the endpapers, the illustrations, the very typeface had been specifically chosen to complement this one book, to present the author’s words to you as carefully as a master jeweler creates a setting for an exquisite gem. [And you knew all this because the people at Heritage Press would helpfully explain the choices to you, in the introduction or afterword or the “Sandglass” newsletter that my father always tucked inside the front cover.]

I only remember a few specifics. Picasso was commissioned to do the drawings for Lysistrata. The words on the spine of Moll Flanders were stamped in metal, but in copper (rathermrs-bennet helen sewell than the more usual gold) because copper tarnishes (or mellows with age, depending on your perspective), which seemed a good match for the lady’s career. Pride and Prejudice was perfectly illustrated with warm yet slightly acid sketches that poked more-or-less gentle fun at all the characters (by artist Helen Sewell).

Everything about a Heritage Book was designed to increase the pleasure of reading it. Sewn bindings (of course), thick, smooth paper with an easy-on-the-eyes creaminess, the entire volume a solid size and weight but never too big or too heavy.

Easy to handle. Lovely to touch. Sit down, it whispers. Open me. Spend some time. You won’t regret it.

5 Reasons You Should Be Reading Georgette Heyer

1. You wish Jane Austen had written more books.

rouget 2 regency women

If you are an Austen fan, you know that one of the chiefest pleasures of her books is rereading them. But that only goes so far, and at some point (probably right about the time you are trying to force yourself to yet again face Mansfield Park), you may want to branch out a bit. If only you could find something romantic (but not sentimental), with witty dialogue and interesting characters, all in a Regency setting. Why not give Georgette Heyer a try? No, of course her books aren’t exactly like Austen’s—nor should they be. But they have plenty of sparkle, humor, and romance. It’s rather like choosing between champagne and a champagne cocktail.

2. You’re a rom-com fan.

You know the drill—they meet cute, they don’t get along, circumstances force them to spend time together, and they keep fighting until—just when one of them realizes they’re in love—disaster happens, a disaster that somehow turns into a happy ending. With a good cast and a halfway-decent script, it’s a painless way to spend a couple of hours and five or ten dollars. Well, Georgette Heyer’s books have all the fun, but with much better dialogue. And they’re cheaper, too, on a per-hour basis.

3. You’ve been spending too much time lately reading literary fiction.

Why not take a break from the heavy, deep, and real to sample Georgette Heyer’s oeuvre? Trade the free-floating angst and existential crises of today for witty exchanges and foolish escapades among the rich and idle of two centuries ago—well-crafted prose that, light though it may be, still manages to thoroughly explore the mysteries of the human heart in all its absurd glory.

4. You’re into chick lit.

Georgette Heyer has it all: gossip, friendships, backstabbing, parties, wardrobe, romance, shopping. What’s not to like?

5. You have a sense of adventure.regency man

Georgette Heyer’s novels aren’t just ball gowns and banter. She manages to pack plenty of action into her plots. A quick survey of her stories reveals kidnappings, several duels, a couple of attempted murders, housebreaking, smuggling, a few shootings, insanity, a runaway hot air balloon, and the Battle of Waterloo. [I’m told that her account of the battle is so accurate that An Infamous Army has been used as a text at Sandhurst (the British military academy).]

So, where to start?

The most fun is probably The Grand Sophy, but you really can’t go too far wrong with any of her novels. I definitely recommend Arabella, Bath Tangle, Cousin Kate, Faro’s Daughter, The Foundling, Sprig Muslin, Sylvester (or The Wicked Uncle) and Venetia. My own favorite is Cotillion, but since it’s partly a self-parody, to really enjoy it you need to read a few of her other books first.