The Ultimate Portable Reading Device

The ultimate (or so it seemed at the time) portable reading device was invented in about 1450 – the printed book. The Aldine books of the late fifteenth century were fine examples of the ability to cram large quantities of text into small and portable objects, aided by Griffo’s compact but elegant italics and Aldus Manutius’s fine presswork. Later, pocket Bibles printed on India paper achieved even greater compactness.

When Penguin appeared on the scene in 1935, not quite inventing the mass-market paperback but certainly raising it to new heights, the portability of their books was a major attraction. This continued even onto the sixties and seventies, with the typical whodunnit seldom exceeding a spine width of 2cm and often much nearer 1cm. Slowly, though, spine widths started to increase, led, it must be said, by publishers other than Penguin. The increasing bulk was not caused by longer books, although there were some authors around whose logorrhoea was in inverse proportion to their skill. Rather, the bulk was increased by publishers using thicker and thicker paper. Where once they might have used an 70gsm vol. 12 paper, giving a book of 240pp a spine of about 10mm, they might use a bloated 80gsm vol. 18 with a spine width of more than 17mm. Increase the extent (number of pages, if you’re a layman) and the volume of the paper further and you are looking at a book which is 5 or 6 cm thick. I have a 5cm-thick life of Prince Potemkin beside me as I write. This may fit in your handbag as long as you leave your purse behind; it won’t fit in your jacket or coat pocket, so a book which would have been an ideal read on a long train journey will be left behind and perhaps never read.

Roll on the age of the ebook reader and people are saying, ‘Wow this is so slim, much slimmer than the paperback I’ve been lugging around in my extra large briefcase!’ And the sad truth is that they’re right. The publishers have shot themselves in the foot, almost literally, because not only can you not cram most modern paperbacks in your pocket, you cannot fit many on a foot of bookshelf. This must have a disastrous effect on the profitability of bookshops which are already suffering from the competition from Amazon and the rise of the ebook reader. You could quite literally halve the floor space of the average bookshop if you halved the thickness of the paper, without any reduction in the stock held. Think of the savings in rent and business rates!

It is probably too late to save the printed book, but, please, fellow publishers, go back to printing on thinner paper!
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