Size Matters

by Jonathan

January 2013

We have just designed a new book for our mate Doug Spahn (Eyes of Silence) so every time I cradle another novel in my hands I am keenly aware of all the decisions that went into crafting some tree pulp for my eyes: the cover image, maybe a photo shoot, the typeface, the leading, the chapter headings, the page numbering, etc. But reading Sunset Park by Paul Auster, I have become more obsessed with one aspect of book design than any other: size. The wonderful Mr Auster has packed the details of at least six lives into a 224 page book which is only 104mm wide x 172mm high. It’s an American edition, a Picador St Martin’s paperback, with the hugely enviable price of US$7.99- To think that I was delighted to pay just AU$9.90 for it in Elizabeth’s secondhand bookstore in Newtown! And no, it’s not some dusty relic from the last century; this book was published in May 2011. But the joy of the diminutive size – to my European and Australianised eyes at least – is that it fits beautifully in one hand, meaning you can easily hold your tea, or gin, with the other, and it doesn’t require some crazy double pillow stacking or bizarre head manipulation for a comfortable bedtime read.

So before I totally devoured the lives of Miles, Bing, Ellen, Alice, Morris, Mary-Lee et al I put Sunset Park aside and turned my attention to the pile of books on my bedside table. They were all vastly different sizes with the giant (ideas above its station?) prize going to the Booker Prize-winning The Finkler Question – a whopping 153mm x 234mm! This seems to be an agreed standard for new editions, as John Banville’s The Infinities is inflated to the same sheet size. On the other hand, an old Penguin, DH Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy published in 1960, is only a smidge bigger than Sunset Park at 110mm x 180mm, and a 1959 edition of Lucky Jim is 113mm x 181mm. So some desperate measuring and word-counting were in order. And that’s when I was really surprised…
Sunset Park is the smallest book I have read for a while but that doesn’t mean there are less words. The Infinities, although twice the size and with about a third more pages, has approximately 5,000 less words! The Tinkers, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is about a third bigger than Sunset Park but only has half the words. In fact, The Infinities page size is double that of Sunset Park (35,802 square millimetres to 17,888 sq. mm) but has 100 less words per page! By my estimation this meant that The Infinities could have been a 212 page book in an American size but instead it was 300 napkin-sized sheets. Seeing my old orange Penguins again I now long for the compact books of my youth, novels you could stuff inside a jacket pocket instead of carrying about a billboard advertisement. It also seems than size means you can charge more:  AU$32.99 for The Finkler Question versus $24.99 for Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning A Visit from the Goon Squad at Gleebooks.
I know it’s ludicrous to judge a book by its page-count or size, but I think all novels should be compact so we can relish them easily wherever we are. Surely fiction than needs to make an impact through its size must be lacking elsewhere? The knowledge that whole lives are squeezed, Tardis-like, into something that fits comfortably in one hand is delicious. Reference books, biographies with lots of images, and pictures books of course, can be whatever size they like, but Penguin knew what they were doing all those years ago. So may I formally launch my ‘Shrink My Literature (literally)’ campaign; more words are great and fat trilogies are a joy, but please keep the page size (and price) down.

Image(s): N/A

Size matters