Material Remains

By Richard W H Bray

A small world fractured in the wake of an untimely death

Friday, 8 April 2016


There’s a new book shop in Key West. This is a good thing for so many reasons, but the one I keep settling on is that it offsets my sadness that one of my favourite bars shut down recently. 

It’s not a huge catalogue library of a bookshop. It’s small, well-formed, and stocked wisely. It smells of books and air conditioning. The building it’s in has some sort of remit that all the traders must be non-profit, so the money made goes to good causes. I’m not sure what good causes in particular, but the idea of selling books for a bad cause is ridiculous. I think the causes are arty and literary. I’ll ask next time. 

Anyway, I looked around and admired the paperbacks and hardbacks. American paperbacks seem cut from a different cloth than British ones. Their design sensibility seems more subdued. The Vintage imprint in particular produces beautiful paperbacks. Textured and malleable, giving a sense of both quality and convenience. The summer after I graduated high school, I set about a mission to collect as many of the Vintage releases of Faulkner’s novels I possibly could. Copperplate matte covers that looked like old photos of the South that had been lost in a forgotten attic. It was in part a form of penance, a promise to read the books I was *supposed* to have read for my final two years of before university.  

The new release hardcovers in the shop were enormous. I found my favourite book of 2015, All the Light We Cannot See, in its original, gargantuan, edition. 

But it was the paperbacks that drew me. It was those I pulled from the shelves and tables when curious, to read the backs and fan and flick the pages, careful not to bend the spine. I’ve always been somewhat embarrassed as a writer and book lover that I prefer paperbacks to hardcovers. Almost all of my favourite books, and I don’t necessarily just mean the stories held within, but actual books as physical objects, have been softcovers. I like their portability. Hardbacks demand reading be almost ceremonious, in a fixed point of the world, with a book to abandoned in its spot should the reader be forced to move. A paperback, and whatever world it holds within it, can be so easily brought along. 

All this is not to say I dislike hardbacks. I love them, and that sense of ceremony when reading one. That they stand for something more than just what’s inside - each one a monument, solid and stone-like, of the author’s accomplishment. I like that they age gracefully. My sense of pride and joy when I first opened a box full of the hardcovers of Salt & Old Vines (my first book) was only eclipsed by my disbelief that I achieved such a thing.

But it was when the paperbacks came, when it was a book you could pull out of a big jacket pocket and read on the tube, that’s when it all sank in. 

I selected two books, Delicious Foods and Americanah, both softcovers, and took them to the counter to check out. Both books came from the “New & Exciting Paperbacks” table in front of the fiction section. They had all seemed quite new and exciting. The lady at the till complimented my Red Sox hat and my choices. I complimented her bookshop, and told her how happy I was to see a new bookseller in Key West. She thanked me, and said they were delighted with the response they had had so far. I didn’t tell her I was a writer, and that I’d like to see my first novel on that “New & Exciting Paperbacks” table someday.

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