What Do You Want in a Book?

We all have our druthers.

As a book lover, I have a list of what I’d like in the books I read. Not content—though I care about that in another context—; I’m talking layout, format, design.

I ask you: what do you want in a book?

1. E-book or print? Already it’s an old question, but a necessary starting point. I like my books incarnated in paper and ink. And, really, isn’t an e-book a disembodied book? But the benefits of e-books are many. My favorite reasons to use a Kindle: the availability of out-of-print books, often free; a light way to carry 96 books onto the airplane; the note-taking abilities. I use my Kindle in church now, because I can put notes and quotes from the sermon right on my Kindle.

2. Hardcover or paperback? If a book was available in both, at the same cost, which one would you pick? I like hardcovers for books I want to hand down to my children, but since I often read in bed, I find the paperback more comfortable. With the hardcover you have an the additional question of the dust jacket. I prefer the cover of the hardback book to be the same design as the dust jacket, so if when the dust jacket gets ripped/worn/coffee-stained, you still have an attractive book. 

3. If paperback, mass-market or trade? I might as well confess that I only injected this question to vent my hatred of the mass-market paperback book. Those squatty loathsome 4″x7″ books with print crammed up the edge of the page. On the other hand, I love me a trade paperback, the larger-sized book that is often the same size as the hardcover.  Mass-market paperbacks are hard on the eyes, but they are also hard on the soul. Reading a steady diet of mmp’s will transform you into a squinty-eyed, miserable wretch. There is no margin, and we all know that margin is an essential component of life.

4. Cover: photo-based, typographic, or black and white?  A good photograph on a cover magnetizes me. You can peruse 90 book covers here, particularly if you want to explore what works and what doesn’t. Designing a cover takes talent and skill, as any cover of a self-published book will demonstrate.

5. Chapters: numbers or names? Since I’ve already established my QUIRKY credentials, I’ll put it all out there. I love the stuff of chapter divisions. When an author is clever, when she has clearly invested time and thought into the naming of a chapter, I appreciate it. When he adds a quote, especially if I need to figure out how it relates to the chapter, I love it. And for the win? The naming of *sections* within the chapter. Oh, yes, that makes me happy. Connie Willis, a living author, used this technique in her hilarious To Say Nothing of the Dog. 

6. Illustrations: none, some, mostly? Let’s restrict this discussion to adult books; illustrations are children’s books. Photos, pen and ink drawings, and watercolors can add to the reading experience. Unless they are cheesy. If the book is fiction, I’d rather keep my mental picture of the protagonist unsullied by a drawing. But a cottage, field, road, wood, or an object relative to the text is fine.

7. Author photo, bio? Yes, please! I want to see who wrote this book. Do you find it unsettling—a tad disorienting—when you have a picture of the author in your head which is inordinately different from the real thing? I pictured Malcolm Gladwell as the brother of Alistair Cooke, a white-haired, well-suited Anglo Saxon gentleman. Ha, ha! And I’m curious to know what the author thinks is noteworthy enough to include in a short paragraph. I found N.D. Wilson’s bio fun. “because if I have to write it, I refuse to do so in the third person.”

8. Index? I came to love indexes/indices late in life. Browsing a well-considered index is the perfect getting-to-know-you technique if you and the book are on a blind date. One of the biggest guffaws in my life was when I read Maya Angelou in the index of a book I wouldn’t suspect would speak to/about Maya Angelou. Page 342. The book had 339 pages.

9. Map? Cookbooks are perhaps the only book that would not benefit from a map. Or an algebra text. But I love maps. If a book were a glass of wine, the map would provide the perfect finish. Maps, genealogies, timelines…they make it better.

10. Typeface/font? How do you want your words to look? I’m not devoted to one particular font, but I love the g in Baskerville (see image). And I get a thrill reading that penultimate page in a book which announces, “This book was set in {   } font.” It’s more proof that someone in the publishing world cares. Simon Garfield snickers in The 8 Worst Fonts in the World. The Cracked Guide to Fonts snickers too. What font do you prefer to read?


Addendum: Quote from C.S. Lewis (HT Di)

To enjoy a book like that thoroughly I find I have to treat it as a sort of hobby and set about it seriously. I begin by making a map on one of the end leafs: then I put in a genealogical tree or two. Then I put a running headline at the top of each page: finally I index at the end all the passages I have for any reason underlined. I often wonder – considering how people enjoy themselves developing photos or making scrapbooks – why so few people make a hobby of their reading in this way. Many an otherwise dull book which I had to read have I enjoyed in this way, with a fine-nibbed pen in my hand: one is making something all the time and a book so read acquires the charm of a toy without losing that of a book.


5 thoughts on “What Do You Want in a Book?

  1. We have very similar tastes. I love my Kindle for taking lots of books in my handbag, but I can’t use it for, say, books that I want to flip back and forth in–say, to look at the map in the front of the book. Or books that I want to highlight a bunch of stuff in so I can go back and refer to the highlighted parts. I know I can underline in my Kindle, but it’s not the same! I also prefer trade paperbacks. I used to be a hardcover snob, but I have learned to appreciate paperbacks for some things. 

  2. My tastes are also very similar to yours! Trade paperbacks are my very favorites. There are two series I read – fantasy – that are only available in mass market pb, and while I enjoy reading the stories, the books tick me off. There is no comfortable way to hold those books without breaking the spine!I also love well-titled chapters. I’m reading the third Percy Jackson and the Olympians book aloud to my boys, and the chapter titles are one of the best things about Riordan’s series! This morning’s chapter was “I Go Snowboarding with a Pig.” :)Thanks for the link to the book covers – I’m clicking over to drool now!Carrie

  3. So glad you wrote this! I right there with you except for the Kindle. I’ve not made that move yet. I still like to hold a real book with body, and I *love* your description! I’ve often thought about writing a blog post about how I read a book. I don’t start at the beginning, I start with the back cover, then the index or whatever end pages there are, then I go to the title page and the table of contents. Oh, and always read the foreword! I came to learn that one late. Afterwards, I start with page one. Thanks for writing this, Carol. All of us bibliophiles love it!~Janie

  4. I am deep in Kindle envy these days.  I know because I keep asking “advice” from friends about which one to get, even though I know a lot about the options.  I just love hearing all about them.  Maybe for our anniversary this year?I cannot hold really thick books these days because of what is probably some arthritis in my hands.  It makes me very sad.  It’s not about weight; it is about the width of what I am holding.  The idea of a kindle comforts me when I panic about not holding books like Les Mis.I love Janie’s description of how she reads a book.  I will have to think about how I read…I have a feeling I have a routine and I don’t even know it.Great post,Di

  5. I too love my Kindle but still prefer a paperback or hardcover. But a Kindle is surely handy for I also use mine at church for the Bible reading. I have several Bibles on my Kindle so can vary the translation. (Not the same day though.) And because I am also toting a bag of music it is easier not to be carrying a Bible too. The Kindle fits in a slot in my purse which is very handy too.

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