Warning: Contains Words

The words, always, were to remain unscathed. Everything else was just the container. The book cover, the spine, the margins: they might suffer no end of torture, so that the words, the wonderful words, might live.

I wrote these words, below, in response to Johannes Speyer’s theory of ‘essential book bruising’. A book cannot breathe, argued Speyer, unless it has been knocked around a bit. Battered front covers, broken spines and ruffled pages were all the rage as far as Speyer was concerned. So long as one could still read the damn thing, what did it matter?

Here’s where so many writers and critics struggle with Speyer. To consider the book as no more than a ‘container of words’ strikes, they think, the falsest of notes. Even Wolfgang Heizler, Speyer’s biographer, couldn’t stomach this particular way of thinking. ‘Speyer’s constant disregard for the concept of the book as a beautiful object in itself has always bothered me,’ he once confessed in a letter to yours truly. ‘A book is an experience in which words form a large, but not total part’, he concluded.

I follow this to some extent. The words are not all that a book has to offer: this is true.  And yet they are, almost always, the only constant in a book. Covers, margins and spines change from edition to edition. Only the words stay the same. In which case I do think Speyer had every right to take a cavalier approach to the treatment of the book as object. After all, writers and publishers do the same.


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