I know this is cruel but I always judge a book by its margins; I’ll take the bad paper and boring typefaces, I’ll even forgive a book that has one of those plastic covers (the sort that makes me feel as if the book will slip out of my hand at a moment’s notice).
I will accept all of these things as long as the margins of a book have been cared for.
Why are the margins important though? Surely all that good typography and printing requires is a pretty type family, a fancy illustration on the cover and—voilá—we’ve made a book, right? Well, no, but here’s an example why: head to your bookshelf for a moment and pick up any random old book. Flip to the very middle of it and really look at the paragraphs sat side by side. Do they look comfortable? Do you have to wrench the book open to read them properly? Does the text feel like it’s about to slip off the page and onto your floor?
Or do the margins make things easier to read, do they set the blocks of text in their right place—do the margins welcome you?
I can think of only a few books with margins like this. Pretty much anything published by the Hyphen Press in England for starters or, more specifically, the 1981 edition of Moby Dick I picked up several years ago by the Arion Press (just look at how lo-fi their website is).
Nick Sherman wrote a great review of this book a while back that encouraged me to pick up a copy for myself:
Just oh wow oh boy oh yikes.
This sad screenshot plopped into an email is hardly the place to see how these margins work in person though. It really does depend on how the book feels in your hands, but some months after Nick’s review I just about managed to capture the impact this book had on me in my own review:
The story became, over time, somehow indivisible with the shape and format of its container. The way that pages creak as they’re turned, their thickness, the initials that sink into wide columns of text, they all blend deeply into the narrative. These individual pieces combine to give the book both graceful and savage characteristics, oozing with the memories of those horrifying and blood curling moments of man, ocean and beast. The fear of what lurks beneath those depths, but the simultaneous wonder of it too, is captured by the format, by the design. That complex emotional bombardment is further intensified by the hand carved illustrations and the weight of the object; the book feels as if it’s pushing back as you read it…
[…] there is no other way to describe it; it’s a paper Leviathan. The typefaces were carved from whalebone whilst hidden in some dark corner of this tome most probably lies a gigantic pair of white, fishy lungs. It could be said that I was swallowed by its sheer physicalness, gobbled up by this imaginary landscape. And yet in these delicious moments of storytelling and design you suddenly become a part of the story – one of the crew. Cutting the flesh, draining the skull, eating the steak, sleeping on the boat in the middle of the storm. You are Ishmael. You are the Pequod. You are the whale. You are Moby Dick.
Okay, so maybe I went a little overboard there (pun intended) as I don’t really believe that good margins will make you feel like a whale. But! Like the use of the right typeface I reckon that good margins set the mood for how a book ought to be read. So much so that when I think back to those dark and brooding winter evenings of 2011 when I retreated to my family’s home in England to read this copy of Moby Dick I now only seem to remember the margins of this lovely book.
(Side note: this year I’ve been pushing myself to read a whole lot more than I would do otherwise and I’ve noticed already that I will take a book with bad typefaces and good margins over a book with good typefaces and bad margins any day of the week.)
In Craig Mod’s ever so lovely tribute to book design, Let’s talk about margins, he describes why the margins of a book are so gosh darn important:
[…] cheap, rough paper with a beautifully set textblock hanging just so on the page makes those in the know, smile (and those who don’t, feel welcome). It says: We may not have had the money to print on better paper, but man, we give a shit. Giving a shit does not require capital, simply attention and humility and diligence. Giving a shit is the best feeling you can imbue craft with. Giving a shit in book design manifests in many ways, but it manifests perhaps most in the margins.
So I believe we should care for the margins in books and websites because it’s a form of kindness to the reader. It makes following one paragraph to the next ever so slightly easier. Good margins makes holding a book more pleasant too and helps readers slide into a story without having to encounter any friction or struggle against the countless tiny distractions in a book.
But we should really care for the margins simply because we can.