This article is part of an ongoing collaborative column by Gonny Nir and Jamie Trope. In this column, the authors explore questions big & small, worthwhile & worthless, obvious & absurd, all for the humble pursuit of knowledge, truth and sanity (or lack thereof).
Now this question truly does boil down to personal preferences. I am of the belief that, so long as one is reading something, how that something is constructed is no of real importance. But for my taste and purposes, I prefer softcover books.
I used to be a hardcover lover. In this era of my life—to refer back to a previous column of ours—I prioritized swag over utility. I preferred the look of hardcovers displayed on my bookshelf and enjoyed the little details one could uncover on a book jacket (which aren’t always included in a softcover edition). I should posit that during this stage of my life, I didn’t carry books on me nearly as much as I do now. During my hardcover era, I customarily read at home or school, as opposed to now, when I read when and wherever. I also had access to my car during this time, so I always had the option of storing my bulky hardcover in my car.
However, now is a much different time in my life. Firstly, I prefer physically annotating my books. I know that every reader has their own philosophy regarding whether annotating one’s physical books is a sin or not, but working under the assumption that it is kosher, I find that softcover books are much easier to annotate. Especially when one is reading a large book, I find that hardcovers are more difficult to maneuver around given the strong binding from the pages to the cover. For instance, after much lobbying from a beloved professor of mine, I am, at the time of writing, reading George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” For those unfamiliar with the work, “Middlemarch” is a classic work of English literature, published in 1871 by Mary Ann Evans; better known by her nom de plume, George Eliot. In 794 pages, the work interictally walks the reader through provincial life in England during the 1830s. Along the way, the reader is introduced to carefully written characters from all walks of life, socioeconomic classes and educational backgrounds. Though the novel is indeed a work of fiction, Eliot’s writing can be read as a social commentary on English life during the latter stage of England’s Industrial Revolution.
Hence, when I’m reading a work, especially that of the “Middlemarch” variety, I want the liberty to mark up the text, write comments, draw diagrams, et cetera. I find that I’m much more prone to engage with the text in this way when it is easy to do so. Softcovers allow me to maximize what I can get from the texts I read in ways that hardcovers simply don’t. I think that especially because I tend to write with fine-point pens (0.5-0.7 range), softcovers provide just enough support for the end of my pens to glide smoothly along a page without me losing control over the stroke of the point.
In addition, I find that softcovers are less of a drag to transport from place to place. They are easily storable in my backpack or tote and are less of a hassle to break out every time I’m on the Green Line waiting for my stop at Copley Square. Most of all, softcovers tend to be cheaper and age with a greater sense of grit. I’m a big second-hand, from-your-local-bookstore kind of book person, so softcovers are a no-brainer for me. There’s nothing better than finding a worn-in, frayed softcover book some reader before you enjoyed for under $10. You just can’t replace that feeling, in my view. But again, I would underscore that these are all personal preferences where I have chosen to maximize the utility of a book over its aesthetic advantages. I expect that others make alternative calculations on this matter.
But do let me know what your thoughts are, Jamie, hardcover or softcover?
I put the writing of my response to you off for a few days to think about the serious question at hand. This has seriously stumped me—despite me being an avid reader, I never once paused to think about an answer to the question. And what do I prefer, softcover or hardcover? I could not tell you. Both are so much fun to read.
Yes, in a bookstore, I usually select the softcover option, which is less expensive, over a hardcover option. But this does not mean that in a library setting, where cost is a non-issue, I will also select the softcover option. Likely, I will choose a hardcover book from the library. Hardcover library books are immensely cool. And even then, I use my Kindle so frequently, I will more than likely just borrow a library ebook, hassle free.
As long as I am able to read, I care not about the format of the book. My only objection to this would be the font of the book—I routinely skip over letters embedded within the book that are in a near-unreadable handwriting-adjacent font for this reason. Unless the book was written before the invention of the printing press, I do not want to be belaboring over the font choice.
This is such a copout, non-answer response. Surely, I should have an opinion between these options or a secret unpopular opinion that I now realize is the time to share with the world. But I do not. I have no preference. My enjoyment of a book has never been impeded by its format.
Books are books, and I will read them all. I will even read a book as a PDF!
Okay, actually, I despise those softcover books that are tall and narrow, like those commonly found in the Western genre or the original edition of “Good Omens” by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The spine is such that the first few words of every line are cut off, and if I cannot read the book, well, I cannot read the book. This is an exception to my overall opinion. Tall and narrow books are a menace to society.