We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.

The Bookishness of Fairy Tales

If you love books—and I suspect most of you are here because you love books—then you’ll likely be amused by Maria Nikolajeva’s deconstruction of stereotypes surrounding books and their readers. Prof. Nikolajeva, as you may know, teaches children’s literature at Cambridge, so she knows a lot more about many more books than most people, and her commentary on literary matters is always worth reading.

As I read this admittedly lighthearted post, it particularly struck me how many of these truisms about books and the bookish (e.g. books are best friends, books control one’s moods, books are the new black) are either embraced as self-identifiers by the bookish themselves (of whom I am one), or unwittingly perpetuated by authors of popular-level articles on aesthetics (yeah—I’m of those, too). But reality—and books—is a bit more complicated.

As should becoming increasingly clear, the physical object of the book, and the tactile experience of reading a book, is one of our primary interests at Unsettling Wonder. There’s a long history between fairy tales and beautiful books, after all. Part of this has to do with the nineteenth-century publishing market, of course, and its notion of fine presentation volume for the Christmas market, a subject I’d like to learn more about myself. But however the history got there, it’s there.

To some extent, they make peculiar bedfellows. The fairy tale is the literary child of the folktale, and the folktale is of necessity an oral form; it’s an inherited idea that exists in the mind of the tellers, in the telling of it, and then in the memory of the hearers. It has physicality only insofar as sound is physical. So the challenge of making a book of fairy tales is to make that transition from a tradition of ideas into a specific text, and then from text to object. We could even argue that the sharp, clear edges of the folk and fairy tale tradition are the folktale (the idea) and the printed book (the object), with texts and tale types and everything else falling somewhere in the spongy middle. That may be reductive, as but it’s something to think about.

I remember when I first held a first edition of Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book—it was a bit of an epiphany. It was an archive copy in perfect condition, and to be honest, I didn’t even read the fairy tales. I just kept admiring that beautiful physical object, admiring the clarity of the printing, the exquisite feel of the cover, the proportions of the pages—it’s a a breath-taking work of art in its own right. Nor did is the association with fairy tales and beautiful books a thing of the past. Check out this recent edition of Grimm from the Folio Society. OK, it’s a facsimile, fair enough. And the original would cost around £3000. But even the reissue is a thing of beauty.

And I think this hunger for books and for a bookish identity that Prof. Nikolajeva is discussing at inevitably leads us back to this creation of a beautiful physical volume. And increasingly, as people grow disenchanted with the impermanence of digital media, readers will turn more and more back to the permanent, physical, paper-and-ink work of art. You can see this impetus already at work in other areas, with the ever-growing interest in fine coffees, craft beers, and (wait for it) vinyl. The turn is away from ephemera and change for the sake of change, and towards the fine, the physical, the permanent. If the next generation of the bookish self-identifies by toting around new letterpress editions of Lang and arguing about Bodoni, buckram, and bookwove, that’ll be just fine by me.

Reader Comments

  1. I agree with you entirely on the feel of a beautifully bound and illustrated book in one’s hands. I recently gave a dear friend a hardback, leather-bound edition containing all seven Narnia books, which is part of an affordable series now produced by Barnes & Noble:


    She explained to me how reading this specific version added dramatically to the experience of enchantment, as she was pulled out of her subway environment and into tales of wonder and mystery…..

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