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'Can't put it down'? Try 'can't pick it up'

September 24, 2004|Linton Weeks | Washington Post

The number of people who read books is getting smaller and smaller, but the size of the books they read seems to be getting bigger and bigger. Step into a Barnes & Noble or a Borders and you will see shelves sagging with supersize works, some so heavy they are shipped in boxes with plastic handles. Search online and you'll discover larger-than-coffee-table tomes.

The illogic of this phenomenon speaks volumes -- ever-expanding volumes -- about the state of reading in contemporary civilization.

Take "Antarctica" by photographers Pat and Rosemarie Keough. If you can lift it. The thing weighs 27.6 pounds. It's a 336-page extravaganza with more than 300 photos of emperor penguins, ice floes and other "antarticles." It sells for $3,000, a portion of which goes to save albatrosses. For a few hundred dollars more, you could take a 14-day cruise to Antarctica.

If that book's not enormous enough for you, go get "GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali" by Benedikt Taschen and others. The 792-page paean weighs in at 75 pounds. It's a remarkable photo-remembrance with a very strange title: "GOAT" stands for "Greatest of All Time." The Champion's Edition is bound in silk and includes several bonuses such as Ali's autograph, an inflatable sculpture and some original prints. It sells for $10,000.

Larger does not always mean better. There are massive volumes devoted to just about any endeavor. For $50 you can own monster books celebrating 40 years of the Ford Mustang, 50 years of the Chevrolet Corvette or 100 years of Caterpillar heavy machinery. "I am an avid fan of machinery," one Caterpillar-loving reader writes to Amazon, "and have not been able to put this one down since it was delivered."

It's a wonder that he was able to pick it up in the first place.

For $75, you can drag home Yoga Journal's yeti-size "Yoga," the Guggenheim Museum's humongous homage to Armani or the Wine Appreciation Guild's magnum opus, "The Global Encyclopedia of Wine."

The publishing industry is also pumping up the size of the words. Large-print editions, which necessarily contain more pages, are increasingly important to aging baby boomers. Even paperbacks are bigger.

"Trade paperbacks are a growing segment," says Beth Bingham of Borders Group, speaking of large-format soft covers. "We are selling more and more larger paperbacks."

If reading trends continue to slide downward, today's books could be tomorrow's fossils. In the way that horse plows and tractors are winding up in agriculture museums while still being used occasionally on family farms, books can be showcased in art galleries and library foyers while still being read by the shrinking faithful.

You can just imagine a scenario in which folks are gathered around a gargantuan book, resting on a vast bookstand. They are examining it from every angle like the skeleton of a woolly mammoth.

Truth is, you don't have to imagine. Drop by the central branch of the Memphis Public Library in Tennessee and you will see a copy of "Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom" on display.

Listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest book in the world, the voluptuously illustrated volume is 5 feet wide and 7 feet tall. It's about the size of a sheet of plywood and weighs 133 pounds.

"Bhutan" was created by Michael Hawley at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. It sells for $10,000. A large portion of the proceeds will go to support education in Bhutan.

Hawley says books -- like sculptures, musical instruments and paintings -- will become "relatively more expensive, and perhaps more cherished, maybe more nostalgic, and possibly more artful."

His bound behemoth will be on display at least through September, library spokesman Bobby King says.

"It takes two people to turn a page every day," King says. At that rate, reading the 114-page book takes about a month and a half.

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