Words v. Pages

A Viking longship, a narrowboat on a British canal, and a racing shell crewed by an eight would not be mistaken for one another, but beyond the aquatic obvious, they have in common a length of about 20 metres. Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap (1984) and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida (2013) share few formal qualities as movies. They all, however, have a running time of a little over 80 minutes. The various metrics of length can be telling, but some­times, as with books, not always useful. When one is read­ing a book, page num­bers provide helpful navi­ga­tion (How much have I read? How many pages to go? Am I half way through yet?) and are essential for citation. But when one is reading about a book – in publishers’ press releases and cata­logues, or biblio­graphic details ac­company­ing reviews – the number of pages a book contains is less instructive than the number of words. A page count tells some­thing about the look of a book, but unless one is con­suming lit­erature by the metre, a word count is, at least for prose, a much better indication of how long it will take to read it.

There are good reasons why books of the about the same number of words might have very different numbers of pages. Two novels from taken from the bookshelf, not quite at random, are The Soul of Kindness (1964) by Elizabeth Taylor, and Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders. They are both B Format paperbacks, so the same width and height (129 × 198 mm), and both are about 60,000 words. But Taylor’s book runs to 220 pages, while Saunders’s, set in significantly small­er type, is about 130 pages fatter. The Virago edition of The Soul of Kind­ness is formally typical for a novel: 19 chapters, each a river of text starting on a fresh page. Saunders has said that his wife teased him about the bloat of Lincoln in the Bardo (‘Pretty good use of white space there!’) but it requires its heft. Rather than rivers, its 108 chapters contain pools of type. Epigrammatic quotations from the vast liter­a­ture devoted to Lincoln, further in­vent­ed Lincoln­iana, and the thoughts and dialogue of spectral souls, caught between death and whatever might come next, in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington DC: each pool attributed to a real or invented voice.

But even though the form of a text can influence the form of a book, some­times demands of commerce or market­ing take a hand.

Two editions of ‘The Man in the Brown Suit’ by Agatha Christie

Published in 1924, the first edition of Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit ran to 312 pages. The two later editions shown above are both A Format (110 × 178 mm), the standard size for smaller mass-market paperbacks. The reprint of the 1953 Pan edition shown on the left has about 120 fewer pages than the first edition, the one on the right, a recent reprint of a 2002 Harper edition, about 70 more. For the same 70,000 word text, the 2002 edition, at 384 pages, has exactly double the page count of the 1953 one.

Two editions of ‘The Man in the Brown Suit’
The thin man & the fat man.

A reader’s preference for one over the other is a matter of taste, but the books’ layouts were dictated by very different conditions. The 1953 edition would have been made as economically as possible. Paper had only recently come off rationing after the Second World War, so the type is small with little leading, the margins are tight with no running headers, and chapter headings are set wherever they fall in the run of the text, rather than being given a fresh page to themselves. The result is very portable and perfectly legible, but undeniably cramped. In the 2002 setting, when paper had become plentiful, the fonts are bigger and linespacing and margins are generous, there are running headers as well as folios in the footer, and all chapters begin on the recto (so are often pre­ceded by a blank verso). A book with twice as many pages certainly looks like better value – and flatters the reader that they have read a big book – but it feels sparse, and might prove a little dis­appointing to some­one expecting a longer read. In future editions, there might be a rethink. The growth of online shopping in recent years has encouraged paper manufacturers to increase their output of cardboard for packaging, at the expense of producing the sort of low-quality paper used in paperbacks. During the pandemic there has been a boom in book sales, and publishers, while not short of cardboard boxes, have run low on the products to put in them. Perhaps books will start to shrink. The Man in the Brown Suit, and its readers, might benefit from a reversion to something like its original extent.

We are probably stuck with page numbers, so might as well have some fun with them. There is one familiar to readers of Private Eye. Tedious cant and waffle is routinely flagged in print by being abruptly curtailed with: cont. p. 94 (a page which never arrives, of course, the magazine usually being about half that length). And a pagination skit appears in The Every (2021) by Dave Eggers. The satire, depicting a tech-driven dystopia fomented by a merger of fictional firms analogous to Amazon, Google and Facebook, into the epony­mous con­glom­er­ate, sometimes feels like a cheat­sheet that no leaders of those companies should ever be allowed to see. Among the book’s riffs on ideas which, while dreadful, might seem admirable to eyeball-hungry digital media outfits, is the proposal that authors might benefit more from algorithms than editors. At one point the story’s pro­tag­onist, Delaney Wells, who is trying to take down the corporation from within, is seconded to TellTale, The Every’s literature crunching de­part­ment, which monitors the electronic reading habits of millions of customers. Her supervisor there is the profoundly un-bookish Alessandro who, after mis­gender­ing Charlotte Brontë, explains what readers really want.

‘We found so many things!’ Alessandro said. ‘Overall number of pages is fairly clear. No book should be over 500 pages, and if it is over 500, we found that the absolute limit of anyone’s tolerance is 577.’

‘Even that seems undisciplined,’ Delaney said.

Those of us who flick forward find that 577 is indeed the extent of Eggers’s text, and are left to wonder whether the number had been retro­spect­ive­ly inserted when the layout of the novel was other­wise complete, or the text was adjusted to run to that number of pages. The arguably excessive line spacing in the book suggests it might have been the latter.

And then there is pagination which feels like a bad joke. I doubt that many of his admirers would think that Denis Johnson’s Already Dead (1997) was his best book, but it deserves better treatment than it was given in the 1999 paper­back from which the scan below was taken.

From ‘Already Dead’ by Denis Johnson.

The angular figures of the spiky script used in the running footers, particularly when paired with the legible old-style body text, make for dismal way-finders, stylistic flair that serves only a whim of the designer. It certainly doesn’t serve the text or the reader. Experienced book designers’ first advice is usually a variation on ‘less is more’. Richard Eckersley, in a contribution to Richard Hendel’s On Book Design put it this way:

Book design is a process so transparent and anonymous that one sometimes wonders whether it exists at all. It’s a negative quantity: a book is well de­signed to the extent that it is not badly designed.

Notes. Information about paper shortages and cardboard gluts comes from a recent post on Richard Hollick’s website Making Book, highly recommended for informed commentary on the past, present and future of the book trade. Sources. ‘George Saunders: “When I get praise, it helps me be a little bit more brave”’ by Paula Cocozza (the Guardian, 18 October 2017); On Book Design by Richard Hendel (Yale, 1998).