Only Yesterday by S.Y. Agnon

S.Y. Agnon is apparently a key figure in Israeli literature, and Only Yesterday is very much a novel about Israel. But it is my book from Ukraine for the Read The World challenge.

My reasons for assigning the book to Ukraine were basically pragmatic — there wasn’t an alternative from Ukraine which sprang out at me, and I felt like reading something more contemporary for Israel — but it’s quite fitting anyway. It’s a novel about the early waves of modern Jewish settlers to Palestine at the start of the twentieth century, and although nearly all the action takes place in the Middle East, in many ways it’s a story of eastern and central Europe. The various characters are still as much identified with their homelands — Russia, Hungary, and so on — as they are with any nascent Israeli identity. In fact the book’s central character, Isaac, moves in an almost completely European world; the Arab population of Palestine is occasionally mentioned, but I can’t remember a single named Arab character. The few non-Jewish characters seem to be European Christians.

Neither Ukraine nor Israel existed as independent nations when this novel is set; Isaac is a Jew from Galicia, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, who immigrates to what is then the British Mandate in 1908. It is obviously not a coincidence that S.Y. Agnon was also a Galician Jew who made the same move at the same date. The novel is clearly only autobiographical in a limited way, though, since Isaac is an unsophisticated working man rather than a bookish one.

This is the book I have been whinging about (1, 2) because of its sheer physical weight. And it may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I do think I would have finished it quicker and perhaps enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been so unnecessarily bulky. But I still enjoyed it; it’s humane and even quite funny, as literary novels go.

The human story of Isaac held my attention; I did sometimes start to lose focus with some of the more detailed stuff about Zionism and so on. There are so many people and organisations who get mentioned: writers, politicians, theologians, Zionist charities, settler organisations, religious groups. There wasn’t too much of the book taken up by characters sitting around in cafés and having conversations about Zionism, but there was a bit, and I just got the feeling that generally in the novel there was a whole level of commentary and satire that I was missing because I didn’t have enough context. Which is unfortunate.

But even if I didn’t get all the nuances, I still thought that the ideological aspect was important to the novel. One of the striking things about it is the portrayal of people trying to create a new place from scratch. It’s not a utopian project precisely, but all these settlers have made the difficult and expensive journey from Europe to Israel because of some idea or idealism, whether political or religious, and that idea may or may not survive contact with the reality . At the very least, the reality is unlikely to be exactly what they expected.

One of my reasons for reading it was that I was interested in a book set during that early history of modern Israel. But it’s not a history book, and like all(?) good novels what makes it work is an interest in people, not in ideas. And it is a very good novel, and generally a readable and engaging one.

» The first photo is of a street scene in Jaffa in 1917. The second is Jerusalem in 1918. Both from the British Museum.

Heavy heavy books: psychology update!

I was listening to the Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast, and I heard Mo Costandi mention that people’s perceptions of what they’re reading are affected by its physical characteristics, including weight. My ears pricked up at that because I was complaining about large-format paperbacks on this blog just the other day.

So I asked him for details over Twitter, and he pointed me to this article he wrote in June. It’s full of odd results, but the most relevant one is this. I’ll quote the whole paragraph, rather than trying to summarise it:

In the first experiment, 54 passersby were asked to evaluate a job candidate on the basis of a CV attached to either a light (0.34 kg) or a heavy (2 kg) clipboard. Those given the CV on the heavier clipboard generally rated the candidate as being better and having a more serious interest in the position than those given the lighter clipboard, even though the CVs used in both cases were identical. Those given the heavy clipboard also rated their accuracy on the task as more important than those given the lighter one, but did not report putting more effort into it. They did not, however, rate the candidate as more likely to get along with co-workers. This suggests that the weight cue affected their impressions of the candidate’s performance and seriousness, but not the irrelevant trait of social likeability, and that the observed effects were not due their perception of their own actions.

So physical weight is apparently makes the reader attribute seriousness and quality to what they’re reading — at least in a CV. You can see why a publisher might want to get some of that action. Particularly a university press publishing a literary novel which they are asserting deserves to be considered a classic.

But it makes you wonder what other effects the extra weight might have: does it make a novel more or less funny? Does it makes the characters more or less likeable? What does it do to the prose style? Or the plotting?

Such speculation aside… I actually wonder whether it’s unambiguously positive to be perceived as more serious, even for a literary novel about important subjects. I mean, I like novels to be more literary rather than less and I’m not intimidated by big fat books, but I still find that serious literature requires a degree of concentration and discipline, even for a book you’re enjoying and reading for pleasure. Anything that emphasises the literature-as-Serious-Business aspect is only going to make it more likely that reading starts to feel like a chore.

The stupidity of big books (and the joy of cheap paperbacks)

I’m currently reading Only Yesterday, S.Y. Agnon’s novel about Jewish settlers in Israel before the first world war. And so far I’m enjoying it, apart from one thing. It’s in a handsomely made edition published by Princeton University Press, on high-quality paper, with large type, set with a generous amount of leading and plenty of white space. In other words: it’s fucking enormous.

There it is with my old Penguin Classics edition of Tristram Shandy for comparison.

Ah, but, I can hear you saying, you’ve used the wide-angle effect of the camera to exaggerate the difference in size! And there’s a degree of truth to that, so here’s a different angle:

The Agnon is 5.2cm longer, 4.2cm wider and 1.6cm thicker. The result is that it is nearly three times the volume, and over three times the weight (930g; i.e. over two pounds).

Ah but, I hear you say, you are still being unfair! Clearly the Agnon is a much longer novel!

You might think so, but no, it isn’t (thank heavens; Tristram Shandy isn’t exactly a pamphlet). It’s hard to compare exact word counts, but Tristram Shandy has 659 pages; Only Yesterday has 652. And they have the same number of lines per page and at least roughly the same number of words per line. I counted.

Seriously, though, whose idea was it to inflict these ludicrously big books on us? I spent a large chunk of my youth with one Penguin Classic or another tucked in my jacket pocket; the Agnon isn’t just too big to fit in a pocket, it’s close to being too big to read comfortably at home on a sofa.

The pointlessly large paperback seems to be a particular weakness of American publishers — insert your own joke about obesity or steroid abuse here — but I think it’s part of a general trend. I have a load of old Penguin Classics from the 80s and 90s, and at some point they changed the format. Inevitably they got bigger, by about 2cm in each direction. That’s not as gargantuan as the Agnon, and thankfully they’re still printed on nice thin paper so they’re not any fatter, but it’s probably too big to fit in a pocket.

And if you’re wondering, yes I do dislike hardbacks for exactly the same reason. They’re less comfortable to read, and they take up too much room in your bag or on your shelves.

I think I understand the logic for the publishers, mind you; they need to charge a lot of money for these books, particularly if they’re not expecting to shift a lot of copies. And physically making the book is a fairly small part of the overall costs, so why not spend a little extra producing an object which feels substantial and high quality; that way people feel more like they are getting their money’s worth. The list price for Only Yesterday is $32.50; at that price perhaps people want a lot of paperback for their money.

But it’s madness. Why can’t publishing learn from the tech industry? A book is nothing if not a mobile device; and just as each generation of the iPhone is advertised as thinner and lighter than the one before, why aren’t publishers advertising ultraportable novels?

It’s a silly time to be making this argument, of course, because the decision is being taken out of publishers’ hands. There is an ultraportable format of books: it’s called digital. I don’t often carry books around with me any more; instead I have books on my phone. It isn’t the ideal way to read, but it’s zero extra bulk to carry.

But if ink and wood pulp are going the way of the horse-drawn carriage, I just want to say: what I will miss is not big glossy hardbacks, however beautifully designed and printed, but small format mass-market paperbacks printed on flimsy paper. If the invention of the printing press changed the world by democratising knowledge, then the paperback was the apotheosis of that project; the cheapest, most convenient, most accessible way of communicating ideas and literature ever devised.

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