The book, as an object, has generally withstood the test of time. The direction from which you start reading may change depending on the language and culture, but the book in and of itself hasn't changed much at all.
While it seems that the death of the physical book has been greatly exaggerated, it doesn't mean the book can't be improved in some way. Paperbacks certainly helped the book, making it easier to travel with a one. Now, another book innovation is reaching American readers, courtesy of the Dutch.
It's the dwarsligger, or flipback book, and it will literally change how you handle a book.
The flipback book was launched in 2009 by Dutch publisher Royal Jongbloed. Established in 1862 as a bookshop, Jongbloed became a printing and publishing shop as well, specializing in printing Bibles. If you've ever handled a variety of Bibles before, you know that some of them have particularly thin pages. The same is true of dictionaries and encyclopedias. The thinness of the paper in these volumes helps to keep the book compact; if they were printed on thicker paper, well, can you imagine hauling a dictionary that had heavier pages?
Jongbloed decided to apply their specialization to a new type book: the hardcover novel. They developed and patented the dwarsligger. A combined form of the Dutch words "dwars," which means "crossways," and "liggen," which means "to lie." The book reads from top to bottom and left to right, instead of just left to right. The spine of the book works more like a hinge that keeps the book open while you're reading. The idea is that the reader can read the book with one hand, flipping the bottom page up, not unlike how we scroll and read on a smartphone.
The pages are thinner than traditional paperbacks, and the book itself is much smaller, measuring 4.7 x 3.1 inches (12 x 8 centimeters). For comparison's sake, the iPhone XS measures 5.65 x 2.79 inches. So essentially, the book is about the size of a phone. Jongbloed claims the format is more environmentally friendly than traditional books given its reduced size and its Forest Stewardship Council-certified paper.
And so far, the flipback book has been very successful. The format has sold more than 9 million copies, and publishers have licensed the format for some of their books in the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Finland, Sweden, Russia and Turkey. The likes of Dan Brown, Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald have all been published in dwarsligger editions. Now the format has reached the United States with the backing a very popular author.
A little book that could
Penguin, that innovator of paperbacks, has brought the flipback book to the States. Four John Green novels — "Looking for Alaska," "An Abundance of Katherines," "Paper Towns" and "The Fault in Our Stars" — are now on sale in the format, billed as Penguin Minis. They're available for individual sale at $12 a piece or in a set for $48.
"We're thrilled to bring a whole new way of reading to the United States with Penguin Minis, and who better to launch this line of publishing than John Green," Jennifer Loja, president of Penguin Young Readers, said in a statement. "We know that young readers, especially, still prefer print books, but are drawn to the portability of reading on their devices."
For his part, Green was an easy sell on the idea of converting his hit novels into this new format, especially as he already been exposed to it in the Netherlands.
"I haven't seen a new book format that I thought was at all interesting," Green told The Washington Post in August, when the books were announced, "but I find this format really usable and super-portable."
And like Loja, Green draws a direct line between these books, younger readers and pocket-sized devices. "They probably aren't as set in their ways in how they interact with books. And in some ways, these books are more similar to a phone-shaped experience."
Reformatting the books to the dwarsligger format wasn't as an easy a task as getting Green to sign on, however. The entire reading experience had to be reconsidered. How many lines on a page? How far apart are the letters and words? "An Abundance of Katherines" proved particularly difficult as it includes footnotes and mathematical formulas in the text. Initial proofs from Jongbloed were far too cluttered and messy.
"We're in a situation where millimeters count," Julie Strauss-Gabel, the president and publisher of Dutton Books for Young Readers, told The New York Times.
Still, Penguin is making a bet that Americans will be attracted to the portability of the flipback book, especially as the gift-giving season approaches. The publisher is printing an initial run of 50,000 copies, with copies available at major retailers like Barnes & Noble, Target and Walmart. Independent booksellers will also have copies, with Penguin encouraging them to place the miniature books near the register. Penguin is even imagining that, given their portable nature, flipback books could be sold in other, non-traditional book-selling locations, like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, in an effort to expand the bookseller's base.
More titles, including those by Green, are expected to roll out in 2019.
What's it like to read a dwarsligger?
I went to Target to pick up a Penguin Mini to see what the experience of reading one is like. The first thing you'll notice is, naturally, the size. It's tiny. It fit easily into my pocket of both my jacket and my jeans and stuck out of my shirt pocket roughly the same way my cellphone does. The front and back covers aren't soft or paper; they're more thin, sturdy-feeling cardboard (but clearly not cardboard).The covers definitely help to provide a sensation of "This isn't going to fall apart on you despite its size."
The pages are indeed pretty thin, but they're probably a little more durable than what you find in a dictionary. Despite that, tearing a page does require actual intent. I tried to rip a few pages halfheartedly — I'm not a monster, after all — and only managed to wrinkle the page. So unless you give it to someone who just likes tearing things, the integrity of the page seems like it'll hold up to normal reading. If you're someone who likes writing in your books, however, these are not editions for you. There's minimal space for marginalia, and excessive underlining will probably start to bleed through to the other side. The paper is thin enough that you can see the typed words on the flip side of the page, sometimes fairly clearly.
Reading the book, however, is something of an odd experience, and I don't know how I feel about it yet. Reading pages as they're laid out in the Penguin Mini doesn't phase me at all, and I doubt it would really pester anyone at this point. Penguin and Jongbloed have figured out to make the page feel readable for sure; the spacing between words and letters allows me to read and skim in equal measure, and I never felt the text was cluttered. The typeface is small-seeming, but without a "note on the typeface" page, I can't say much more than that.
As for reading the book how it's intended to be read, one-handed and like you're scrolling up on a screen, that didn't happen for me. For one thing, turning a page up with my thumb didn't always result in one page flipping up; more often than not, it was many pages. This is due to the thin pages sticking together. After a few readings, I imagine this process smooths itself out and you can move a page up pretty easily. As it stood, I often did what I jokingly told myself was a Dutch reach but for reading and turned the page from the bottom left corner instead of the bottom right.
Holding the book also took some adjustments. The hinge-spine works better when there are more pages near the top, but between holding the book and needing to turn the page, it ended up being a two-handed job where I would hold the book in my left hand, thumb at the pages' cleft, and turn pages with my right. It may require some practice to get everything just right, and I may also simply lack the dexterity to read the format as envisioned.
That said, I didn't hate my experience with the Penguin Mini at all. I liked trying to read something in a different way, similar to how I had to make adjustments when I started reading manga, Japanese comics that are read right to left. The small size of the format appeals to me as someone who donates old books every time I move to have more space for new books. It's certainly not a format that lends itself to something like "War and Peace" or "Atlas Shrugged," but plenty of shorter works of fiction would be right at home as dwarsliggen. I would much rather pack three or four of these for a long flight than two paperbacks and a hardcover from the library.
Italian author Umberto Eco explained in 2012, "Alterations of the book-as-object have modified neither its function nor its grammar for more than 500 years. The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved. You cannot make a spoon that is better than a spoon."
The dwarsliggen isn't necessarily a better book, but it's definitely an interesting book, one that I wouldn't mind seeing more of.