‘A mass-market copy of a book positions a reader in one way, a hardback collected works positions you in another’
I read Molloy for the first and second time in an unlovely Grove Press mass-market paperback that contained all three books of Beckett’s trilogy, with yellowed pages and crowded gutters. It was a translation from Beckett’s original French, done by Patrick Bowles and Beckett himself. The third time I read it, I read the original French version in a copy from Editions de Minuit. The curious thing about the English translation is how rigorous it is, how insistent it is about maintaining the French version’s syntax and word order, to the degree that that can be done and still sound like English. As a result, I felt less of a difference between the English and the French versions than I normally do between a translation and an original.
But what I did feel, and can still vividly remember, was the difference in format—the ample gutters of the Editions de Minuit copy, the precision of the stamp of the words, the effect of having a larger font, all of which added to the feel of the text. It was similar to the effect that one gets when one has read issues of a floppy comic book and then reads it later gathered as a graphic novel: Not only is the appearance different, the work seems changed.
Since then, I’ve read the English version of Molloy in the collected Beckett and had a still different experience with it: A mass-market copy of a book positions a reader in one way, a hardback collected works positions you in another. The story is still the same, but the way in which I’m being solicited to take it in is different, and the way that my reading is being facilitated is different as well. It’s not exactly like you’re reading a different book, but it’s not exactly like you’re rereading the same book either. All these different formats mostly overlap but don’t quite, and each of them has a different feel that I’ve taken away with me.
You can experience something similar if you start reading a book in one format and shift to another, going from a mass-market paperback to a well-designed first-edition hardback, for instance, or from a print book to an e-book and back. It’s strange how disorienting those shifts can be. The words are all the same, but the reading experience is definitely not.
In reading physical books especially, one takes in a sort of residue, some of it intelligible, some not. The reading experience is partly about learning to ignore this residue, to not care overly much about the font or the yellowing of the
pages or the size of the print.