- Tiny Books, Big Pleasures:On Recent Trends in Publishing toward the Tiny
In the fall of 2017, I began to notice something alarming, even disturbing: I was reading less. It wasn't something I was immediately aware of but rather something I sensed, as I found myself reaching less frequently for a book than for my smartphone. This decline in reading printed matter might also have been measured by the growing pile of unread books on my bedside table and the dwindling number of new books, read or unread, crossing the threshold into my apartment. For some nonreaders, this wouldn't be cause for concern, but I had a PhD in English and creative writing and taught writing and literature at the college level. Just what in the world was happening?
At the same time that I was experiencing this shocking falling-off in the amount of time spent on the printed word, I noticed the emergence of square "tiny books," just slightly bigger and squarer than the largest [End Page 182] iPhones (a comparison to the smartphone would turn out to be important in my attempts to understand this surprising new publishing trend). My attention was drawn to them at first simply as aesthetic objects. This aesthetic feature of the "tiny" or "mini" book is noted by Alexandra Alter, who wrote about the phenomenon for the New York Times, claiming, of the Dutch mini books known as dwarsliggers, that "with their appeal as design objects, mini books could eventually make their way into furniture and design stores and outlets like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie." Before I knew it, and again, quite without thinking about it, I'd accumulated a healthy-sized stack of tiny books. Now I wasn't reading less, just reading smaller!
Readers overseas have been familiar with the idea of tiny books for nearly a decade, with the rise in popularity in the Netherlands of the pocket-sized dwarsligger—the word combines the Dutch dwars, which means "crossways," and liggen, "to lie," because unlike most books, the orientation of dwarsliggers is horizontal and the pages flip up from the top edge "like swiping a smartphone," Alter writes. The tiny books I'm referring to and that I first began to notice with the appearance at a favorite local bookstore of Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century are somewhat different. While dwarsliggers are typically reprints of well-known and much-loved novels reformatted in mini, sideways fashion (Dutton books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, hopping on the trend, just released its first boxed set of mini books, a reissue of four novels by The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, and Picador began a similar experiment several years ago), the books discussed in this review were written "tiny" to begin with.
What are the requirements of a tiny book, then, as I'm defining it? It may mean quite simply a short work that can be read quickly, in a single sitting, but this isn't essential. In the case of three of the four volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard's nonfiction quartet, Autumn, Winter, Spring, and Summer (some of which run to two hundred pages or more), although the books themselves are a bit longer, their internal units are tiny, consisting of one- to three-page chapters—brief, prose-poem-like meditations on objects commonly found in the world. Typically, the tiny book is physically small and easily carried around in the pocket like a manifesto (clearly the intent of Snyder's work), perhaps meant to compete for our attention with smartphone culture: they are the analog analogue to the phone. They are also particularly well suited to being read [End Page 183] standing up or...