Do you have a favourite story?
Do you have a favourite book?
Are they the same thing?
I would imagine that for most they are. Your favourite story, contained within the pages of your favourite book. That won’t be true for everyone- some people’s favourite stories will be aural, or their favourite book a dictionary. But for many of us the two things, story and book, go hand in hand. I know they do for me and they always have.
When I was little, books such as Dogger or The Jolly Postman were my favourite stories and my favourite books. They came together without any thought of separating the two. These examples and many others from my childhood still remain among my favourites. I don’t think it’s much of leap to see how I could have gone from The Jolly Postman to working as a book artist. After all, when has form and structure ever been used better to help tell a story?
Today however, there is one story and three books that stand above all others as my out and out favourites.
The story is JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the books are my second edition, second imprint copies of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
These aren’t my only copies of Tolkien’s masterpiece. I have a set of 1974 paperbacks that I carry with me when reading the stories, throw in and out of bag and read in the bath. It is these books that carry the marks of my love for the story, swollen pages from getting wet, dog leafed corners, well-creased spines. My first journey into Middle Earth came at a young age. Mum would sit at the foot of my bed reading my sister and I The Hobbit. Lord of the Rings however was something I read alone, first encountering it in Mums copies of the books; I got lost and utterly engrossed within its pages. For many years I re-read Lord of the Rings annually. It was my safely blanket, my escape, Middle Earth my preference to this world in which I struggled to feel comfortable.
Falling in love with this story didn’t take long. It catapulted to the top of my favourites list in chapter nine with these few lines,
Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him,, and was smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked in mud, a travel stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.
‘Who is that?’ Frodo asked, when he got a chance to whisper to Mr Butterbur. ‘I don’t think you introduced him?’
‘Him?’ said the landlord in an answering whisper, cocking an eye without turning his head. ‘I don’t rightly know. He is one of the wondering folk- Rangers we call them. He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven’t seen him about lately. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry. But there’s no accounting for East and West, as we say in Bree, meaning the Rangers and the Shire-folk, begging your pardon. Funny you should ask about him.’ But at that moment Mr Butterbur was called away by a demand for more ale and his last remark remained unexplained.
Frodo found that Strider was now looking at him, as if he had heard or guessed all that had been said. Presently, with a wave of his hand and a nod, he invited Frodo to come over and sit by him. As Frodo drew near he threw back his hood, showing a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey, and in a pale stern face a pair of keen grey eyes.
This introduction to Aragorn (still simply Strider at this point) was all it took to go from deeply enjoying the stories to enduring, everlasting love. With every reading and every passing year I have found something new within the lines of Tolkiens story, new reasons to love this epic tale (though I will admit Aragorn remains front and centre). It isn’t an exaggeration to state that these stories helped shape the way I see the world. They have truly, deeply influenced so many aspects of my life.
But that is stories. What about the books? My glorious books.
A book, its pages and carefully typeset text are so often the door through which our imaginations enter a story. But they can be other things as well. They can be beautiful, special, interestingly made or come laden with history. My sister bought both my copies of the Lord of the Rings trilogy for me and both are special, gorgeous sets of books in their own ways.
But the second edition, second imprint copies that I was gifted last Christmas.
They are something else.
Large format, hardback… The paper is thin, old and cream, the cover is cloth bound in red with golden embossed text, the dust covers are dark grey green. They are, quite simply, stunning objects. There are little details that I adore and that make these my favourite books- the top edge painted red (but only that edge) so that when it sits upon your bookshelf it appears the same red as the cover, but when you take it down to read the paper is revealed. My favourite things about these particular books? The fold out maps in the back of every volume. Tolkien’s maps are a thing of beauty and the printing, colours and size of these particular maps makes the books feel that little bit more special and opens the door to the stories within just that little bit wider. All these choices of design and production that go into the books physical form and change the way it feels in our hands are vitally important.
These books have pride of place on my shelves. They are not only personally and historically important but also satisfying and beautiful objects. There are other editions of Lord of the Rings that I want, old and new, first editions and anniversary collections. I want them because I love the story, I want them because of what the story has come to mean in my life and I want them because every littler difference in the books themselves changes the door I walk through to get to Middle Earth.
A door isn’t just a door any more than a book is just a book. They are gateways; entry points to new perspectives, new ways of thinking, new worlds, perhaps even a new you. Every little difference in the way they are designed and made can influence the experience of walking through that door, of opening that book and encountering the story that lies beyond.
As Yet Untitled is going to make books that change the shape of the door. Every artist and writer we collaborate with will have favourite books and favourite stories. These things will have influenced them as strongly as Lord of the Rings and the books containing it have influenced me. They will have become part of the artists’ or writers’ foundations, par of the root system that feeds their work.
The books and stories we love will be one small piece of why the books we make end up the shapes they do and why the story you encounter after opening its pages is whatever it is. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings and my copies of it are certainly standing tall behind The Ellentree and As Yet Untitled. I only hope that the stories we tell and the doorways we create are worthy of the books and stories that have influenced us.