Too pretty to touch

My copy of McSweeney’s Issue 13 arrived while I was out of town, and this evening I did something unusual and special: I unwrapped it, and read a few pages.

My key beef with the McSweeney’s publications, the Quarterly in particular, is that they are too beautiful to touch, let alone read. Each issue is different from every other, and they are printed by some fantastic but yet affordable printer in Iceland — for all I know they are hand-bound by beautiful and well-paid Icelandic maidens — with preciously-designed covers, often with special dust covers and exotic lettering and gold ink. Often I look at my subscription copy for a few minutes when it arrives in the mail, then set it on a shelf in my living room, next to the past issues, where guests can see it and note that I’ve been a subscriber since issue five (although sadly not since issue one, and that I haven’t been able to acquire first edition of the first four issues, of which I suspect only one hundred highly-prized copies remain).

This issue is the comics issue, which means the dust cover itself is a work of art by Chris Ware, the special guest editor, and tucked into it are little comics booklets that just ask to be bent in funny ways accidentally and then lost.

For a book lover, it’s a kind of torture to receive a book so beautiful and precious that one fears to hurt it through enjoying it.

The preface to this issue is by Ira Glass. To make up for my rant about the McSweeney’s Quarterly’s gorgeous design and its implications, let me share with you a bit of this lovely preface, which will surely compell you to order a copy of your own, so it can sit on your bookshelf and attract admiring gazes from a safe distance:

Recently, I ran into my best friend from junior high school. He’d been living in New York for years. “Lemme ask you something.” He drew in close as he said it; his voice was low. “Every girlfriend I’ve had in New York has asked me what my favorite books were growing up. Did you read? Did anyone ever tell us to read back in Baltimore?”

We weren’t dumb kids. We were expected to get “A”s and go to college. But reading was something you did for school. You plowed through the novels, figured out the themes and ideas as a way to answer questions on a test. It was like math, just another puzzle to solve. The idea of reading a book for pleasure, of taking a book personally–I didn’t discover that until well into college.

Except when it came to cartoons. Somehow they slipped under the radar, because they didn’t seem like reading.