Honey, I Shrunk the Books!

Literary miniatures give new meaning to the words "small press."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published November 14, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

i am watching an old fifties sci-fi movie, "The Amazing Colossal Man," and I am wondering why the big guy is so piqued. In the midst of a bad nuclear radiation day, our overgrown leading man is attempting to catch up on his reading. He picks up a book, and his massive mitts overwhelm the tiny tome. He tries to flip through the pages, but his barrel-sized thumbs make the task impossible. Throwing the book to the ground, he then goes on an Amazing Colossal rampage, committing crimes against the architecture of Las Vegas that even the architects of that tacky city wouldn't have dreamed of perpetuating.
Poor guy. He didn't realize that one day, normal-sized folks would be happily buying books smaller than their hands and cruelly brutal on their eyes. And they don't even have radiation poisoning to blame!
I am standing in a megasized superstore, and everywhere I look I see the tiniest possible books. It's like being in the middle of an optical illusion. The Munchkin publications came from nowhere  they snuck up on us, the little Dickens, perching atop the counter near the cash registers. You can add them to your pile of "real" purchases as easily you might throw a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup on top of your conveyer belt of groceries at the checkout line. So simple, so elegant, so easy to lose in the bottom of your backpack. The coffee table volume has given way to the ashtray-sized edition.
The trend might have begun with "Life's Little Instruction Book," a bantamweight compendium of platitudes that a few years back elbowed its way onto bookstore counters across the country. The publishing industry took heed: More little instruction books, that's what the people want! Or perhaps the pygmy editions are a reaction to that great catalogue and housewares department favorite, the Itty Bitty Booklight. What better to read under one's Lilliputian reading lamp than an elfin nugget of text? How sweet!
At first, like the Amazing Colossal Man, I rebelled against these diminutive tomes. They seemed, dare I say, trite. Absurd. Useless.
But now I have seen the error of my ways. Pee-wee books may have tiny feet, but they kick ass. They bounce reassuringly in your pocket like so much spare change. You can use them to pick your teeth. You can drop them on your toes and not get hurt. You can pretend to be paying attention at meetings or on dinner dates while really reading the infinitesimal masterwork in your palm, and nobody'll know the difference.
Ordinary books cannot compete. They are big and bulky and make your back sore when you carry them around. Moreover, they have complicated plots and lots of words and can rarely be completed in the time it takes to munch a single madeleine. Can you say that of "Remembrance of Things Past"? Je pense pas.
Still, there are drawbacks. I am holding in my hand something called Moosewood Cookbook Classics. Splayed open in my palm, it does not reach from the tip of my index finger to my wrist. The pages are no bigger than three stamps in a row. And while I love the utter doll-furniture-prop charm of it, I am a bit curious about how to pull off the "tart and tangy baked beans" recipe  if I drop even one of those tangy beans on the cookbook I'll obscure the entire recipe.
"They're not books, they're gifts," sighs a publicist at a publishing house that has of late been downsizing  not its staff, not the number of titles it puts out, but the books themselves.
"You don't cook out of them, you give them. And the person you give them to doesn't cook out of them either," he explains. Sounds like a fabulously empty gesture, so far. What's the point again? "They're adorable," he says, and I know he's right. "They're the midget clowns of the publishing world."
And ho ho ho, with the holidays right around the corner, expect to see more of them. One publisher has attached a little string to a popular weensy title  and now sells it as a Christmas ornament. (Try trimming your tree with "War and Peace" sometime, see how far you get before the Douglas fir tips over and crushes you to death.)
Lest you think we're talking about titles best suited to your local Hallmark store and purchased along with an armful of Precious Moments figurines, you should know that the highbrow world is shrinking too. Abbeville Publishing Group has a series of Tiny Folio titles  "Treasures of the Louvre," Audubon's "Birds of America," North American Indian Portfolios, and more, zapped down to bon-bon size. The ironically named "Great Book of French Impressionism" features over 200 dinky masterpieces of the revolutionary art movement, and frankly, you haven't seen Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" till you've seen it at less than 3" x 4" across. Those Cezanne apples are pretty self-explanatory  what do you need detail for?
And faster than you can say, "Et tu, Penguin?" the publisher synonymous with brain-stroking blasts from the Western canon has come out with a series of 95" miniatures, featuring just the good bits from Goethe, Plato, Darwin, and lots of other cool dead people that no one really reads all the way through any more. No time for Gibbon's big fat "History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"? Just grab the breezy "Reflections on the Fall of Rome" instead  you'll get the gist, and it's a mere 87 pages. And why bum yourself out wading interminably through the bowels of the inferno, when "The First Three Circles of Hell" will get you in and out of Dante's netherworld before your shoes even start to smoke?

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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