Photo credit: Aram K

My recent dependence on the Japanese café near my office seems to be having an impact on my mindset. Over my carefully prepared bento box I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of containers. The Japanese have an important tradition of presenting food in careful, clever and artful ways to help the consumer enjoy the experience and get the most out of it. This is not just a case of good ‘plating up.’ A finely crafted pottery dish or a shiny lacquered bowl are regarded as important elements in making a delicious meal. Japanese culinary traditions state that textures, shapes and colours not only impress our eyes but contribute something important to the taste of the meal.

When people talk about books as ‘just containers’ for content I can’t help but think of this Japanese principle. It makes me wonder, what gets overlooked when we ignore the role a container has in how we appreciate its contents?

Is a book really just a container, anyway? Publishers and designers (and sometimes authors too) work hard to ensure there is some special relationship between what you see and what you read.

Take for example, these lovely editions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fiction. Contemplating a copy of The Great Gatsby, it’s obvious the ‘container’ has been designed to suit the contents. If you are a reader of a certain disposition, one entranced by the idea of dapper gents and gin-soaked flappers recounting their high times and low moods, the book is designed to call to you. The lost generation decadence is right there in the gold plated filigree and belle époque style. Leave aside the fact that this particular design basically begs to be placed somewhere prominent on a bookshelf or a coffee table. Right now, assume the first thing you’re going to do after you get a copy of this book is dive right into the story: you’re hungry for a narrative! Before you do, though, this particular container is already telling you something – it’s drawing on the things you already know (and don’t know, or think you know) about Fitzgerald and his time. Imagine how reading this edition compares with reading the no frills black and orange Penguin. Does this particular copy contribute something to the overall experience of the story? Is it like the Japanese principle of being able to taste the preparation and presentation of the food?

Some kinds of content just don’t bear any deep connection to their containers – news articles are a great example: you could read a front-page story on the front page, or on an iPhone or in your browser window. The old saying goes, ‘today’s news is tomorrow’s chip wrapper’ and that’s a fine example of the valueless container (it actually becomes a container!). Now, contrast this to the kind of content that embraces its paper container – a novel by Mark Z. Danielewski, an issue of McSweeney’s, or just about any poem at all – these works all approach their containers as canvases of sorts and use the nature of the paper to make the content and the container a more rich whole. It’s true that when Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby he probably wasn’t thinking too much about how the text would look printed. But the contrast between Penguin’s simple no-frills design and it’s decorative counterpart make it clear the designers hope to make his content sing with some extra resonance.

Of course, circumstances do change: what’s convenient to read in bed is different to what’s convenient at the office, on a train or spending ten minutes in a cafe. Sometimes simple containers just make life easier: it’s easier to read an iPhone, for instance, while you stand up on the tram. But as we’ve discovered with food, convenience isn’t everything. A life consuming convenient meals has serious long-term consequences – and not only to your health. It can be rewarding to do something that takes longer, or requires a bit more effort, and usually these experiences make us feel good about ourselves and they endure as memories.

While considering all these ideas, I came across a great essay called ‘Books in the Age of iPad’ by the writer, designer, publisher (and by strange coincidence Japanophile) Craig Mod. In it, Mod, (who worked for a time developing for the digital magazine platform, Flipboard) took an in-depth look at the role of form and content for print and digital publishers. His conclusion for long-term life of print:


‘Of the books we do print – the books we make – they need rigor. They need to be books where the object is embraced as a canvas by designer, publisher and writer. This is the only way these books as physical objects will carry any meaning moving forward.’


I’m inclined to agree. Printed books promise to be our carefully presented delicacies – food for the mind that stimulates our intellectual taste buds even before we take the first bite.

Caroline Hamilton is a Killings columnist, and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne investigating the future of publishing, writing and reading. She has also written a book about the publishing success of Dave Eggers, One Man Zeitgeist.