When it comes to music and literature, the digital age has reduced the need for physical objects of art, but not their appeal. The surge in demand for new vinyl records demonstrates the persistence of the physical.
So does the thriving business of self-publishing. At a time when anyone can blog to his or her heart's content, or can write, lay out, and make available a book in PDF form, writers (from the talented to the deluded) continue to seek the prestige of creating printed books with their name on the cover.
Then there is the persistence of high-quality small presses like the Pushkin Press, a London firm that publishes a select number of artistically designed literary titles. Pushkin has just come out with a new, sweet little edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and in addition to being nicely designed, it's a good reminder of the relationship – still intimate after millennia – between literature and physical objects.
This book would be a good gift for any lover of poetry or Shakespeare. Even for someone who already has the Sonnets, either by themselves or in a Complete Shakespeare, putting this volume on one's shelf might be more like hanging a new painting by a favorite artist than like repeating something. The hand-sized format makes the poems much easier to read than they are in any huge hardcover volume. Even if you don't read them, leaving the book carefully tossed somewhere in your living room is bound to impress your guests. Just don't let them eat their cakes and ale near it – it's too good-looking for that risk.
The newcomer to Shakespeare's sonnets should be forewarned that, with some exceptions, they are tricky to understand. Shakespeare's use of the English language is so brilliantly compressed that the meaning of many of the poems can be tough to fathom on first or second reading; in some cases they will elude understanding until you take the time to look up some professorial analysis. Fortunately, that sort of thing is easy to find on the internet.
But wait, there's more – you also get "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun", and "Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments." And with the sonnets you get all that intrigue about whether Shakespeare and the "fair youth" were lovers, and whether the mysterious "dark lady" was of African descent. Delve in and you might start wondering if there's a code to the Holy Grail somewhere in there.
The book comes in a choice of three covers: a general edition, a Dark Lady edition, and the one I have, the Fair Youth edition. The cover of the last shows a 16th-century painting by Pontormo in which two young men gaze intensely at the viewer, apparently just now distracted from a written document one is holding and the other pointing to. The picture captures how the written word can draw people together, not just intellectually, as on the internet, but physically. "There is more life in one of your fair eyes," says Shakespeare, "than both your poets can in praise devise" (Sonnet LXXXIII). Whatever one's literary skills, one has to see a person's eyes to have a thought like that.
View the different covers at the publisher's website.
Available at Amazon.co.uk. Outside the UK, or to order a specific cover, email the distributor, Combined Book Services (UK), or call +44 1892 837171, and refer to the ISBN desired.
(three people 'General' cover) SONNETS SHAKESPEARE ISBN: 9781901285994
(two women 'Dark Lady' cover) SONNETS SHAKESPEARE ISBN: 9781901285994 MSONDL
(two men 'Fair Youth' cover) SONNETS SHAKESPEARE ISBN: 9781901285994 MSONFY
Gift Set (a set of all three editions/covers) priced at £30. ISBN 978 1 906548 00 1