The miniature book craze: stupid, boring, unnecessary

The Argument

Millions of teeny-tiny books are sold annually in the United States -- for no good purpose.

May 28, 2000|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,Sun Staff

Cousin Estelle is graduating from library school. Great Aunt Gladys got a nose job. The boss' sister-in-law brought home a new Chihuahua.

Special occasions such as these call for greeting cards -- little folded rectangles of sentimentality designed to say in writing everything that's too icky to say in person. So you go to the store and select a card, all the while wondering whether a card is really enough to mark this most momentous of occasions. While waiting in line at the register, something catches your eye: it's a book, a teeny-tiny, 2 3/4 by 3 1/4 -inch volume of wonder, just 127 pages long, that's so absolutely, fabulously, tremendously small and cute and perfect you simply cannot leave it behind. You buy the book, "Success for Dummies" by Zig Ziglar (Running Press, $4.95), attach it to the card and deliver it to Cousin Estelle. Mission accomplished.

Sound ridiculous? It's not. Millions of miniature books are sold each year to people who had no intention of buying them until an induced impulse stuck. These books -- which run between four and 270 pages long and measure about 3 1/2 by 4-inches -- cover such topics as golf ("To a Tee: The Spirit of Golf" by Mitchell Uscher, Andrews McMeel, $5.95), wine ("Wine Spectator's Little Book of Wine," Running Press, 127 pages, $4.95) and Ricky Martin ("Ricky Martin" by Michael-Anne Johns, Andrews McMeel, 80 pages, $4.95). They are usually positioned at the cash register as a sort of bookstore version of the candy and tabloids at grocery store checkouts.

"They're an impulse buy," confirms Hugh Andrews, vice president of sales and marketing for Andrews McMeel, one of two major publishers of small books. "They aren't always great works of literature. Most of them are just sentiment -- a 96-page greeting card with full-color illustrations."

My 10-month review of some of the hundreds of titles of small books in print tells me that good things don't come in small packages. Stupid, banal, boring, unnecessary books come in small packages. Book publishers should stop insulting readers by making such cheese.

It wasn't always this way. Miniature books have an illustrious history -- many of them the creations of artists, intended for learned people and royalty. The first miniature books date back to 2000 B.C., when Sumerians inscribed cuneiforms on clay tablets measuring less than two inches square. In the Middle Ages, small hand-written Bibles were popular. Wealthy women carried tiny prayer books from room to room in their castles. Travelers could take entire libraries with them on the road.

Earlier this year, a collection of 4,000 miniature books was put up for auction at Christie's in London. They ranged from an 1857 almanac for well-heeled ladies and gentlemen to a book from 1470 printed on vellum by Florentine monks to a Bible measuring a quarter the size of the smallest fingernail. The lot fetched more than $300,000.

Today's miniature books aren't about God or manners. They deal with topics such as feng shui and Jesse Ventura and can largely be divided into the following groups:

Books that mark a special occasion: weddings, births, graduations, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, the end of the school year -- no significant event is safe from a miniature book. Relying on these books for any information is a mistake, however. You're more likely to find stale quotes from people, famous and otherwise. Consider this gem from "For the Graduate" by Felicia Wiggins (Andrews McMeel, 80 pages $4.95) from the great philosopher and '80s pop star Sade: "You can't sustain success on a gimmick and no talent." Hmmmm ... where is she now?

Books that teach a skill: Read a miniature book and learn how to give a toast, order a hamburger in sign language, bake brownies or simplify your life. Running Press, another major publisher of small books, licenses the popular " ... For Dummies" guides from IDG Books, making it possible to learn how to date, garden, be successful and have sex all without having to do too much reading. Yet perhaps these subjects would be better served by a little less brevity. In "Sex for Dummies" (127 pages, $4.95) plucky "sexpert" Dr. Ruth Westheimer, advocates 10 steps toward becoming a "truly great lover" beginning with "Don't make love on your first date" and ending with "Learn to adapt to your circumstances." Want more information? Buy the big book.

Books about a single subject, person or trend: What do gardening, pretty boy pop band 98 Degrees, Star Wars and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura have in common? All are topics of miniature books currently in print. For fanatics of a certain sport or celebrity or movie franchise, a miniature book feeds their need to know as much as possible about their most favorite topic. Consider this: Two books about Star Wars published by Running Press have sold in excess of one million copies combined.

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