Always good to paraphrase Morrissey in a blog post title, I find.
Something any book collector can't fail to notice is how your books look on the shelf. Whichever way you shelve your books – alphabetically by author, alphabetically by title (which, y'know, would just be weird and wrong, but anyway), grouped by author, grouped by author/date of publication (my preferred shelving system), randomly (geddouttahere) – chances are the formats of your books will vary noticeably, even if, like me, you're mostly collecting hardback first editions.
Basically, what I'm getting at here is, some books stand taller on the shelf than others.
With modern first editions, and in particular over the second half of the twentieth century, there's been a gradual growth in the size of novels (as in format/height, not extent: obviously a novel will be fatter or thinner depending on how long it is). I'm not quite sure why this is – many, many years ago size was determined by the folding of the sheets of paper, but that's less the case with modern printing methods – but you can almost chart the change decade by decade. Here's a snap of one of my shelves by way of example:
Now, this is probably a little confusing, as there are some American first editions mixed in with the British first editions, and sizes between the two counties vary. But generally speaking, the novels from the 1960s – those Kingsley Amis firsts on the left there – are usually quite small, around 71/2" (in fact the smallest hardbacks I own), while those from the 1970s – the various Fletches, Richard Price's The Wanderers – are more like 8" tall. The Hodder editions of Westlake's novels are taller again, more like 81/2", and those are also from the '70s, but that size seems to have become more widely accepted in the 1980s.
Here's a better example, showing how books continued to grow from the 1980s on:
Note the way those Robert Ludlum Bourne first editions grow throughout the series, even though they're all published by under same imprint, Grafton. The Bourne Identity dates from 1980 and is about 81/2" inches tall, same as Le Carre's Smiley's People next to it (published in the same year). The Bourne Supremacy was published in 1986, and that's another half-inch or so taller again. And then we get to The Bourne Ultimatum, published in 1990, which is about 93/4" tall. That's the height that seems to have become widely accepted from about 1990; most of the other books on that shelf I haven't yet mentioned date after that, excepting Banks' Canal Dreams, which was published in 1989, and so is smaller. (Ballard's Running Wild, published in 1988, bucks the trend by being the taller 1990s size. There's always one...)
Here's another pic showing book evolution:
The Highsmiths on the far left are from the early 1970s, all about 8", all published by Heinemann. There's a shift upwards from the mid-1970s through to the 1980s, with Ripley's Game through Found in the Street, all around 83/4", still published by Heinemann. And then there's the great leap upwards with 1991's Ripley Under Water and 1995's Small g: A Summer Idyll, both from Bloomsbury, both at the 93/4" size still in service today. You'll see that all of the Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos books next to those are at the same size, and they're all from the 2000s (although as ever, there's an exception: that 2000 edition of A Drink Before the War is more akin to the 1980s size. Once again, there's always one...)
There are accepted terms for the size of books, but you'll notice I haven't been using them. That's because, essentially, they're no bloody help at all. Most first editions from the mid-20th century onwards fall within the category known as Octavo, or 8vo, which is any book from 73/4" up to 93/4". That's a whole two inches difference just within that one size. Some of the books I've mentioned here, like those '60s Amis novels, would, strictly speaking, fall within the next category down, Duodecimo, or 12mo, which is any book from 63/4" to 73/4" (the Amis ones are about 71/2"). But if you look on AbeBooks or other online listings, even a lot of booksellers on there have those Amis novels down as being Octavo, when they clearly don't belong in that category. Seems Octavo has become a catch-all term for pretty much any hardback book.
So there you have it. The many sizes of books, with little of interest imparted and no conclusions reached. Gripping stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. The hours just fly by round at mine...
Finally, apropos of nothing, here's yet another picture of my Richard Starks, just 'cos I happened to be taking pictures of me books. Never let it be said that I waste an opportunity to show off: