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.
Sure the information in miniature books is warmed over, sure it's incomplete. But without miniature books, how else would anyone ever know why Ricky Martin performs live so much (to sound real) and what object Ventura would most want to be reincarnated as (a 38-DD)?
Books meant to inspire: Miniature books may come and go, but inspirational psychobabble lasts forever. "Chicken Soup for the Soul" and "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" books are available as miniatures, as are dozens of other titles designed to empower and enlighten. "Believing in Ourselves: The Wisdom of Women" (Ariel/Andrews McMeel, 79 pages, $4.95) title that pairs inspirational quotes with reproductions of Impressionist paintings is one of the company's top sellers, selling about one million copies. Why is it so popular? No one really knows. "It resonates with people," Andrews said. "It's magic."
Humor books: More punchlines than books, titles like "The Little Book of Wrong Shui: How to Drastically Improve Your Life by Basically Moving Stuff Around" and "The Little Book of Stress" by Rohan Candappa (Andrews McMeel, $4.95) might seem mildly humorous upon first glance. Get some sleep and come to the realization that you would have been better off spending $5 on some magic beans instead.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of miniature books is what to do with them after you've read them. They're too small to hold their own on a regular-sized bookshelf. Running Press makes little brass bookends to hold their little books, but buying a pair may seem too Martha Stweart -- it does to me.
The books would have worked in a gift basket, on a table or in a bathroom. No thanks. Too Martha Stewart. I tried using a book as a coaster for a margarita, but it was too small. Then I attempted to better my posture by walking around with a copy of "Another Soup of Chicken Soup for the Soul" on my head for a couple of minutes. My slouching did not improve.
There is little sign of miniature books going away. If anything the trade is growing. The quality and intelligence of these books, meanwhile, is going nowehere.
Books are important, at least they are to me. Good books are eternal and permanent. The ones I treasure I go back to again and again, just as people in the Middle Ages and the 19th century returned to their miniature books for solace and inspiration, learning something new each time.
There is little use trying to find a place for my miniatures, I realized. I won't be going back to them. They don't hold anything I'll ever need again -- or that I ever needed on first reading.
Dejected, I piled the three-dozen little books on the corner of my desk at work. They slipped and slid off my desk and onto the floor. Thunk.
One volume, "A Don't Sweat the Small Stuff Treasury: A Special Collection for the Office" fell into the trash can.
I left it there.
Maria Blackburn is the assistant to the book editor at The Sun. She helps cull, for substance, something in the range of 2,500 books a month. Except for 10 months of off and on research for this article, she does not read miniatures.