Logically, the very idea of boxed sets of books should be off-putting to any serious reader. Boxed sets are constricted affairs, after all, hemmed in on five sides, when books themselves are famously near-fluid things, not only physically (I’ve had them fit into virtually any shape, often unpredictable ones brought on by shameful neglect) but conceptually (what kind of monster would think of The Duke’s Children as “one of a set”?). A boxed set of books seems to want to warn off the riff-raff, to sternly patrol the associations of its inmates; I once knew a reckless free spirit who use to swap out the titles in her boxed sets, putting four Star Trek novels into the middle of Churchill’s history of the Second World War, and such like antics. She claimed she liked to design her own color schemes, but you could practically hear the boxes themselves scowling in outrage at the violation of their clearly-printed order. Boxed sets like things just so, and if a series of books continues to grow, the boxed sets of that series studiously expand themselves to keep up, often to the dismay of their orderly souls (Twilight and Harry Potter have finally stopped expanding – for now – but A Song of Fire and Ice is still growing like yeast, requiring a new boxed set once every ten years when a new volume appears).
Despite this rather fascist leaning, however, there’s something ineffably appealing about these little book-modules. One part of the appeal is purely practical: boxed sets are easy to put places – unlike all other books in your library, these come with their own bookends. Hell, they come with their own book-shelves. Storage-wise, boxed sets are worlds unto themselves, disdainful of shelf-space, strangers to the toy-soldier domino effect of falling-over that can strike simple shelved books at any time. Boxed sets know what they’re about.
And boxed sets can be stacked on top of each other without the whole manuever feeling somehow disrespectful to the individual books involved. For the serious book-accumulator, stackable books are a very near approximation of paradise.
Perhaps most intuitively of all, boxed sets are chunky little badges of accomplishment. They signify a series – whatever kind of series – conquered (or at least they once did, back when book-accumulators actually read their books, instead of glaze-eyed gazing at them during quiet moments in “Call of Duty”). The whopping huge Penguin boxed set of the great David Womersley Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire speaks, um, volumes about the sheer physical courage of its owner, as does the pretty new heavy boxed set of Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy, or, less elevatedly (but even more massively), the Complete Calvin and Hobbes, weighing in at something like ten pounds. Boxed sets like these don’t just furnish a room – they loudly assert a reputation. They warn unsuspecting visitors that when it comes to reading, you don’t you-know-what around. This impression is prized in inverse relation to how true it is, so it’s mighty popular (intimidated readers who bought Penguin’s old two-volume boxed set of War & Peace tended to hide it when snooty company came calling).
And it’s a lucky thing boxed sets have these factors in their favor, because to be quite honest, they tend not to work very hard. It’s not just that the boxes themselves are poorly made, although they are (if you politely drop a boxed set onto the floor from waist-height, it will neatly split apart on impact into its component segments, like an orange). And it’s not the grubby matter of price, although it’s been a good twenty years since even the most generous publisher offered an actual financial savings for buying the boxed set as opposed to the individual volumes (long-suffering book clerks must still explain this fact to bewildered shoppers every holiday season – “What’s the price if I buy the boxed set?” Sigh. “The price of all the books inside it. The box is free”).
No, it’s that typically when you buy a boxed set, you get nothing extra for your hard-earned money. The boxes themselves long ago stopped sporting any original illustrations, although sometimes, in rare instances, the cover-design of the component volumes will be arranged in such a way that all the spines together comprise a picture – the very nice Patrick O’Brian set from ten years ago was an example of this (rumor has it that an equally nice large Chekhov set did likewise, but that remains unverified). The boxed set of Samuel Eliot Morison’s Oxford History of the American People came with a handy timeline-pamphlet wedged in with the three volumes, but that kind of munificence is all but unknown today.
Indeed, the boxed set has fallen on harder times than it’s ever known in its scrappy century of popular usage. Publishers once produced them by the dozens, especially at the year-end holiday season (it was once common practice for bookstores to designate a table and pile it high with boxes), but nowadays they’re chary of asking too much from potential buyers. Anniversaries and special occasions will always warrant the boxed treatment – this season, for instance, William Manchester’s epic Winston Churchill biography will finally warrant it (and someday Robert Caro’s Johnson run will join it?). But the days of the old standbys showing up like clockwork – The Dragonriders of Pern, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, even The Gulag Archipelago – appear to be over, and the boxed sets of the new digital world will be unrecognizable, governed by their own eccentricities.
And in the meantime, all those great colorful – and oddly inviting – old boxed sets can be stacked and re-stacked according to the feng shui of any old place.