The Beauty of Books

Art & Culture

With all my New Year’s Resolutions broken before I even had a chance to have a proper go at them (too wet to go running, sourdough starter didn’t take, drinking, it turns out, is a day-to-day necessity, et cetera) I decided to at least write down some thoughts that have been pervading and plaguing my mind for quite some time. In the world of publishing and books, everybody seems to agree that 2010 marked the beginning of digitisation and as a result the death of books is meant to be a matter of when and not if. The future of the book is apparently bleak, with reportedly selling more ebooks than hardbacks and with publishers from far and wide throwing their money at developing ebooks, with enhanced content, phone and tablet apps and whatever else making technologists drool. The year has barely begun and digital sales are already expected to save the book industry.

I know that there are lots of people who don’t believe that physical books will die out and needless to say I am one of them. I agree that there are obvious advantages to having certain books (textbooks, reference books or even manuals) on an electronic reader (search facilities, easy to carry around, et cetera). But for me the most exciting influence technology can have on books and the publishing industry is how it can transform physical books rather than replace them.

Take the quirky and innovative publisher Visual Editions as an example. According to VE, “books should be as visually interesting as the stories they tell; with the visual feeding into and adding to the storytelling as much as the words on the page”. VE are publishing books that use “visual writing”, which as the name suggests, is using visual elements as an essential part of a story. Visual elements can include photographs, crossed out words, blank pages and/or die-cuts. Anything goes really. As Jonathan Safran-Foer already used visual writing in Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, his underwhelming follow-up novel to the brilliant Everything is Illuminated, it was a no brainer that VE should approach him about working together. As a result Tree of Codes was born. I had a feeling that this book would do well and sure enough the first print run sold out, with Foyles saying it did extremely well for them over the Christmas period. If you are a book lover, why wouldnt you want a beautiful, creative and unique book in your Christmas stocking?

And so, as ever, in my typically un-succinct and confusing way I meant to say that technology won’t necessarily kill books, but that it could revive them. It feels as though the possibilities of what can be published are all of a sudden endless. Sure, my example of the cut-up technique has actually been around in literature since the 1920s and was popularised by William Burroughs but its publishers like VE who are taking it to a whole new level. Technology has the potential to emphasise and bring out the beauty in books that has been lost in these days of Richard and Judy, threefortwo mindless blockbusters, mass production for mass consumption and playing-it-safe-big-name-authors. Visual Editions are not alone in experimenting and redefining the limits of what a book is. Nobrow Press and Ditto Press are also producing stunning and innovative books that make you think that the notion of books dying is still some way away. Here then is to the future of books, technologically inspired to take us back to what books used to be: beautiful and irreplaceable.

Check Matthias Mueller’s excellent Cultural Constellations blog where this is taken from.