The Book, Unfolded (Part 2)

Re-examining the form of the book in the 21st century. The first part of this essay is here.

That print increasingly hypnotized the Western world is nowadays the theme of all historians of art and science alike, because we no longer live under the spell of the isolated visual sense. We have not yet begin to ask under what new spell we exist.
 — Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy

Cover to 8 Souls in a Bomb by F. T. Marinetti

Tomorrow I’ll be greener

At the beginning of the 20th century, Italian Futurists were extremely frustrated by their present. They longed to be free of a lot of things: the weight of their own imperial history, liberal democracy, and feminism (one of the few traditions they did not long to escape was the patriarchy they had inherited from ancient Greece). In 1913, four years after writing the Futurist Manifesto, the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti wrote an essay titled “Destruction of Syntax — Wireless Imagination — Words-in-Freedom,” in which he demanded freedom from the linear type of the printed page, which is structured according to a grid. Founded originally as a literary movement, the book was high on their list of restrictive structures to break. Their expressive typographic layouts broke the grid.

The thing about mechanized type is that it physically restricts the designer from creating a loose, unstructured layout. I once watched a class of my students, who had been trained to use type with digital software, as they attempted to create simple typographic compositions on an old-fashioned hand press. One by one, each saw their first attempts at expressive layouts literally crumble on a machine made for securing modular typographic units in straight lines. The logic of the tool they were using forced each to eventually create neatly ordered layouts. Even if I had wished to (though I hadn’t), I never could have directed them to abandon their first design concepts so completely and uniformly as that machine did.

In 1913, the emerging technology which made it possible to rebel against the visual order and consistency of the printed page was photography. The turn of the twentieth century was an age in which anxiety about protecting the integrity of the book was high. The Arts & Crafts movement’s “book beautiful” reached its pinnacle in the Dove’s Press Bible printed in 1903. Members of the private press movement in England, led by William Morris, were intending to protect the book from the Industrial era by perfecting its form. Like the Futurists, they were using the printed page as a battleground. Part of their strategy was to revive typographic styles from a time before the dark satanic mills started hungrily stealing type from its original, higher purpose, as intended by Gutenberg: the book.

Poor old type had been through a lot by the end of the Victorian era. Commercial typographers blowing it up to cartoonish proportions or chopping off its delicate serifs for display use in advertising. Morris intended to rescue it. However, he used photography himself as part of the process of documenting and reviving its 15th century origins. Despite his aspirations, he wasn’t actually living in the time prior to the industrial age any more than the next guy. Naturally, he used the most efficient available technology to achieve his ends. It was the same technology — in the form of photo-engraved printing plates — that freed Marinetti to attack rather than to preserve, as he was free to create layouts by hand and then reproduce them independently of traditional typesetting. There is an irony to this. Morris used emerging technology to protect the book from mechanization by mimicking its typographic (mechanical by definition) origins, while Marinetti expressed his dedication to the machine in type laid out by hand, overriding the mechanical nature of Gutenberg’s press.

Marinetti’s desire to “spit on the altar of Art” extended to the form of the book (and as a writer, it was his home to demolish although, as a poet, his relationship with the aesthetics of typeset language might be more flexible). In Wireless Imagination, he writes,

“As we discover new analogies between distant and apparently contrary things, we will endow them with an ever more intimate value…To represent the life of a blade of grass, I say, “Tomorrow I’ll be greener.”

This is a rare point of connection between Marinetti and me. I believe in the grass’s re-emergence each spring too.

Jan Tschichold, Die Konstruktivisten, Poster for exhibition in the Kunsthalle Basel, 1937

Design is not for designers

Like many avant-garde movements in the early twentieth century, Futurists were influenced by Jan Tschichold’s vision in the teens and twenties for a “New Typography,” which would break with tradition, championing the sans serif, asymmetrical, and graphic, elevating the un-book-like to a higher cultural plane.

Tschichold himself, however, developed in a different direction. In exile from Nazi Germany, where he’d been detained for un-German type, rather than doubling down on the principles he’d established in his book The New Typography, he grew wary of dogma. By the 1950s his focus was on whether a given book layout was appropriate and well-crafted, even that meant using traditional serifed, symmetrical elements. It’s notable that he moved in this direction as an art director for Penguin.

The content we work to shape as designers also shapes us, and it may have been the effect of communicating literary and poetic text that increased his flexibility, while, As Jost Hochuli and Robin Kinross point out in Designing Books, the Modernists Tschichold split from often tended to work more on catalogues and annual reports.

In 1958, Tschichold wrote in his essay Graphic Arts and Book Design, “If [the typography of books] takes on elements of advertising graphics, it abuses the sanctity of the written word by coercing it to serve the vanity of a graphic artist incapable of discharging his duty as a mere lieutenant.” Tschichold describes himself as serving both the content and the needs of the reader. He wasn’t especially humble about his work (and he relies upon the authority of “good taste”), but the position he describes is both humble and flexible. Kenya Hara (the lead designer at MUJI, discussed in the first part of this essay) describes the role of the designer similarly, saying in an interview with Typeradio, “Design is very important, but the designer is not so important. Design is not for designers… Design is a very important concept [for achieving] world peace…I should be a person who carries the concept of design, who realizes the concept of design.” Their larger goal is shared, but Hara sees himself a member of a body working toward peace, whereas Tschichold defines himself as part of an army.

A sun is a star

In thinking and writing about the structure of the book, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) explores how we are shaped by communications technology. Hara references this book in his own collection of thoughts on the future of print in Designing Design. The title Gutenberg Galaxy implies an order which centres the man who facilitated moveable type in Europe, and McLuhan, tries to make visible the impact of mechanical type upon European culture. Writing in 1962, still in fairly early days of competing media formats like radio and television, McLuhan had a new vantage point from which to view the printed word, a critical distance, which he described as allowing him to step outside of a hypnotic spell, while noting that a new hypnotic spell was being cast by new technology as he did so. I think about this as I scroll through twitter.

Less well-known than McLuhan is fellow Canadian Harold Innis, one of McLuhan’s influential teachers. In his book The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis traces the implications of changes in communication technologies over time, beginning with a quote from Hegel: “Minerva’s owl begins its flight only in the gathering dusk.” With this supernatural bird’s eye view, Innis traces and links a wide variety of communication systems as they develop, overlap, and sometimes disintegrate historically, along with the social and political systems they help engender and challenge, spanning from Mesopotamia through to the time of his writing in the 1950s. In Innis’ galaxy, Gutenberg is a single star among many, and that may be because he prefers to observe Gutenberg’s contribution from a greater distance.

Innis notes that although there are differences between cultures with inaccessible writing systems (requiring extensive training to execute, such as the cuneiform), and those with simple and flexible systems of writing, and those with an oral tradition, he allows these systems to overlap and mingle. Simple writing systems do not eradicate the hierarchies that inaccessible writing systems create. Instead, processes of change and adaptation facilitate what Innis calls “monopolies of knowledge,” an example of which is the spread of the vernacular following the invention of the printing press. Oral traditions, Innis writes, are “easy to assume as being the most flexible, but [are] often bound by custom.” In both China and Greece, for example, Innis notes how strong oral traditions develop cultural institutions in conjunction with writing, even bolstering each other. Closer to home, Innis points out the key role the oral tradition continues to play in our own classrooms.

Innis and Hara both help reveal and unpack the common tendency to classify different media in opposition to one another, a tendency that also often hierarchically frames the book in terms of its supposed moral character — the page is good, the screen is bad — rather than its basic utility. In The Wordy Shipmates, a history of the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, Sarah Vowell notes, “Puritan lives were overwhelmingly, fanatically, literary. Their single-minded obsession with one book — the Bible — made words the centre of their lives. Not land, not money, not power, not fun.” Does this community’s obsession with the written word make them, as a culture, unusually devoted to language? I wouldn’t reach the same conclusion. When Solomon Ratt, a Woods Cree speaker and professor in the department of Indigenous Languages, Arts and Cultures at the First Nations University of Canada, drew a diagram of the elements of Cree culture, for example, he also placed language — the word he used is pîkiskwêwin — at the centre. Vowell’s larger story — about the Puritans’ devotion to, and use of, the Bible as an anchor for their community and the mistrust of written authority that grew within many evangelical communities that followed them — is culturally and historically specific, yet the core love and need for language is revealingly common and human.

Solomon Ratt’s Elements of Cree Culture via Cree Literacy Network

The codex has been around much longer than the Gutenberg press, as have printed manuscripts. The oldest surviving printed manuscript is a 9th century Chinese scroll made of seven sheets of paper pasted together. The scroll was also a standard format in Rome until, as Innis notes, “Parchment in the codex replaced papyrus in the roll.” One group that emerged during the long history of the Roman Empire who made extensive use of this new material and format combination was Christians. The four gospels of the New Testament, for example, require four rolls or a single codex. Furthermore, as Innis notes, the “codex with durability of parchment and ease of consultation emphasized size and authority in the book.” The codex is what the pilgrims brought with them, and along with it, what became the core American principles of democratic government. These ideas were efficiently carried along the straight lines of Gutenberg’s modular technology as upon a roman road.

The clean rectangular shape of the codex is not a form found in nature. It is orderly and an extremely efficient storage format. Long-form type organized in a clean rectangle makes the eye’s job of locating and beginning each new line of text easy, so easy that the act of scanning can become unconscious, allowing the reader to focus on the ideas making up the text. A reader can take in information according to their own speed and rhythm . But the apparent authority of the printed book and what it means for the book to lose that authority — the cultural implications of that — are central to what is at stake when discussing the future of the book. This is actually the same worry spawned by the invention of the printing press: we went through this when the scriptoria emptied out.

The Form of the Book Book, 2009

The joy of books

What about our living, personal relationships with books now? In the 17th century, booksellers would sell separate signatures (sections of the book which are collated by binding) that buyers could select, order and then choose a binding for, even providing their own material for the cover. Such a book might not have a cover because that, too, was a choice. Once the book was assembled, the owner eventually had the pleasure of slicing the pages open before turning them for the first time. This kind of bespoke, customized experience is very different from ordering an edition on demand today, with its inexpensive web offset printed pages, consistent (and marketing-approved) cover, and pre-trimmed pages. To be honest, I enjoy the convenience of the pre-made book. I’m a greedy reader, and I don’t find the idea of having to put my everyday reading material together by piecemeal as a regular task too appealing. I would rather have the time to read than assemble. Maybe I should acknowledge here that I assemble books for other readers as my own profession. And it may be that I am a greedy reader partly because I grew up in a time and place where books are so available that I simply cannot keep up with their abundance. This is an era of ever-peaking consumption. Head of sustainability Steve Howard at IKEA said in 2016 that we have reached peak home furnishings, and that, “we’ve hit peak red meat, peak sugar, peak stuff ….” Are we at peak book?

The Japanese organizing consultant Marie Kondo has sold over 8 million copies of a book herself, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, that has a whole chapter devoted to “decluttering [getting rid of excess] books.” She is best known for the concept of only keeping items in your home that “spark joy.” Her approach is very similar to William Morris’s well-known axiom: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” But instead of beauty as a measure, it’s the positive emotion that an object “sparks” in the owner that she follows. This direction can make people angry and when applied to books, even more so.

If much of design practice today relates to inspiring people to purchase goods, Kondo looks at how we live with items after we purchase them. One woman who consulted with Kondo had so many books that she stacked them in piles covering her staircase, forming a thick layer. How did this woman feel about her books when she not only couldn’t part with them, but also walked on them every day, squashing their spines and risking hers?

I say this as book designer, I think looking at her methodology is worthy, even if you don’t actually, physically, do it. Her method is this: Take all of your books off of your shelves. Gently clap the dust off each one. Hold the book but don’t open it. Keep it if it makes you feel good and put it back on the shelf. It’s the not checking inside part of the process that’s most interesting to me; it recognizes that books are often much more than the content of the text within them. A book with a permanent place in Kondo’s shelf is Alice in Wonderland, a book she describes as being in her “personal Hall of Fame,” meaning a book that she wishes to live with, as opposed to read and pass on.

Kondo’s own book exists in the context of our age. She would not have needed to declutter Montaigne’s library. He had only five shelves, custom built to fit the south-most tower of the Château de Montaigne in the Dordogne département of France — forming a bridge between the linear efficiency of the codex and the rounded medieval architecture that remained standing in the new world, even as its role as “the handwriting of the human race” had begun to give way to the printed page.

As I was writing this, I thought about my own personal relationship with books. I gave away most of mine, and I don’t regret it. My husband kept most of his, and he doesn’t regret that, either. It’s working out for me: I’ve started reading his, among them, The Bias of Communication, by Harold Innis, who inspired this essay. One of my favourite book memories is of the hymnals at one of my schools. The books were communal and belonged to the school’s chapel. These were small, thick books with wordless, grass-green linen covers and soft white pages. The text inside was plain black, no images. They were a satisfying weight on your lap during a long sermon. They were fun to snap shut with one hand (this was also forbidden, technically). They probably smelled nice.

The chapel was small and every surface was polished dark wood. We dressed in grey, so the books were the brightest item in the space. My own hands grew over the years I held these books; our respective scale changed. The books did not contain music for the hymns — we learned melodies from the community — but they contained the memory of that music. This is an example of the codex as a haptic experience, of touching more than one sense. This speaks to Hara’s idea of balance — balancing the senses, not prioritizing them — as well as to Kondo’s point that the book, as an object, is one we relate to emotionally as well as intellectually. What was the purpose of these books? Partly, they were to allow us to follow songs together as a community, which is how we started each day. We only ever sang about 25 of the hymns out of the few hundred in the book — the songs our community preferred, and knew, and preferred through our knowing them. But the thickness of the books and the durable binding felt much different than a collection of photocopies. Each hymnal was solid, a member of a whole, and maybe that was its main job.

I enjoy reading about other people’s individual relationships with their books. I found Montaigne through Nick Hornby’s diary of reading in a collection of his essays called Housekeeping vs. the Dirt. Hornby recommended the Montaigne biography I quoted, How to Live, by Sarah Bakewell. And through Bakewell I read about the essays that Montaigne, in trying to accurately observe and convey his own life, wrote and rewrote and rewrote, perhaps remaining unfinished, but edited and re-edited, then published, then becoming banned, then republished, and now studied, translated and annotated, passing through different hands well into a future that Montaigne never would have imagined, and yet each time emerging as his own voice: a constant, “a mirror in which other people recognize their own humanity,” a star viewed in parallax, one out of millions. Isn’t it great?

A version of this essay was originally published in Amphora, Issue №178, the journal of The Alcuin Society.