- British artist Su Blackwell’s wonderful book-cut sculptures
- Discharged books from the Stanford library find new life as a bar
- Part Joseph Cornell box, part book about Joseph Cornell boxes (for more info)
- A selection of works by Georgia Russell, Cara Borer, and other artists whose medium is books
- German designer Werner Aisslinger’s storage modules, made of books, and then there’s Housefish’s shelves made of books
- Secret hiding place book-boxes
- Donald Lipski’s statue for the Kansas City Public Library
- J. Crew’s variations on the chic librarian: Library bookshelf cardigan & library charm bracelet
- Raymond Waites library wallpaper & a bookcase “mural“…
- And finally: Ever wanted a marble bust of Schiller? Burns? Voltaire, Darwin, Plato, or Dante? Look no further
One might think that physical books are on the verge of extinction, given all the consternation over ebooks of late. There's a faction in this debate that predicts that physical books will become something of a rarity as the ebook market matures and the technologies involved become ubiquitous. In a sleek, shiny, distant future, books may feel old and impossibly large, with too much physical mass and all these fussy pages put to use for the simple task of storing a tiny amount of data, data that is not searchable or copy and pasteable or malleable and interactive in the ways we expect of our data. These devices, one imagines, might seem incredibly blunt to our future selves, unitaskers in world where our gadgets and machines can do all. And yet there is and will always be some beauty in books. And there will always be people who appreciate that beauty. Even if books eventually become the province of collectors and the peculiar few who fetishize them as objects, there will be attractive qualities to them. They are something like snowflakes or at least stamps, so many and so few alike. Even now, books revel in their oldness. Rough-cut, or deckle-edge pages are popular flourishes on many editions. And beneath dust jackets are canvas covered boards, often with embossed lettering and archaic-looking monograms. The deckle edge dates back to a time when you used to need a knife to read a book. Those rough edges simulate the look of pages that have been sliced open by the reader. The printing happened on large sheets of paper which were then folded into rectangles the size of the finished pages and bound. The reader then sliced open the folds.* Paper knives, variants of letter openers, were used for this purpose. Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, which speaks directly to the reader and describes the reader's experience reading the novel, makes extensive reference to these literary knives: This volume's pages are uncut: a first obstacle opposing your impatience. Armed with a good paper knife, you prepare to penetrate its secrets. With a determined slash you cut your way between the title page and the beginning of the first chapter. Opening a book can already feel like opening a gift. Armed with a knife and freeing the pages and the story hidden beneath the folds, it becomes something more, "a penetration of its secrets" and an act of discovery, shot through with a suggestion of violence and danger or of the painful gestation of the words themselves. This act of cutting open pages to read a book has been lost (one imagines the paper knife arrangement wouldn't go over well with the TSA), and right now, all over the world, people are reading their books on screens and the idea of even opening a cover and turning pages may one day seem odd as well. This idea of the book as an anachronism may explain the persistence of the deckle edge, which is now created not by the reader with a knife but by leaving one edge of the page untrimmed during the printing and binding process. Peggy Samedi, an associate production manager, told me that at Knopf where she works the deckle edge is part of the publisher's "house style" along with certain other flourishes and fonts. It is typically used for more literary-oriented books and they see it as "something that harkens back to an older way." It rises from the idea, she says, that "not everything has to be smooth and slick." Nonetheless, the production department at Knopf regularly fields calls from readers who complain about the ragged edges, assuming they are a mistake. If you look closely at a deckle edge, even if you are looking at two copies of the same book, you'll see slight variations in the edges. And from title to title and publisher to publisher, the quality and pattern of the edges varies more extensively, from a tight saw-tooth, when looking from the top of the book down the edge of the pages, to a more free-form ragged look. The deckle edge varies, not because it is made by hand, but because the machinery for making books varies slightly from factory to factory. Perhaps this deckle edge is a way for publishers to prepare for the inevitable. As ebooks and ereaders contrive to make the reading process as simple as pushing a button, physical books will regress to older and older forms, so as to appeal more to the antiquated among us who still prefer them to their digital doppelgangers. Deckle-edges will prevail, uncut pages will re-emerge, embossing will become more elaborate. In time it will be said, to own a book is to be a purist, and these are the books that purists will prefer. *A reader wrote in with a correction/clarification to the above: "There are two kinds of rough edges one can find in older books. The deckle edge is an artifact of papermaking, in which the paper fiber seeps under the "deckle" (the wooden frame placed on top of a screen used to drain the slurry of fiber and water). Even before machine-made paper, the deckle edge was sometimes trimmed, sometimes not. From what I can tell, there wasn't a sensibility about it before the advent of machine-made paper. The separate issue of "unopened" (not "uncut") pages has to do with the folding of a printed sheet, the signature, into the final book. Printers could, and often did, trim the edges and remove either the folded part of the signature there as well as the deckle edge. Or not. I've talked with book historians, and I can't find a reason why some books had unopened pages and others not. In any case, it results in two kinds of rough edges. The deckle edge as a result of the artifact of papermaking; and the unopened edge after being cut with a knife, which results from a decision made during binding. You can see the difference in examining a book, as the deckle edge is feathered and soft, while a knife-cut edge is rough and can be jagged. (It also depends on the "grain," or the predominant direction in which the fibers are oriented, which affects how paper curls or stays straight, too. Books are usually printed with the grain perpendicular to the spine, so the pages don't curl inward, but that results in a very jagged edge when the pages are cut.)" [Image credit: Horia Varlan]
Shortly after I turned in my new novel, The Stager, my editor sent me a startling black and white photograph of a woman in a chair. The woman is in a state of graceful repose, with long legs extending into strappy black shoes. She is sultry, sexy, and extremely unsettling. She appears to be beautiful even though you cannot see her face because she is wearing a mask. The art director was suggesting updating this image to use as the cover of the book. It was apparently an iconic Bauhaus photograph. I could toss the word Bauhaus around as well as the next person, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant, apart from having something to do with Germany and a slim treatise on architecture by Tom Wolfe. That Bauhaus might also involve Jungian images of women in chairs was surprising; more puzzling was what this had to do with my novel -- a dark comedy about home staging set in suburban Maryland. But to be honest, I didn’t really care. I loved this photograph in all its weirdness and, more to the point, I was just relieved that no one was proposing slapping on my novel the image of a woman holding a briefcase, a baby, or a mop. The updated image that was created for the book jacket hewed closely to the original, but now that it was infused with color and light, not to mention the comical silhouette of the belligerent rabbit who plays a central role in the book, the cover seemed more playful than spooky -- or so I thought. Not everyone I showed it to agreed; my agent reported that the British publishers thought the cover was “too S&M,” for example. Still, the more I studied it, the more I could see a perfect symmetry with the narrative. At the center of the novel is a home stager whose job involves coming into a house to strip it of personality, to depersonalize it so that others can see themselves living there -- to mask the interior. The home stager, as it happens, is masked, herself. She’s incognito in the home of her former best friend, about whom she knows secrets. And the home is full of symbolic totems from their past. Masks and more masks. While I was in high gear connecting the dots on all the mask symbolism, a friend looked at the photograph and became nearly apoplectic when he saw the chair the woman was sitting in. It’s a Wassily, he explained. “The most disturbing chair in the world, next to the electric.” With its black leather straps in place of cushions, not only is its appearance formidable, but it is evidently quite uncomfortable. Sitting in it feels like having a broomstick shoved up a certain part of the anatomy, or so I was informed. I had never heard of a Wassily chair. I take pride in my house and I care about my surroundings, but my own sensibility leans decidedly toward the Anthropologie catalogue with a little Pottery Barn mixed in, which is to say that there is no rigorous intellectual underpinning to the way I have put together my home. Also, modern furniture has no place in my design lexicon, so the chair on the cover barely caught my eye. A little research turned up the following: made of tubular steel and inspired by the construct of a bicycle, the chair was originally called the model B3. It was designed by Marcel Breuer in the mid-1920s, when he was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus. The painter Wassily Kandinsky evidently admired it, and Breuer made a copy for his quarters. Years later, when it was reproduced in mass quantities, it was named the Wassily. The chair needed to go in the book, my friend said. But I was unconvinced; the Wassily does not belong in the shabby chic faux Tudor mansion where the story is set. Besides, by this point I had already been sent the copy-edited proofs. Adding the chair was going to require a fair amount of work on a project I had psychologically declared finished. But my friend persisted; the chair was on the cover for a reason, he said, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of furniture books on my desk and was reading From Bauhaus to Our House and a doorstop called 1,000 Chairs. The chair inserted itself rather easily, despite my resistance. One of my characters is a Swedish tennis pro who, now that he is no longer on the circuit, has developed a shopping addiction. It turns out that he acquired this chair on eBay, and that it had once been owned by three-time Wimbledon champ Boris Yablonsky. This felt like one of the most natural sentences I’d written in my life. The chair was out of place in this house, facing the wall in the living room like a forlorn child sent to the corner for misbehaving. The owner of the chair did not belong in this house, either, as it happened. He was going quietly insane, strung out on an alphabet soup of prescription drugs which were causing even crazier side-effects. By the time I finished the final page proofs, the chair had wormed its way not only into the final scene, but was referenced on page one. The more I bonded with this chair, the more I wanted to know about both Bauhaus and the original photograph. A little research turned up the fact that the woman behind the mask is either Ise Gropius, wife of Walter Gropius, founder and leader of the Bauhaus school of modern architectural design, (who later served as chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of design) or Lis Beyer, a Bauhaus student. The fact that no one -- not even, evidently, the curator of an exhibit at MOMA, where this photograph appeared in 2009 -- could definitively identify this woman was its own form of intrigue, and a puzzle I might explore further, perhaps even with an eye toward my next book. Life inspires art and art inspires life and truth is stranger than fiction. Add to this: art inspires fiction, and fiction inspires art. And let’s raise a glass to art directors whose visions inform the books, themselves.
Like we did last year, we're going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year's Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it's interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments. At first glance, these are both a little cheesy, but closer inspection of the American cover reveals a clever trick: the shadow of the cake is the silhouette of our despondent protagonist. The U.K. cover, meanwhile, is a bit too on the nose. Lemons, check. Cake, check. Particular Sadness, check. These are both appropriate creepy, and while the U.K. cover gets points for the claustrophobic smallness of the toy house, I think the U.S. cover is better here. there's something harrowing about that crayon scrawl on the stark white background. These are both pretty great. The U.S. cover is simple and memorable with those curly guitar strings hinting at the drama within. The U.K. version is more playful, and I love the slightly sunbleached and tattered effect. Franzen's Cerulean Warbler on the U.S. cover has become somewhat iconic stateside. In the U.K., they give us a feather and a big "F" instead. The U.S. cover is awfully bland here, while the U.K. cover is pretty stunning, with a clever visual pun. The U.K. cover has a cool throwback sci-fi vibe going on, but the U.S. cover is one of the more visually arresting efforts in recent years.
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I've really been enjoying Scott Esposito's blog Conversational Reading lately. Recently he's put up a couple of posts that speak to how our love for books goes beyond just the words themselves. But before I get to his posts I had a few thoughts about this as well. One of the reasons the we love books as objects, I think, is because they are all so different from one another in appearance. Whenever a new book comes out, part of the anticipation comes from wanting to see what the book will look like. One of my typical diversions when I worked at the bookstore was to read the "briefly noted" reviews in the New Yorker and then go find the books reviewed, just to see what they looked like. On other occasions my fellow booksellers and I would stand in front of the fiction display table and discuss which book looked the best, rather than which book would be the best to read. Mrs. Millions, who occasionally makes books, got me into the habit of peeking under the dustjackets of hardcover books to see what they look like underneath, and ever since I have been fascinated by the little details -- usually stylized monograms -- in the canvas hardcovers that most folks never see. There is a reason why we display our books on open shelves. They are a treat for the eye. Which brings me back to Conversational Reading, where Scott posted some images from the amazing experiment at Adobe Bookshop in San Francisco where they rearranged all their books by color. (here's some more photos). We also treat our books differently than we treat other objects. After a while each book carries with it two stories, the one printed on its pages and the one about the journey the book has taken before it gets to you sometimes through many hands and emblazoned with many jottings and markings. In another post Esposito writes about marking books up as he reads them. He mentions that second hand bookstores often turn these marked up books away, but I, for one, happen to love finding the mysterious notes of a book's former owners.On a related note, in keeping with the stories as fetish objects theme, I came upon an interesting project via Pia Z. Ehrhardt's blog today. It's called The World's Smallest Magazine. You send them a book of stamps, and they send you a postcard with a 250 word story on it every month.
As an empirical matter, reading on a tablet cannot remotely approach the sensual literary experience offered by an old-fashioned book. The latter is, I’d venture, intrinsically more pleasurable than the former, not unlike the intrinsic difference between high quality toilet paper and the sandpaper stuff used in bus stations.