Book-Lovers Web Site of the Month

The Canadian Bookbinders and Book Artists Guild [CBBAG - pronounced cabbage] is one of the richest Web sites for professionals or amateurs interested in all aspects of book arts: bookbinders, calligraphers, paper makers, letterpress printers, paper marblers, book artists, archivists and conservators.

Click here and explore!

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For the Love of Books

For the Love of Books is a monthly column that has absolutely nothing to do with the business of publishing, and everything to do with why we're involved in it. This month's column looks at the object we refer to as a book. What makes it so?
Is It a Book Yet?

Today I downloaded a "virtual" book from the Internet. Virtual means "being so in effect or essence, although not in actual fact or name". Is this electronic file in essence a book? It doesn't appear structurally different from the e-mail jokes, spreadsheets or space photos of South Florida stored on my computer. When, exactly, do the bits transform themselves into a book?

Perhaps when I print it out; then again, maybe not. Ten-point Courier type plods across pages of 20-pound all-purpose office paper, not an italic or bold or indent in sight. I quickly scoop this collection of pages into a three ring binder and place it on the shelf with other binders holding collections of single-sheet printouts. I do not number these objects among my books.

What, exactly is it that imparts "bookness" to this object we call a book? When does the transformation from manuscript to book occur?

Bookmaker and author Keith Smith demonstrates the fundamental nature of a book by folding a sheet of paper in half. This simple act has transformed the single sheet of paper from a two-dimensional object into a three-dimensional folio: two connected, moveable planes, capable of arcing in space on the hinge created by the act of folding.

More profound changes manifest. With a sheet of paper, front and back are fixed, but, in a folio, front and back become relative terms. Front is what we are looking at, back is what has been turned away. Since all four pages cannot be viewed simultaneously, time and movement of the pages become integral to the experience of the book.

Last summer I took photos of my fellow students and our advisor at a college residency in Vermont. After the film was developed, I intended to gang the prints on a sheet of paper and make color copies to send to each person in the group. But because everyone in this group was involved in the creative arts, I felt that I had to do something "more." Two weeks later, after hours of measuring, folding, adjusting and cursing, a single sheet of color copier paper had been transformed into a triangular book whose alternating folds and shifting "fronts" and "backs" gave expression to a variety of stories about our summer sojourn in northern Vermont.

Writing and content do not seem to be necessary components of bookness but physicality is. The starship Enterprise has a universe of information available via computer screens, diagrams and schemas, Palm Pilot-like devices and the computer's voice. But none of those media is ever referred to as a book. A book is the object Captain Jean Luc Picard holds in his hands, reverently turning pages, in rare moments of off-duty time.

We recognize a book as book even when it's printed with characters we can't decipher. We have no problem accepting a series of bound blank pages as a book. A book remains a book even when its pages are tattered and faded, obscuring the content. It is not until we break that old book down into separate pages that it looses its bookness.

Philip Smith [no relation to Keith Smith as far as I know] writes on the subject of bookness [a term he coined in the 70s after reading James Joyce's reference in Ulysses to the "horseness of horses"] at Philobiblon [www.philobiblon.com/bookness.htm]: "A book is the packaging of multiple planes held together in fixed or variable sequence by some kind of hinging mechanism, support, or container, associated with a visual/verbal content called a text." His definition excludes pre-codex carriers of text such as scrolls and clay tablets and anything on a single leaf or planar surface such as a TV screen, poster or handbill. Similarly, the large imposed sheets on which text is commercially printed have not yet become book and texts scanned from a book onto microfilm or magnetic media pass out of the state of bookness into some other realm of existence.

A pack of Tarot cards, however, does have bookness, according to Smith, because it functions as a "working group of loose-leaf planar surfaces with related images conveying textual matter in pictorial form."

Keith Smith insists that content and form are inexorably linked. Phillip Smith echoes that sentiment saying, "The planes of a book have a necessary relationship or they simply become a collection of arbitrary planes for which a book format is not essential for the conveyed meaning."

Books as physical objects remain powerful totems in our culture. We ascribe higher status to people who have published books, regardless of whether they carry the imprint of a media conglomerate, a small press, or are self-published. It is the physical manifestation of the words and ideas that confers the power.

One way of exercising that power is by making decisions about how elements look and where they reside on the page. [There's a good reason why editors want to receive "manuscripts" in the conventional form-double-spaced Courier type, one continuous text block-so they can focus on the words and ideas themselves, without being distracted/manipulated, by typographic and layout treatments.]

When I download a manuscript, print it out, and snap it into a three-ring binder, I am "receiving" knowledge in a fairly passive manner. But what if I were to transform that knowledge? Would the meaning change?

In the movie Contact, based on a novel by Carl Sagan, a message is received from extra terrestrial intelligence via a radio signal. The scientists discover there are three streams of information being transmitted: visual, audio, and textual. When the text is printed out in single sheet form, it is undecipherable. However, when the concept of form and planes is applied, the single sheets transform into a three-dimensional object that conveys a rich message. A book has been born; a book whose format is essential to understanding its meaning.

Next month we'll travel to the other end of the continuum and consider what artists' books can show us about the "bookness of books."

C. J. Metschke is a Florida-based writer with a special interest in book arts. Contact her by email.


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