Monday, January 23, 2012

The Cover is Not the Book

At the College Book Art conference this year, Buzz Spector, book artist, theoretician, and educator and Brewster Kahle, computer engineer, internet entrepeneur, activist, and digital librarian were the guest speakers. Each spoke from a different angle about books and libraries and their uses.

Spector began his keynote address by noting two things: one, that Blurb, the print-on-demand service, had just published its one-millionth book; and two, that you can't physically know how far along you are in the book when you are reading on an e-reader. He was prepared to talk about libraries as the artist's studio and how artists use either their own personal libraries and/or create installations of libraries in gallery settings (and he did), but he noticed that the projections from the laptop on the lectern kept changing during the introductions, which sparked an off-the-cuff preface. We all were distracted and amused, I think, by the "welcome" slide changing to a variety of "no input" signals to "guest user," and he decided to acknowledge it. He began to think, he said, about what happens to a computer screen when you are not touching it. And the connections between computers and books in general.

While Spector acknowledged that  print-on-demand is a great way to get books out there, he also felt that all one-million books were now "emulsified." I had to look up the word in this context to see what he might have meant by it; I think he meant separate elements that are mixed together to form one unit. These books were created with the same paper stock and laminated cover, which he said was "a baseline for ordinariness" and created "affectless planes for certain kinds of ideas." On the one hand, I agree that all the books look the same, that if you have seen one you can recognize another from across the room. We like our books to distinguish themselves, somehow. But by dismissing them by cover that means we have totally lost sight of content. And isn't that what a book is for? To enlighten us, spark us, entertain us, produce some kind of reaction or thought? As it stands, all our mass-market paperbacks are all the same size (although designed differently), and don't you find that one coffee table book has the same aura as another? And there are artist books that look similar to other artist books as well. I'd say McDonald's french fries are more of a "baseline for ordinariness" than the Blurb books—you can get them anywhere. Are the Blurb books really "affectless planes for certain kinds of ideas?" I can't say. I haven't read more than half a dozen. If I've got my numbers right: 999,994 to go…

While our focus when making book art is to have "authorship" over our work, that is, to make all the choices regarding content, paper, typeface, materials, and all of these choices affect how our readers/viewers will experience the art, I don't think we are asking Blurb to make book art. If you look at Spector's work, he stacks up discarded books from libraries or arranges books that he owns. The content almost doesn't matter, although he might say there is much reading experience potential from these arrangements.

Along with computer-generated books comes the huge potential for reading those books on the computer or similar device. Spector said he hasn't touched his Kindle since 2009 when Amazon pulled George Orwell's 1984 due to rights issues, but I do not think he minds. One thing the e-reader did not do for him was let him know how much he had left to read. His thumb would normally get closer and closer to the back cover until he finished the book, but the e-reader gave his thumb no physical indicator. He liked the idea of the thumb "as a marker of time passing." The ultimate digital reading. I like that image, too. I was told recently, however, that there are little dots at the bottom of one of these readers so you can visually see your progress. Is the thumb touching the back cover a small thing or a big one? Is it important? Or just an interesting image?

In October 2011, Blurb announced software and capability to design and produce books for iPad, iPhone, and e-reader. Good, bad, or ugly? Does it matter? Easy access is the key. When I started making books in college I wanted to be able to price my art so that everyone could afford it. Ultimately, I realized that the market was small and I couldn't make a living that way. The writing has always been central to the books I make. For a writer, the wider the reach, the better. Writers don't get to choose the color of their books or the typefaces or the layout. Writers choose the words. Writers want as many readers as possible.

Brewster Kahle spoke about some projects he has been working on that broaden that access. One is a group of mobile libraries to bring books to everyone, particularly to children who do not have access to them. The libraries don't have truckloads of actual books; a van is equipped with printing/binding machines to print out digitized books from the internet. The books cost $1 each to print. Kahle showed a slide of a grinning child receiving a small print-on-demand book from the van. It was the first book the child had ever owned. This project, as well as the One Laptop per Child project, is why we need books available for the screen, why this is important.

Book art is wonderful, no doubt about it. It feeds our need for tactility, for beauty, for personal expression. But what is inside has got to matter. As book artists we can still make use of those print-on-demand services. Keith Smith uses them as a color printer: he designs the books so he can take them apart and rebind them to make his own book art. The cover is not the book.

photo by Mollie

1 comment:

Patricia Anne McGoldrick said...

This post gives a great perspective on the whole book entity. Paper books still appeal greatly to me but I am enjoying the read on an iPad, too. I like the bookmarking capability.
Also, like to make books & I am excited that I have found your website!