Archive for Book Art

If You Liked the Cover of The Late Age of Print…

…then you’re bound to like Art Made From Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed, compiled by Laura Heyenga and just out from Chronicle Books. The cover features one of Cara Barer’s striking book photographs—and if it looks somewhat familiar, it should. Another of her amazing images appears on the cover of Late Age.


And, in other important news, don’t forget—ONLY TWO MORE DAYS REMAIN to download an e-edition of The Late Age of Print for a tweet or Facebook post. Don’t miss it! The freebie will be gone as of August 1, 2013.


Soft-Core Book Porn

Most of you reading this blog probably don’t know that I’m Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication and Culture here at Indiana University.  What that means is that I’m knee-deep in graduate admissions files right now; what that also means is that I don’t have quite as much time for blogging as I normally would.  The good news is that I’m rapidly clearing the decks, and that I should be back to regular blogging pretty soon.

Until then, happy 2012 (belatedly), and here’s a little book soft-core book porn to tide you over — an amazing stop-motion animation video that was filmed in Toronto’s Type Bookstore.  If you’ve been reading this blog over the years, then you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the whole “the only real books are paper books” motif (much as I do enjoy paper books).  Even so, you cannot but be impressed by the time, care, and resolve that must have gone into the production of this short.  Clearly it was a labor of love, on several levels.


Destroying Books in Order to Save Them

One of the recurrent themes you’ll find here on the Late Age of Print blog is the “end of the book.”  Usually when I raise this I’m talking about printed books and the relationship they share to e-readers and other forms of digital technology.  And usually when I go down that road, I end up saying something to the effect of, “however popular e-books may become, printed books won’t ever go away entirely.”

But today, thanks to a friend on Facebook who shared a fascinating blog post with me, I want to approach the “end of the book” theme from a different angle — where destroying a printed book may actually give it a completely new lease on life.

The post, “The Book Surgeon,” showed up a few days ago on My Modern Met. It consists mostly of photographs of the work of artist Brian Dettmer, who, using “using knives, tweezers, and surgical tools,” transforms old encyclopedias, medical journals, dictionaries, and other weighty reference matter into intricately detailed sculptures.  Here are a few images to show you what I mean:

Amazing, eh?  The post goes on to note — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise — that carving these books involves painstaking work.  Proceeding a single layer at a time, “Dettmer manipulates the pages and spines to form the shape of his sculptures.”  There’s also no cutting and pasting of material from one point in a book to another.  In other words, everything that appears in each sculpture is ostensibly in its original location.

I wish I could watch Dettmer at work, since I imagine he must proceed with equal parts planning and serendipity.  Curious to learn more about his process, I checked out his artist’s statement where he says this:

The age of information in physical form is waning. As intangible routes thrive with quicker fluidity, material and history are being lost, slipping and eroding into the ether. Newer media swiftly flips forms, unrestricted by the weight of material and the responsibility of history. In the tangible world we are left with a frozen material but in the intangible world we may be left with nothing. History is lost as formats change from physical stability to digital distress.

Nicely put — and what an apt way in which to frame a body of work that so beautifully illustrates the principle of creative destruction.


Now, About That Cover…

The Late Age of Print has been receiving lots of praise since its release back in March.  What’s intriguing from an author’s standpoint is that the book’s cover has received almost as much attention as its content.

Some writers would be put off by this, believing that what really counts is the stuff that lies between the covers.  Not I.  I’m acutely aware that books are meant to be sold as much as they’re meant to be read.  In fact, in my undergraduate “Cultures of Books and Reading Class,” I have an assignment in which I ask my students to “judge a book by its cover” — that is, to explain what they can learn about a book and its audience strictly by virtue of its design.

Anyway, scores of people have commented to me in person about The Late Age of Print’s eye-catching cover, and many have asked me to share the story behind it.  I figured some of you reading might be interested to hear the story, too.

On the one hand, I had a strong sense of what I absolutely did not want to appear on the cover.  Far too many books about books (as the genre is called) feature over-stuffed leather armchairs, hand-engraved mahogany bookcases, leather book marks, stacks of printed books shot in soft-focus, readers relaxing comfortably under a heap of toasty blankets — you get the drill.  Basically, most books about books tend to aestheticize the printed book as an object by stressing its relationship to high culture.  Since Late Age is largely about the book as an industrial artifact, I wanted something much grittier — plus, it never hurts to have a book cover that doesn’t look exactly like everyone else’s (more on that later).

On the other hand, I didn’t want to go too far in the opposite direction with the cover.  That is, even though I didn’t want to overly-aestheticize books, I also didn’t want to convey a sense in which they were simply moribund things of the past.  There’s a growing contingent of books about books that unfortunately tries to do exactly that.  Most feature cover images in which book text is replaced with binary code or something to that effect, as if to convey the inevitable digitization — and by extension the disappearance — of the printed word.  Books are changing, no doubt, but for my part I remain convinced that print in some form is here to stay.

So I didn’t want a cover that made books into romantic objects, nor did I want a cover that suggested that print was dead. The Late Age of Print is a book about the past, present, and future of book publishing, and so I knew early on that I wanted some type of cover image that would represent the themes of permanence and change.  Much later, as I looked at the books about books appearing on my bookshelf at home, I decided that I wanted a more abstract type of design, since many titles in my opinion overly-literalized their subject matter.

To my good fortune, a friend of mine from graduate school happened upon the work of the Houston, Texas-based photographer, Cara Barer.  Barer purchases old books, wets them, dries them, and then photographs them.  I loved her process and the resulting images (there are many more besides the one appearing on my cover), which to my mind strikingly captured both the fragility and endurance of printed books.  This was exactly the message I wanted to convey.

I wasn’t sure if my publisher, Columbia University Press, would be inclined to use one of her images, if for no other reason than I figured they must be pricey given their beauty.  When filling out the section on cover art on my author questionnaire, I almost didn’t mention Barer’s work for that reason.  In the end I decided to let it fly, and a few weeks later the designer returned with what is now the cover of Late Age. It was a stunning exercise in design minimalism, at least as far as I was (and am) concerned.

The postscript to this story is that others, apparently, have now discovered Barer’s images.  The most prominent example can be seen in Michael Greenberg’s upcoming book, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life (Other Press, September 2009), which a friend of mine alerted me to this summer:

Beg, Borrow, Steal
Galley Cat
noted the similarities in our covers earlier this week, and a commentator there linked to a whole blog devoted to look-alike covers.  For my part I’m not bothered at all by the similarities, though I’d now be curious to hear the story behind Michael Greenberg’s cover.