By Kelcey Parker
On Reinventing the Art of the Book
In 1984, Prince and the Revolution released the album Purple Rain. One of its mega-hits—“I Would Die 4 U”—reads today like an early version of a text message. Prescient Prince also called on us to “party like it’s 1999,” evoking our millennial obsession with apocalypse.
Humans have always loved a dramatic ending, especially we literary types who proclaim the deaths of novels and rhyming poetry and the author—and now, it seems, print itself.
After all, it’s nearly impossible to analyze an unfinished manuscript, an incomplete story. We need to get to the end so that we can look back and assess the doomed trajectory. We need the carcass on the table so we can perform an autopsy and discern the actual cause of death.
So should we call for print’s priest? Is it time for last rites? Shall we carve a symbol on its tombstone and refer to it as The Art Form Formerly Known As Print?
Not so fast.
Print is undergoing a revolution. Such change can often look like The End, especially to those of us who view a narrative turning point, or climax, as the herald of the denouement. But a revolution is not an end; it’s a metamorphosis, a transformation, and often a new beginning. (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins with the transformation.)
As a result, we have never been more self-consciously aware of the artistic potential and even the technology of the book than we are today.
With so many alternatives to print for the communication of ideas, print’s possibilities and limitations are more evident than ever. The book is a full sensory experience, and that is its great strength as an art form. It is a feast for the eyes as we read, a delight (ink, paper, dust) for the nose, a physical demand on the hands that hold it.
Think of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which requires readers to turn the book sideways and upside down, which uses fonts based more on typographic history than on appearance, and which is itself a “house” made of “leaves.”
Or Toni Morrison’s Jazz and the narrator whose body, it would seem, is the book itself:
If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.”
These final sentences celebrate the tactile intimacy between book and reader; the reader holds the narrator’s body in her hands.
Such heightened appreciation of a book’s pleasures is not merely part of a farewell eulogy as the book goes gently into that good night. Even as the large publishing houses panic about the demise of the print publishing industry, the rest of the literary world is having a renaissance.
The DIY spirit of indie publishers is leading to a renewed appreciation of printing technologies and typography, an explosion of broadsides, handmade books and chapbooks, and books whose very structure and aesthetic have been reimagined. (See the box at the end of this piece for a few links to such innovations.)
Meanwhile, the digital revolution has brought technologies to the masses that were once available only to professional designers. Even Microsoft Word offers dozens of fonts and advanced design capabilities that allow self-publishers to create printed materials to share ideas and publicize events.
The same digital technology boom that seems to threaten print has created greener, cheaper, and more efficient printing capabilities. In his book Digital Printing Pocket Primer (Windsor, 2000), Frank Romano traces the history of digital printing, from the early printers of the 1970s to the 1978 debut of the Xerox 9790—“a $400,000 120-page-per-minute, sheet-fed, 300-DPI laser printer”—to the affordable home laser printer that “could do it all.”
“The world,” Romano concludes, “would never be the same again.”* As he notes, short runs of books used to be a major deterrent to self-publishers. The initial setup costs involved were hefty. But digital printing technologies now allow publishers to print runs of 50,000 or 3,000 copies—or far less—without these setup costs.
That means printed books—even books written by you and me—are now available on demand. How can we resist? We can turn our own poems and stories and recipes and photo albums into actual books, printing one or one thousand copies at a variety of POD sites such as lulu.com, blurb.com, and createspace.com.
In my university courses, students edit, design, and self-publish their own books, something that would have been impossible just a decade ago. This is akin to hanging a young artist’s work on a museum wall or recording a budding musician’s composition on a DVD.
The aspiring writer not only experiences her work in a professional, published context, she pushes the boundaries of traditional publishing (and traditional narrative) by including images and strategic page layouts for no additional cost. What could be more inspiring or empowering to a young writer?
I’d like to inconclusively conclude that print may die eventually, and if it does, we’ll certainly look back to this moment as the beginning of the end. But for now, like any good pop star, it’s reinventing itself with lower costs, higher quality, better environmental ratings, enhanced possibilities, and greater accessibility.
We fans keep cheering.
Transformation of the Book: A Few Links
- Broadsides: Broadsided: Putting Literature and Art on the Streets
- Book Artists: Robert The, Brian Dettmer, Maddy Rosenberg
- Chapbooks: DIY: How to Make and Bind Chapbooks
- Documenting the Revolution: Photographer Abelardo Morrell
Kelcey Parker is the author of For Sale By Owner, a collection of stories published by Kore Press in February 2011. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Western Humanities Review, Bellingham Review, Santa Monica Review, Redivider, Third Coast, and twice in Image.
She has a Ph.D. in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Cincinnati and currently lives in Northern Indiana, where she is an assistant professor at Indiana University South Bend. She blogs at Ph.D. in Creative Writing.
As a ‘modern, wired’ writer with clear nostalgia issues, I’m particularly drawn in by the tensions between the book as object, as a primitive reading machine, and the transition to digital reading machines.”
— “A Total Dork for Vintage Machines”
Maddy Rosenberg is a Brooklyn- and Berlin-based artist/curator with an active international exhibition and curatorial career. In September 2009, she opened Central Booking, a two-gallery space in Brooklyn focusing on artist’s books and prints and their integration into the larger art world.
Two images of her “The Ruins” (3.75 x 6 inches, hand-printed and carved rubber-stamp artist’s book, 2009) accompany this article.
Rosenberg’s work has appeared in numerous solo and group exhibitions throughout the U.S. and Europe. Her artist’s books can be seen in numerous public collections, including the National Museum of Women in the Arts, MoMA, Brooklyn Museum, Fogg Museum, Yale University, Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Gallery, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Austrian National Library, and Salzburg Museum. She received a BFA from Cornell University and an MFA from Bard College.
Broadsided publishes literary and visual collaborations every month that can then be downloaded free for distribution. Click here for more information about “Composition 101″ by poet Nicelle Davis and artist Cheryl Gross, which Broadsided published in May 2010.