Opinion - Is the book dead?
In 1991 Malcolm Garrett asked, in what has become a seminal essay; ‘Is the book dead?’ What is the answer to that question today? We’ve invited leading writers, design commentators, editors and graphic designers to comment.
You can contribute your opinions to this discussion by sending your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Malcolm Garrett’s “The Book is Dead?” article, published in Graphics World, 1991.
See Wired magazine on iPad, which Adrian Shaughnessy refers to in his essay.
“Malcolm Garrett was right in predicting exciting new opportunities for graphic designers and artists with the advent of digital technology and the internet. And he also correctly surmised that it wouldn’t mean the death of the book, but that it would instead provide interesting new opportunities and outlets. 30 years ago, he had no way of predicting just how and in what way things would change, and I would hazard a guess that some developments are wholly unexpected, particularly in the way that designers are harnessing the virtual to aid the physical aspect of their work.
Rather than leading to the death of the book, or indeed other analogue and hand-made products, the internet, in particular, has led to nothing less than a revolution in how such output is made and distributed, but has also played a huge part in creating a new level of self-determination for young designers. This has had the not insignificant impact of feeding back into the creative process – not only allowing them the privilege of being able to pursue their own personal work without compromise but also acts to widen their reach and further their careers. By building personal blogs and web-based galleries, they are building communities of creative collectives, staging virtual shows, and running agencies. All of this makes it more possible for creative individuals to mix self-instigated projects with paid commissions, to both survive financially, and experiment creatively.
Nelly Duff gallery blog: thedailyduff.blogspot.com
Collectives such as Its Nice That have created a new kind of entity, a creative hybrid of blog, gallery and publishing house; galleries such as Nelly Duff, Kemistry, and Concrete Hermit have a virtual presence that is as strong if not more influential than their East End Gallery space; and collectives such as Print Club London and Peepshow curate group shows and events as well as function as studios. This is an exciting time. Never before have young designers had such a rich opportunity to do business on their own terms. And it’s entirely due to the internet. I’m not sure if this is what Malcolm had in mind 30 years ago, but I’m willing to bet that he’s delighted that this is one of the many outcomes of the digital revolution.”
Curator of Pick Me Up, London’s Contemporary Graphic Art Fair at Somerset House – an exhibition of work by the best up-and-coming international graphic designers and illustrators hand-picked by industry insiders.
John L. Walters
“The relationship – and potential clash – between the real world of molecules and the virtual world of code has been with us for more than half a century, first within the military and academia, then rehearsed in fiction by Arthur C. ‘2001’ Clarke and William ‘Neuromancer’ Gibson. The digital divide transformed music nearly a generation ago, but Moore’s Law has now moved the frontier – the bleeding edge – to the experience of reading type and image. This year (2010) sees a slew of new devices set to weigh down our backpacks and lighten our wallets: the iPhone 4, the Android, the Kindle, the iPad and several more tablets with screens whose image and text resolution rival that of the printed page.
Are these gadgets killing the book, as they slouch towards Christmas against a backdrop of remaindered hardbacks and empty bookshops? Over the years we’ve had predictions and declarations of the death of the novel, the author, the multiple deaths of theatre, radio, cinema, jazz (which according to Frank Zappa just smells funny), television, the end of print and the death of the Web (argued by the September 2010 edition of Wired). In a few years time we’ll be reading about the death of the app. But where will we read it?
As veteran publisher Jason Epstein pointed out in a thoughtful article for the New York Times Review of Books (‘Publishing: The Revolutionary Future, bit.ly/a8udPn) there are deep issues that change the way we make, sell and consume books, and the conventional publishing industry started to die many years before the iPad was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye: ‘The crisis of confidence reflects these intersecting shocks,’ writes Epstein, ‘an overspecialised marketplace dominated by high-risk ephemera and a technological shift orders of magnitude greater than [that] launched in Gutenberg’s …Mainz six centuries ago.’
One question left hanging by such articles – not to mention electronic publishers such as Enhanced Editions (enhanced-editions.com) and the more ferocious app evangelists – is whether the book will become a minority pleasure, an arcane and specialised indulgence like vinyl or fine dining, while the e-book becomes the mainstream mode of consumption.
Some records are going down the artists’ book route (see Eye 76) in which small groups of enthusiasts buy elaborate, limited-edition albums by Michael Nyman or Grace Jones (Vinyl Factory) or the Pixies (Artist in Residence, ainr.com). The move towards tactile, collectable books (such as Marian Bantjes’ I Wonder or APFEL’s design of Tristram Shandy for Visual Editions, both shown in Eye 77) is nothing new, but may be accelerated by the perceived threat from e-publishing, whether as a source of visual pleasure (90 years of French Vogue) or weightless heavy reading (packing a complete Trollope in your carry-on bag).
Yet we all like stories, and pictures and information – maybe the question is about the object we hold in our hands while reading new content. Ask a toddler. My wife (Clare Walters) writes books for small children, and many of them are tactile objects, made of cloth, thick card or even waterproof material that enables them to be enjoyed at bathtime. These colourful books, with their cut-outs, pop-ups and minimal texts, have something in common with the books that Malcolm Garrett has selected from the Crafts Council’s collection. However you won’t find these so easily in your local library, which is still one of the best places to enjoy books without spending more than a bus fare.”
John L. Walters is a British editor, critic and composer. In 1997, after working for various newspapers and magazines, including the Architectural Review, he joined Eye magazine as managing editor, and subsequently became its editor and owner. Walters also writes about creative music for The Guardian.
We’re Visual Editions: a new London-based book publisher, launching in a couple of weeks with our first major title. It’s a new book called Tree of Codes by American author Jonathan Safran Foer and the book has a different die-cut on every single page. The Boston Phoenix wrote an article about it the other day with this great headline: Digitise This! Jonathan Safran Foer’s Crazy New Book. It made us smile because it gets at the heart of how the book manages to defy all conventions of what we have come to expect of what a book has the potential to be.
To write Tree of Codes, Foer used what he calls his favourite book, The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, as his canvas, and carved his own story out of it, leaving his own narrative on the page. So while every page literally has holes in it, the thing is, you can read it, too. And it reads beautifully, all the while opening up the reader to an entirely different and new kind of tactile, sensory and reading experience.
As for the bigger question of Kindle and E-Books, we think there’s definitely a place for books to be on screen. Sure. But we think those kinds of books are your 3 for 2 Tesco – disposable – beach holiday books. And not all books are your 3 for 2s. There’s plenty of room for books that can be seen, read, felt and experienced on the page. And we believe there’s got to be a reason for books to live on the page. And, like that headline said, no matter how hard you tried, you just couldn’t digitise a book with holes in it.
Tree of Codes by Jonathan Safran Foer is published 15 November.
If you like Ron King’s Alphabeta Concertina, the classic 1983 version has been reprised to correct its long ‘out of print’ status and updated with newly modified designs for some of the letters.The concertina book made up of 26 pop-up capital letters can be purchased here:
Unit Editions is a new, progressive publishing venture. It is a collaboration between Tony Brook (Spin) and Adrian Shaughnessy (ShaughnessyWorks). It is dedicated to the notion of the book as a highly designed artefact, producing books with rich visual and textual content for an international audience of design professionals, design students and followers of visual culture.
The company has published two books – Studio Culture – the Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio and Supergraphics – Transforming Space: Graphic Design for Walls, Buildings & Spaces. Two more major publications are scheduled for this year. Unit Editions has also issued a series of low-cost ‘research papers’, investigating and documenting neglected and hidden corners of visual design. In addition, there is also a range of limited edition posters.
In January 2010, Unit Editions was included in the short list for the Design Museum’s Brit Insurance Designs of the Year. An exhibition of all short listed entries takes place from 16 February – 7 August 2011. The winner will be announced on 15 March 2011.
All of the above items are available direct from the Unit Editions website. The book Studio Culture is also available in bookshops and via online retailers.
“I agree with Adrian Shaughnessy on the need for a peaceful co-existence between digital media and physical books: it is vital, even for nostalgic book designers and paper lovers, to accept the sudden changes in the publishing market that affect habits and demands of millions of readers.
Nevertheless, it is important to invest our creative energies in understanding, developing and experimenting with the aspects that will always make a book an unbeatable experience.
With my books I consider the reader as a user that participates intellectually and physically in the narration and I offer different levels of interaction to stimulate and intrigue.
In my project “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” the book is presented as a traditional object, made of fine French-folded pages and protected with a screen-printed hard cover. After picking it up, the reader realises that there is much more to discover: the positioning of the text and choice of material are suggestive of the narrative even before the words are read; blown-up images come together through the reader’s act of turning the page; part of the novel is hidden inside embedded envelopes and requires the tragic gesture of ripping the pages in order to be read. It’s the celebration of the book as an object through the sacrifice of the book itself. Would this be possible with a Kindle e-book?”
Linda Toigo is an architect, designer and book artist based in London.
“Recently on a train I saw a man, Kindle in hand. He was so into his story that he was leaning forward with his fingers tightly gripping the device. I wondered if not being able to clench a paperback is possibly a disadvantage of the ebook?
As Malcom Garrett has predicted, increasingly we’re embracing digital communication. OPX is a branding/graphic design studio and it’s true that our work for clients has been shifting towards on-screen output.
Last year we had the honour of participating in ‘Reverting to Type’, an Exhibition curated by Graham Bignell of New North Press and graphic designer Richard Ardagh. The show demonstrated how a centuries-old craft is being reinvented for modern day usage, and showcased inspiring work from designers all over the world.
Prior to that, we worked with Graham; after designing his website (Graham is also a paper conservationist), we worked on a branding project for cycle cafe/bar Look Mum No Hands! After trying many sketches on paper and on screen, we went to see Graham’s wooden letter collection, hoping to create something unique and tangible. The client loved the fact some of the letters were old and battered, giving the printed letters extra character. We then recreated the type digitally so that we could use it for different applications. Although the end products are produced digitally, we think the handmade feel and character of the type is retained.
That’s why we created ‘A traditional Christmas’, an online slide show of David setting, inking, and printing the typographic greeting at Graham’s workshop. It was nice to be able to share our rich experience and give an insight to some clients/friends/designers of how traditional type was set long before the Mac.”
OPX is a London based agency creating inspired brands and communications.
Oscar Bolton Green
“The Alphabet Animation started out as a drawing task, which I set myself. I have always been interested in letters and their visual possibilities, so I decided to draw each letter of the alphabet as many times as I could until I filled the page.
I wrote the last ‘Z’ a couple of weeks after writing the first ‘A’. However, even at this point I felt there was more to be done. I wanted to emphasise the unique character and humour contained within each of the tiny letters further and felt that animation would allow me to do that- through movement and sound. The sound was the last ingredient to be added and perhaps the most enjoyable part. It allowed me to extend my imagination even further and bring the letters to life.
It’s funny, although I have had a lot of positive feedback about the animation, I can guarantee a lot of those people haven’t watched it through to the last ‘Z’. Perhaps the animation is too long or too fast. However, I believe it has more to do with how it is viewed.
Had this animation been screened at a film festival, people would have watched it through to the end no matter what. However because it’s on the Internet, there are endless alternatives. No piece of writing or film has the right to hold your attention on the Internet. Although it has become easier to publish material, it is has become even more of a challenge to hold the viewer’s attention. This is why the average length of a blog article is only a fraction the size of a magazine or newspaper article.”
‘Today, the Internet is leading us back to a more distracted, scattered, skimming and scanning mode of thought and away from attentive, contemplative thought.’ (Nicholas Carr, author of ‘The Shallows’)
Oscar Bolton Green graduated from Camberwell College of Arts in 2010 and is now an illustrator based in London.