On October 4th, I went to a panel discussion at the National Arts Club entitled “The Book as a Work of Art.” The panel was made up of four professionals: Kyle Triplett, who is the Rare Books Librarian at the New York Public Library; Peter Mendelsund, associate art editor at Alfred A. Knopf; Glenn Horowitz, a rare books dealer; and Benjamin Morse, co-founder and artistic director of the digital book company Orson & Co.
Unlike many of the panel discussions I’ve attended, in which a moderator asks specific questions for each person, or an overall question meant for everyone to answer in turn, this event was more like a series of presentations. The moderator was Karla Nielsen, who is the Curator of Literature at Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. She started off by announcing to the audience that she and the panel had decided on the format of the discussion beforehand: each person had brought in an object that they would introduce to the audience, and then the four would give mini presentations on the theme (the book as a work of art).
Kyle Triplett went first, with a slide that contained a picture of an enlarged period from a book printed in 1665. He wanted the audience to realize that books have presence in a sculptural sense, and to lead them away from the idea that a period is simply a circle. Mr. Horowitz was next; he started by proclaiming that he approached books differently than the others on the panel, as his was from a financial point of view (the same could be said of both Mr. Morse and Mr. Mendelsund, but no matter). He had brought two volumes to show to the audience: William Faulkner’s first book, a copy of a collection of poetry, with an inscription to his father (which, according to Mr. Horowitz, was very rare – most of Faulkner’s inscribed books are made out to his mother), and One Hundred Years of Solitude, inscribed from Gabriel García Márquez to the son of the people to whom he dedicated the book. Mr. Morse displayed the cover of one of his ebook creations, and Mr. Mendelsund brought a “visual emblem” with which to represent his work: the copy of Joyce’s Ulysses that was published by Sylvia Beach. He said it inspired him when he was recently commissioned to create a new cover for the novel.
It was then time for the presentations by each panelist. Mr. Triplett introduced the audience to four different versions of Euclid’s Elements: from 1484, 1570, 1847, and 2014. He showed how the each subsequent copy had borrowed or imitated attributes from the ones that came before. Mr. Morse presented History of a Pleasure Seeker, an ebook with the specialized features unique to Orson and Co, including interlaid photographs of the places mentioned in the book and audio narration (represented by a gramophone). Mr. Morse and his partner have deemed their creations “elumes,” a name and style inspired by illuminated manuscripts. Mr. Horowitz, who was the only speaker that didn’t use the assistance of projected slides,held forth about his experience as a bookseller. Unfortunately, as Mr. Morse had just used the room’s audio to display his ebook, the speakers were projecting a clicking noise throughout Mr. Horowitz’s entire speech; this, combined with the lack of visuals, made it hard to follow what he was saying. This was a shame, because his experience as a bookseller in New York is a fascinating history. He started his business at age twenty-four, and has recently been in charge of selling Bob Dylan’s estate (it was jointly acquired by the University of Tulsa and another foundation in Oklahoma). He said the book that had meant the most to him was the copy of Virginia Woolf that he had found on a dusty back shelf in a bookstore in London; when he started flipping through it, he discovered, among other notes made by her, an inscription on the fourth page from Ms. Woolf to her sister. He bought it for five dollars. Mr. Mendelsund went last, with a powerpoint detailing the many book covers he has created; he believes that since books live with people on their shelves, it is important for the covers to communicate what the book is about.
Although the topic could have been really interesting, the event felt very disjointed. This, I felt, was mostly because of the lack of a moderator to ask questions and lead the discussion. Since the panelists were coming from such different backgrounds and work experiences, they needed a guiding force to achieve cohesion. The mini presentations were interesting, but the event would have been taken to a whole new level if there was more crossover: the bookseller would have answered questions from such a different perspective than the librarian, and the designer of ebooks might have felt similarly or vastly different from the designer of book covers.
In terms of design, I felt especially curious about Mr. Morse’s evident disdain for ordinary ebooks, and the decision to call his electronic books “elumes.” He credited his high regard for illustrated manuscripts as the reason for the name, but I’m not sure that the average person would make that connection. The amount of time his company spends perfecting the features of the books are obvious, and there are some characteristics that are highly appealing: in the example he gave, History of a Pleasure Seeker, the use of photographs from the time period in which the book is set is very compelling. The choice of using a gramophone icon that the reader can press to hear special audio features reminded me of the Ecological Approach outlined by Rogers (2004), in which designers create “interface objects so as to highlight the importance of making ‘what can be done to them’ obvious” (p. 100). Except, in this case, Orson & Co decided to stay in the old fashioned realm and have the image be a gramophone, rather than a speaker. Which is a bit like having a “save” button represented by a floppy disk; that is a carry over from when floppy disks were actually used, however, and this is clearly a design decision meant to be in keeping with the rest of the book’s theme.
The event seemed to underscore, without meaning to, the commonly held belief of the sexiness of ebook and book cover design with the drab and dreary world of book collectors and librarians. It came to a head with Mr. Horowitz’s presentation, which was directly after the elume demonstration by Mr. Morse, and was plagued by technological difficulties (clicks of the microphone, lack of a visual presentation, etc.) Looking back, it makes me think of the Luddite rebellion example that was described in Sayers (2014), in which demonstrators broke wide-frame looms to try and stop the new technology from spreading. Not that Mr. Horowitz gave any indication of trying to halt the spread of ebooks, but the juxtaposition of the two professions (book dealer vs. ebook company owner), their ages (old vs. young), and the presentation styles (dry lecture vs. interactive electronic format) all seemed to emphasize the distance between their worlds.
Lastly: I keep harkening back to Mr. Morse, but his wish to make electronic books works of art, reminiscent of illuminated manuscripts, again reminded me of Sayers: “In our so-called digital age, many people would assume that interventions in technological processes are accessible to more people than ever before” (p. 5). His company’s use of technology to create the most beautiful and high-brow form of ebooks possible makes me think that the type of audience he is envisioning are those who are privileged, sophisticated, and whose sensibilities are more refined than the “average” ebook user.
Rogers, Y. (2004) “New theoretical approaches for human-computer interaction.” Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 38, 87–143.
Sayers, J. (2014). “Technology.” In B. Burgett & G. Hendler (Eds.), Keywords for American Cultural Studies, (2nd ed.). New York, NY: New York University Press. Retrieved from http://keywords.nyupress.org/american-cultural-studies/essay/technology/