A Democracy of Books

Huw Lemmey



Alice Rawsthorn was in conversation with the Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom to discuss the future of contemporary publishing and book design. Faced with the rise of digital platforms for information exchange, and the rise of the e-book, do we need to take a stand against the extinction of the book?

Rawsthorn questions whether the book really has what it takes to survive. Designed objects have come and gone from everyday life throughout the history of civilisation. Is it purely sentimentality to think that the book might be exempt from this process of obsolescence? Plenty of other technologies that previously had standalone design objects are now combined into smart phones, tablets and laptops. An ebook, she claims, is more versatile than a printed book; it doesn't consume paper, or the precious fossil fuel resources needed to ship the printed book around the world. There's a counter-point to this, of course; most handheld digital devices are hugely damaging to the environment to produce, utilising rare earth metals and, of course, requiring constant inputs of power to keep going. The initial high-cost of the printed book in resource terms is offset by its durability. A printed book from the dawn of mass-publishing is still as readable today as the day it was produced, and has consumed no more resources in the intervening centuries. The book also has an incredibly low barrier to entry within a literate society; pushed into hands, through prison bars, left on train sets, flung from cargo planes: the book is a resilient and user-friendly object. Once in your hands, if you can read, you can read - by moonlight, by candlelight, after trekking through a wet jungle or submerged in a fast river. Rawsthorn suggests "as an object the book is a container, a form of packaging" — perhaps, but it's also a platform, the form of which is intrinsic on how the content is utilised and interpreted.

Boom, too, is stoic; it's too simplistic to suggest that the digital book has yet superseded the printed object. "I feel like a dinosaur", she says, but "a book still has value". A website, a digital book is capable of great flux, and can be easily amended. There's a different form of commitment to a text or idea in putting it to paper. A printed book also holds a different legacy in terms of the transmission of knowledge; fields of study such as palaeography can trace meaning and development of language and thought through the very form of a book. From colophon to index, the book hold a history separate to that of the nominal content it purports to transmit. Each book holds within in the history of both the text, and of "the book" as a historical form itself. Indeed, within palaeography the invention of movable type is a paradigm shift. Before this development, accurate data transfer degraded the further you move from the origin text; scribes mistranslated, and errors were continued and compounded. Movable type, along with the development of simple forms of universal cataloguing and editioning forms, allowed a new process to take place; that of revising, making more accurate, correcting errors and tracing their origins to specific errors or sabotages. Digital publishing is set to complicate this issue once more.

Boom discusses her beginnings and inspirations as a book designer — a tutor who discussed the book as a dialogue between content and form — as well as her own design practice, which challenges the orthodoxy that the author is the sole transmitter of ideas within the book. She takes as an example a book she designed opening with huge text, which gradually shrinks in point size until it reaches a standard 12 point text size effectively dragging you "into the text". This encountered opposition from publishers and editors, claiming "you can't play with text like that". Well, maybe you can — she contacted the author, Arthur Danto, who was keen on the idea, leaving no hiding place for those who opposed the idea.

All this is not to say that digital publishing isn't an important design challenge, who effects are felt in paper publishing design. "Young people all want big type books because they want to enlarge!" Boom says, making a hand-gesture of pulling fingers together across a screen, as if to zoom in on a touch screen. And, of course, Boom recognises the strong case for certain types of digital books over printed books, when prompted by Rawsthorn: atlases, dictionaries and even literature are better suited to digital formats, although it's perhaps a loss to see the decline of literature covers, an important part of a collective culture of reading. Rawsthorn agrees; it's a declining cultural form, much like LP covers. The more they're removed from the mass-market experience of popular consumption, and moved into the realm of the art object, the less effect they can have on shared culture, whether that's Bowie or Patti Smith LPs from the 1970s or Penguin's mass-market paperback covers which held their own democratic value of equality of opportunity. That said, the LP cover was a mere flash in the pan compared to the 500 year history of the printed book. It's been here for 500 years, says Boom — why not another 500 years?

Most importantly in the survival of the printed book, says Boom, is the factor of price. "I am against expensive books" she says — a very pertinent point in an industry being purposefully crushed by the financial warfare of Amazon — "I want a democracy of books."