50 / Printed Matter

Beauty and the Book: Can Design Alter the Future of Printed Books?

By Tess Thackara January 18, 2012

Image: Pageview of City Symphony by Amy Martin. San Francisco: McSweeney's McMullens, 2011. Photo: Tess Thackara.

Last month, a handful of articles in the mainstream media proclaimed the publishing industry’s increasing focus on book design. Julie Bosman wrote in the New York Times: “If e-books are about ease and expedience, the publishers reason, then print books need to be about physical beauty and the pleasures of owning, not just reading.”1 The United Kingdom’s Guardian published a piece entitled “Cover Me Beautiful,” which opened with a reference to Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize acceptance speech, during which the author thanked his book designer Suzanne Dean for turning his novel into a “beautiful object.”2 Many viewed Barnes’s shout-out as heralding a new publishing industry watershed. All this attention paid to book design raises a host of questions: Are books becoming mass-produced art objects?3 Does a book’s design push formal boundaries and encourage readers to engage with the content in new ways? And can developments in printed book design rival those of tablet book apps?

For many contemporary publishers and writers, of course, the idea of approaching form as content is nothing new.4 McSweeney’s Publishing, for example, has committed itself to exploring the formal possibilities of books for more than a decade; past incarnations of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern include a deck-of-cards story and eight volumes housed in a board tray whose cover flaps complete an image puzzle. Its new chidren's imprint, McSweeney’s McMullens, has also enthusiastically adopted the design mantle.5 McMullens books come with dust jackets that fold out as gorgeous colorful posters, and a number of them are interactive. In Jordan Crane’s Keep Our Secrets (2011), readers are encouraged to rub away the heat-sensitive color-changing ink to reveal the secrets hidden beneath: “Miss Young’s chest is a cage full of canaries,” or “There’s a computer in the trash that knows how to write poetry.” The Author-Illustrator Starter Kit (2011) contains a boxed set of three completely blank hardback books for kids to fill with their own content.


Cover of Keep Our Secrets by Jordan Crane (San Francisco: McSweeney's McMullens, 2011). Courtesy of McSweeney's McMullens.

But it isn’t only this playfulness that lends McSweeney’s McMullens books their material impact. Amy Martin’s illustrations for Symphony City (2011) create a layered multidimensional and richly textural world, which often appears like original paper collages. In some places the visual environment of an urban landscape full of music she creates is so absorbing that I wondered what an e-book or iPad app could offer that print couldn’t. By email, McSweeney’s art director and editor Brian McMullen, who developed and gave his name to the imprint, offered a more practical reason for keeping to printed matter for kids: “Those of us who are parents aren’t convinced that kids need to be encouraged to spend more time than they already do in front of screens.… Have you ever tried to tell a three-year-old it’s time to stop looking at one of these devices and hand it back to Daddy?6 It’s not a pretty scene. These devices are just not compatible with bedtime, in my experience, whereas a printed picture book, for whatever reason, is.”7



Pageview of Nox by Anne Carson (New York: New Directions, 2010). Photo: Tony Cenicola/New York Times. 

Perhaps the true qualifier for considering a book as an art object is whether it resists digital reproduction. It is hard to imagine, for example, how a book like Anne Carson’s Nox (New Directions, 2010) could find form as an e-book or even a tablet book app.

Nox, an elegiac document Carson created in memory of her brother following his death in 2000, comes in the form of a thick gray scrapbook in a box. In it the author attempts to piece together remnants of her brother’s life, incorporating photos, a letter, Carson’s own typed memories and paintings—all punctuated with her efforts to translate Catullus 101.The pages of the book fold out like a concertina so that readers can view the contents continuously, moving back and forth between pages and approaching the object in a nonlinear fashion. There is a way in which this process—asking readers to labor over the book and handle its contents—mirrors the author’s own painstaking study of her brother and brings us closer to the experience of her loss. Since the information conveyed by the book’s physical form is tactile as well as intellectual and emotional, one imagines the experience of reading it would be considerably less moving if it was rendered digitally.

Then again, developers are making great progress in book app innovation, and many attest to the enhanced experience of reading through an app. Touch Press’s iPad app of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland hit the number one spot on eBookNewser’s list of top grossing iPad apps last year. The developers took two years to produce it and accrued a wealth of contextual content; readers have access not only to the poem but also to a gallery of related images, commentary, a “Read to Me” feature including audio of Eliot himself, a filmed performance of the entire poem by the actor Fiona Shaw, and, interestingly, a facsimile of Eliot’s original manuscript with Ezra Pound’s handwritten edits visible.


Screenshot of Alice for the iPad by Atomic Antelope, 2010. Original text by Lewis Carroll; illustrations by John Tenniel.

In an app that intends to give a complete picture of the poem, of the conditions surrounding its production, and of its impact, such a historical document warrants inclusion. But there also seems to be an element of fetishizing the original, one that is present in other book apps. The critically acclaimed Alice in Wonderland app from Atomic Antelope, for example, uses John Tenniel’s original nineteenth-century illustrations, presumably to tap into nostalgia for Lewis Carroll’s classic.

In light of this reverence paid by some book apps to their material counterparts, it is no wonder that publishers are finding an opportunity to market books as objects. Paul Constant, books editor for the Seattle weekly The Stranger, keeps a keen eye on the publishing industry. Over email, he said of this trend, “I think we’re going to see books published with more elaborate, attractive design in mind. Some of them are going to simply have a more handmade, crafty appearance, and others are going to incorporate the shape and format of the book into the texts.… We’re going to have to see more collaboration during the whole bookmaking process, to make the form and the content intertwine.” This points to an interesting question: if and when the publishing industry adjusts comfortably to technological innovations, could apps actually grow the market for printed books? For small independent publishers, at least, this could be the case. McMullen claims the McSweeney’s app Small Chair has had exactly this effect. Since Small Chair launched two years ago, the publisher has produced more, not fewer, printed books while simultaneously broadening their audience through the Internet.

With the publishing industry’s current investment in design, it seems writers and designers have a newfound opportunity to fully exploit the material properties of printed books. It will be interesting to see whether this development encourages writers to experiment more with form. E-books may be winning on the factors of convenience and cost, but formally they’re extremely limited. Thus far, e-book readers have done little other than replicate the experience of reading a printed book: electronic pages are still formatted like book pages, and they still read from left to right. Further proving that old habits die hard, among the abundance of e-book reader and tablet accessories currently on the market are covers designed to make your reading device look like an antiquated volume. This nostalgia can also be found in the design of tablet apps such as the iPad iBook app, which features a virtual bookshelf; readers can tap on the books in the shelf to open them and turn the pages with a swiping motion. With their non-linear navigational properties, however, book apps are offering a new experience of reading, one that arguably occupies a different realm of media entirely. The book may have a complex future ahead—even one that accommodates all of its contending iterations—but it seems certain that design and access, both printed and digital, will only get better.



1. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/books/publishers-gild-books-with-special-effects-to-compete-with-e-books.html?pagewanted=all

2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/dec/02/beautiful-book-covers

3. Flaunting their newly found status like peacocks, high-quality editions of books are being turned out with gold-embossed spines, saturated colors, lavish illustrations, and striking cover art to attract attention, like Penguin Classics’ deluxe hardcover editions.

4. Nor is this solely a contemporary concern. In the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan’s famous mantra, “The medium is the message,” advocated a new way of seeing a book’s pages and cover. Graphic novels and children's books have also long been considered art forms in themselves, while coffee-table art books and catalogues proclaim their objecthood by virtue of their association with art and high-quality reproductions. Looking back further, in the days when books consisted of religious texts with richly illuminated pages, words were a sacrament to be consumed together with the images surrounding them.

5. A recent exhibition of artwork from the imprint, at San Francisco’s Electric Works gallery, highlights this intersection.

6. Parents are divided on this subject, and many advocate for the increasing use of tablets in schools. One interesting article on the debate: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all

7. Incidentally, the children’s printed book market is very healthy. One reflection of this: San Francisco’s Chronicle Books recently dissolved their fiction department and expanded their children’s and young adult fiction department.

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