Monday, December 05, 2011

The Return of the Beautiful Book

With the entire print publishing industry under threat from electronic fronts, the most correct response might just be for the industry to create more beautiful books. In a lengthy and well-considered piece in the Guardian, Kathryn Hughes explores the idea of, not fewer books, but more beautiful ones:
Publishers have started building their marketing strategies around form rather than content. The Everyman Library, which is coming up to the 20th anniversary of its modern relaunch, makes much of its books' elegant two-colour case stamping, silk ribbon markers and "European-style" half-round spines. In 2009, to celebrate its 80th birthday, Faber republished a collection of its classic poetry hardbacks illustrated with exquisite wood and lino cuts by contemporary artists. Not to be outdone, Penguin will next year be reissuing 100 classic novels in its revamped English Library series in what its press release describes as "readers' editions".
And from the everything-old-is-new-again department, Hughes points out that this brand new problem is one that the industry has dealt with before:
It may feel like Armageddon, but in fact we have been here before. In the mid-19th century, the shift from making paper out of expensive cloth to cheaper wood pulp unleashed a new era of mass-market publishing. Driven by growing literacy rates among the working class, the result was a flood of cheap identikit books, all flimsy paper and cardboard covers. The chattering classes looked on horrified, convinced that Literature – and the publishers and writers who depended on it for their livelihood – was doomed to extinction.

The first response was to try and turn the book back into a precious thing. Ruth Blacksell, who runs the prestigious MA in book design at Reading University, points to the way that William Morris's Kelmscott Press was born out of this desolation in the 1890s. By returning to artisanal methods of production, Morris hoped to revive a tradition of beautifully illustrated, handmade books, a philosophy that was taken into the 20th century by private presses such as the Nonesuch and the Golden Cockerel. Even Leonard and Virginia Woolf caught the bug when they bought a press in 1917 and set up shop from a spare room in their Richmond home. Their aim was twofold: to give Virginia a way of calming her jittery nerves (there was nothing so soothing, she said, as making sure your "h"s hadn't got mixed up with your "n"s) and to ensure that the Bloomsbury circle could publish work that, in Leonard's words, "the commercial publisher would not look at". One of the most significant productions to emerge from the Hogarth Press was TS Eliot's The Waste Land.
Hughes looks completely at beautiful books and that piece is here.



Blogger Juanita Rose Violini said...

This is a great article. I have long thought that illustrations are an essential part of a book - and colour illustrations at that. It's exciting to see that the business is now thinking this way too.

Monday, December 5, 2011 at 9:17:00 AM PST  

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