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A Collection of Thoughts on the Book Arts by Peter Thomas

A Collection of Thoughts on the Book Arts. Artist Book Review. Vol. 1 No.2. Winter 2001

In the beginning was the word
The word was written and begat text.
The text was saved and begat the tablet and then the scroll.
The scroll was flattened and begat the accordion.
The accordion was sewn and bound and begat the book.
If a book is a thing that stores information, the first book was the mind, storing information as stories, proverbs, etc. Written languages were developed. Records were incised in wood or clay and stored in boxes, jars and buildings: these were the first libraries.

It was probably a search for a more compact way to store information that led to the use of cloth, parchment and papyrus. At first these writing materials were attached together and rolled into long scrolls. These were even more compact when squashed flat, but the problem of access to the stored information became an issue. If the squashed scroll was folded back and forth, and accordion structure was created and the information was again accessible. These accordion pages were then placed between boards to make the first virtual book. At some point the accordions were cut and collated, sewn and bound between boards. The result was the first real book.

The first books were the work of artists; beautifully illustrated hand written manuscripts with sculptural covers. The information found in the books was also stored in the mind-scribes and priests memorized much of what was written down. As demand for books increased, copy centers were developed to mass produce books. This led to a shift in the way information was stored: people no longer needed to memorize, and the book became functional as well as beautiful. These change culminated with the development of the printing press and movable type and the production of Gutenberg’s Bible- a book that attempted to mass produce the aesthetic of the artist made book. But, the Gutenberg BIble was not really an artistic effort, rather it was an attempt to make more things faster. This mass production enslaved the book to knowledge. A book was no longer a work of art, it was a thing that stored information. Even books that were produced as object of beauty were just beautiful containers of information.

When William Morris created his Kelmscott Press books, he was attempting to make a book that was a work of art. This was the beginning of the Fine Press movement, and its goal was to beautify the text. Fine press books, when they were reprints of classics, were made to reveal the text in a new way that a reader would not imagine unless the printer had made that book. This created a beautiful book, but rarely a work of art. they so often sought to be both functional and beautiful.

The personal computer has again freed the book from function; it no longer needs to be looked at as the only way to get information. Information is on tape, CD, on-line. Therefore by definition of the aesthetic theorists, it is now art, or at least it is just as possible for a book to be "art" as it is for an oil painting.

One must not confuse function with craft. Function is utility, while craft is technique. An art work must have craftsmanship (craft content) that equals or exceeds its aesthetic content for a work to be a real success. It is true that the book requires its artist to master many craft skills, but then so does painting if the artist wants to grind their own pigments and mix their own tempera as the old masters did.

I believe that the way information is being presented to us today might be changing our relationship to reading. There are the sound bite quotes and information compressed to fit on one screen because many readers will not bother to scroll on to the next screen. I believe this compression of information could be leading to an appreciation of denser writing like poetry, and that compressed forms of writing will be the vogue of the future.

I think that to encourage a better understanding of the book arts, we should begin inviting our friends and associates for outings to the special collections library, just as others might go to the art museum. Good company, a picnic, a bottle of wine and good books, what could be better for developing a love for the book and fostering an understanding of the book as art

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