Who Cares About Books?

Filed Under: Article , Voice

In The Time Machine, H. G. Wells predicted that in the 21st century books would be replaced by audio rings. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, futuristic firemen burn books to extinguish knowledge. And in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the crew of the Starship Enterprise inhabits a paperless 24th century where books are relics. In fiction the book's future looks dim.

But ever since Gutenberg introduced movable type, print has indeed been mutable. The book has served as laboratory for writers, artists, designers and typographers, from ancient scribes to contemporary fontographers. Although circumscribed by a cover and inside pages, the book is no more constrained than any other medium and no less vast than any other art form. The very rules and regulations that govern book design and production incite rebellion. Efforts at altering the book's basic form have changed publishing paradigms, and readers' perceptions.

Book reading on the iPad in 2010 compared with a page from an 1896 book of Chaucer.

A book on the iPad in 2010 (left) and a page from an 1896 volume of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

During the late-19th century, when book publishing was spurred on by increased literacy in the world's industrialized nations, artists and designers used the book to influence popular opinion and taste. The book was an unparalleled tool. Periodicals were immediate, albeit ephemeral, but the redoubtable book had long-term resonance. Its object-ness made it a permanent fixture. Its heft made it difficult to ignore. But more than a doorstop, a book also had to be visually compelling.

The book designer's role was to attract the reticent and support the loyal reader by complimenting the narrative with visual content. Some designers drew inspiration from history. In the 1896 Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the designer and philosopher William Morris revived medieval illumination and introduced new cuts of old humanist typefaces. Revival was popular, but other designers embraced modernity. In the 1908 version of Ecce Homo, architect and designer Henry van de Velde introduced Art Nouveau ornamentation. While a majority of commercial book publishers were content to produce pages of uninterrupted text, enlightened publishers viewed the total integration of type and image as the highest form of printed art.

Vintage pages from the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Images from the 1896 Kelmscott edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, with woodcut illustrations by Edward Burne-Jones and designs by William Morris.

The history of book design has been well chronicled in Joseph Blumenthal's The Printed Book in America and The Art of the Printed Book, 1455-1955, Adrian Wilson's The Design of Books and John Lewis's The 20th Century Book: Its Illustration and Design—all regrettably out of print (though available at AbeBooks). However, addressing exactly what it is that constitutes creative innovation in book design is necessary to appreciate how the designer has contributed to the evolution of the medium.

An idea is the heart of every book; writing is its blood, and design its circulatory system. Design cannot be underestimated. A book that is merely composed according to a template, rather than with forethought and imagination, may be adequate for reading yet lacks the quality that makes savoring a book a complete experience. While a great text will conjure mental pictures, a great design—the marriage of type, typography and image—will give the reader added levels of perception that encourage cognition and appreciation. Even the most rudimentary design components—the texture of the paper, the kiss of a fine cut of type, the style of the running head or feet—are much more than aesthetic niceties. For this and other reasons the book must not only be appreciated, it must be revered.

Beacons of the future Steve Jobs and Jean-Luc Picard.

Beacons of the future: Steve Jobs in January 2010 (left) and Jean-Luc Picard in the 24th century.

So, iPad be damned. Whether or not print will live or die tomorrow or a hundred thousand tomorrows is irrelevant. Of course, the future book is still unknown (and yes, it might not be traditional). Did people really worry about the loss of the scroll or of parchment? Or did they enjoy every increment of progress as it came upon them?

Whatever the future, we should be happy we've had the book in this form for so long. So let's return to the future—to the 24th century, to be precise. When he's not signing the tablet used as the ship's log Star Trek's Captain Jean-Luc Picard has been known to lounge in his quarters with a rare, leather bound relic in his hand. Even in the most futuristic science fiction projections, the book continues to hold a place of honor. Make it so!

About the Author: Steven Heller, co-chair of the Designer as Author MFA and co-founder of the MFA in Design Criticism at School of Visual Arts, is the author of Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century (Phaidon Press), Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State (Phaidon Press) and most recently Design Disasters: Great Designers, Fabulous Failure, and Lessons Learned (Allworth Press). He is also the co-author of New Vintage Type (Thames & Hudson), Becoming a Digital Designer (John Wiley & Co.), Teaching Motion Design (Allworth Press) and more. www.hellerbooks.com