Wherefore the book?

[Michael Carabetta] That was my first thought* for the title of the lecture I was invited to deliver at Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library. Under the aegis of the Watts Program for the History and Culture of the Book, Lisa Long Feldman,

the program manager, developed a series of lectures and hands-on workshops — Transformations of the Book — with a cast of professors and practitioners from the Brown/RISD community and elsewhere (I’m from elsewhere) that examined, prognosticated, and celebrated the book as we know it … and as it might become.

“What Is a Book: Book Publishing, Book Design and the Electronic Environment,” the ultimate title of my lecture, posed a rhetorical if not practical question about the future of the book. The publishing world is experiencing a watershed moment as it transitions from an old media model of ink-on-paper artifacts to one that is intangible or virtual: e-books, mobile phone apps, tablets and the like.

The lecture was illustrated with examples of Chronicle Books’ past, present and future endeavors in the business called “publishing.”

True to Feldman’s Transformations of the Book series, the talk was but one part of the program: theory. The other part was hands-on: practice. Students from Brown and RISD were invited to take part in a class where the notion of “what is a book?” was put to the test.

Prof. Jan Baker’s book arts studio at RISD

The subject for the students’ exploration was a counting book. The counting book was selected as a subject because it would not favor either the art or liberal arts student taking part in the class. Counting books are typically meant for children. However, the challenge I set was to create a counting book that conveyed the concept of a numeric sequence without necessarily using numbers (though it could). Various sequential systems such as the clock, the calendar, rulers, Morse Code, playing cards, dominoes, dice, and Roman and Arabic numerals were cited as examples of symbolic and literal forms of counting.

The class was held in Professor Jan Baker’s book-making studio on the RISD campus. Jan has established and maintained a first-class facility with almost every piece of equipment and tool necessary to design and construct the handmade book, including paper!

Baker prepares materials for the Master Class in Book Design

Tools and materials for drawing, measuring, cutting, scoring, folding, stitching, gluing and shearing were on hand, abundant and well organized. As testament to the time-honored art and craft of the book, there was not a laptop or laser printer in sight. More apropos, to me, was the presence of a 19th-century industrial strength guillotine, board shearer and paper press, evidence that old machines are not irrelevant and can be put to new use.

A place for everything and everything it its place

It is no surprise that the rise in popularity of letterpress printing — ink impressed into paper — appears to be in direct proportion to the proliferation of electronic devices that inform and entertain us with photons.

Industrial Revolution-era guillotine cutter

Once the ground rules for the workshop were established, Jan shared a portion of her collection of hand-wrought books representing an array of formats, binding techniques and material use. To my delight, some examples were based on alpha-numeric sequencing.

Top, left to right: Michael Carabetta with student; students at work.
Bottom, left to right: The book takes shape; Jan Baker and Lisa Feldman were inspired to design and make their own books.

Thus oriented, the students availed themselves of the tools and materials surrounding them and began work. Among the materials were reams of paper, including neutral shades and vivid colored sheets, supplied by Laura Shore, Senior VP of Communications at Mohawk Fine Papers.

Colored sheets supplied by Mohawk Fine Papers

As you can see from the results, these materials enhanced and enlivened the students’ designs.

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In the designs for the counting book the students developed, they exhibited an appreciation of (and feel for) the hand-wrought object. It was proof that the tactile can exist alongside the digital.

Class concludes

*”First thought, best thought” is often attributed to poet Allen Ginsberg as his guiding principle. It seems more likely, though, that it emanates from Buddhism, of which Ginsberg was an adherent.

Michael Carabetta is creative director at Chronicle Books, a San Francisco-based publisher of illustrated books for all ages. His work for Chronicle has been recognized by the AIGA, the AIA and various design publications.

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Comments (1)

  1. Posted by LEE MOODY on 04.5.11 at 10:31 am

    lovely ~lovely atmosphere to spend all day ~ making books on Superfine !

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