As book lovers mourn the dematerialization of the printed word, rare booksellers like Heather O’Donnell remain upbeat. She’s part of an ardent group of believers — a new generation of flame-tenders who are dedicated to keeping books safe in the electronic storm of Kindles and Nooks. For the upcoming New York Designers & Books Fair 2012 (October 26–28), she has curated an exhibit of stellar printing and binding design over the past three centuries. It makes an eloquent case for the notion that beauty will keep the printed book alive.
Visiting O’Donnell in her third-floor Brooklyn walkup instantly shatters my notions about rare booksellers. The antithesis of effete, the smiling redhead in jeans leads me through a long hallway into the offices of her company, Honey & Wax Rare Booksellers: a living area filled with saffron light, children’s drawings (her daughter’s), comfortable furniture, and of course, books — in cases, in pyramidal piles, stacked neatly on tables, or open to illustrated pages.
As my eyes flit from one beautiful edition to the next, I see why she took her company’s name from the epigram “Use books as bees use flowers”: I have to stop myself from touching them, dipping in.
When O’Donnell casually hands me a small volume of John Donne’s Paradoxes, Problems, Essayes, Characters (1653), I nearly faint. Don’t I need gloves? Holding the burnished leather cover like a newborn kitten, I take in the cheerfully embellished typography crowding to the edge of the page. I want to sit down right then, feel and read every page of this beautiful object.
The Donne book will be the oldest in her exhibit at the Designers & Books Fair. Unlike other books at the show, which focuses on books about design by designers, O’Donnell’s volumes are literary works valued for their form as well as their content. They’re works of art presented with artistry.
Looking at O’Donnell’s collection, I take in sumptuous details that make her books portable works of art: the tactile quality of letterpress printing on a piece of handmade deckled paper; velvet cloth covers; the roll of hand-stitched signatures at the top and bottom of a spine; engraved illustrations with tissue interleaves; the way fabric covers a book and how it’s folded and glued inside; embossed and debossed cover titles. The list goes on.
This multisensory experience argues for safeguarding the craft of the codex — the elegant format of cover and pages that’s lasted since the first century B.C. and offers such a wide range of expression.
“The way a book is designed changes the way you read it,” O’Donnell says. The decisions about how to present the words and the materials used during a specific period of time work together to “create a kind of subconscious landscape as you read the book.”
The Werkstatte and Arts and Crafts movements exemplify this. William Morris, leader of Arts and Crafts, rebelled against the shoddiness of mass-produced goods; he was dedicated to preserving traditional processes like papermaking, printing, and bookbinding. “At his Kelmscott Press, he designed a series of stunning books printed by hand and bound in vellum, in the style of an earlier century,” says O’Donnell. “The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf’s heroic scale, vivid wordplay, and origins in spoken narrative made it a natural choice for Morris, appealing to his love of the archaic and vernacular.”
Similarly, the progressive Viennese Werkstatte collective was dedicated to raising standards of design and craftsmanship in every aspect of daily life. “By 1928, the workshop was in financial trouble,” says O’Donnell. “But they rallied to produce this anniversary album celebrating twenty-five years of modern design, bound in heavy handmade papier-maché. The book is a final expression of the ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, that the Wiener Werkstätte promoted.”
The digital reproductions shown here only hint at the quality of the “subconscious landscape” these books create when held and read — something personal and fugitive and impossible to evoke through the sterile codes of the internet. It’s a dynamic interplay between the author, book designer, and reader that fuses the meaning of the words, the book’s sensual qualities, and the reader’s context. An entirely new dreamlike projection emerges that hovers and curls around the edges of the text.
In an interview with Anita Singh in the Telegraph earlier this year, Jonathan Franzen talked about how e-books can never have the magic of printed books or re-create the feeling of “handling a specific object in a specific time and place.” While I’ll always be moved when I read Leaves of Grass, whether online or not, I treasure my 1971 illustrated copy with a forward by William Carlos Williams because it calls to mind a different generation reading Whitman’s liberating words. And when it comes to your mother’s gravy-stained copy of the Joy of Cooking with shopping lists and coupons marking her favorite recipes, there’s simply no e-substitute. Then there’s O’Donnell’s vibrant little volume of John Donne’s Paradoxes and Essays.
On the other hand, they can’t burn a library of e-books for its “offensive” content, and will anyone ever miss the phone book? (Actually, I could work myself into a minor nostalgic lather over the feel of the unbelievably thin pages, the way you’d stumble across odd names while searching for the one you wanted … )
For the Designers & Books Fair, O’Donnell has culled volumes from her own literary collection of first printings and rare, beautiful, or curious editions. Trained at Yale’s Beinecke Library, the Strand, and Bauman Rare Booksellers, she has a special affection for “association books with surprising stories of their own” — books signed by a writer to a friend or from the library of someone famous, like Walker Evans’s stark first edition of The Waste Land.
Even as e-books evolve and become more interesting to experience, physical books will endure. But they’ll need to work hard to earn a slot on the shelf. O’Donnell points to publishers like Penguin’s Virago Press Modern Classics and Melville House, which are putting effort into the design of books with literary merit. They understand the very human desire to “own and handle well-crafted objects,” as she put it. “It’s still in our psyche to have actual things around us, to live among books and to give each other something lasting, rather than simply clicking ‘share.’”
Heather O’Donnell’s exhibition of book design will be at the Designers & Books Fair 2012, which runs October 26–28 at the Fashion Institute of Technology (West 27th Street and 7th Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan).
Subscribe to the Hyperallergic email newsletter!