The Book, 1500-2009
Futurist and Constructivist pamphlets from Elizabeth Phillips
Over the past few decades, the Internet has altered the way people receive information, forcing publishing houses and newspapers to cut back or shut down. More recently, the digital reader has made further incursions into print territory. The newly-minted Kindle, engineered to look and feel more like a book, presents itself as a harbinger of things to come, as does Google’s stated intent to scan and digitally disseminate vast numbers of so-called orphan books.
La Grant Monarchie de France (1519) by Claude de Seyssel, from Librairie Benoit Forgeot
Still, if Sanford Smith’s NY Antiquarian Book Fair, held this past weekend, is any indication, news of the demise of the book is premature. The book has been a near-perfect delivery system for ideas and information for over 500 years. The experience of reading printed matter is deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA, and the skeuomorphic character of the Kindle only substantiates this. Turf will, and should, be divided between digital and print media, but the book is more than an assemblage of words, it is a cultural artifact and a piece of design as well. As long as art and history continue to matter to us, the book will remain relevant and valuable.
Astronomie Mechanica (1598) by Tycho Brahe, from Dr. Jorn Gunther; signed
The book fair made a compelling case for the book-as-object. The breadth and quality of the material was staggering, ranging in time from medieval to modern and in price from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand dollars, unless you count the first edition of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium of 1543, offered by Jonathan A. Hill Booksellers, which weighed in at $1.65 million.
Atlas (1525) by Ptolemaeus, from Olivier Pingel
The book arts, represented by illuminated manuscripts, printed and hand-colored maps, charts, and botanicals, and by the modern discipline of graphic design, were evident at every turn. Besides intrinsic beauty, the still-crisp and color-saturated images retain critical visual information that is remarkably free of degradation, in many cases after the passage of three or four centuries. I wonder if the same will hold true for the digital information being recorded now, given how data recording and storage technologies have changed in the past half century.
Voyages and Travels (1813) by George von Langsdorff, from Heritage Book Shop
As an inveterate student of history, I was drawn, as always, to first editions of texts and novels. I’m aware that the texts themselves can be read digitally or in later editions, but the first edition is a direct link to the act of creation and itself provides clues to meaning.
It was great to see Newton’s
Principia Mathematica of 1686 in Hellmut Schumann’s booth, if only to acknowledge a tipping-point in the modern world view. Closer to home, geographically and linguistically, were Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (an early American edition of 1776), and Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), both offered by William Reese Co., and a first edition, first-state of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859). Peter Stern had two first-edition novels I coveted: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, with an inscription and the rare dust jacket. Likewise Jonkers Rare Books, which had George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Adrian Harrington Rare Books, which offered Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange.
So, onward and upward for the book. This week, Yale University Press released Phyllis Ross’ Gilbert Rohde: Modern Design for Modern Living. This long-awaited monograph fills a gap in design historiography. Also released this week is an eagerly anticipated work by Jen Renzi titled The Art of Tile: Designing with Time-Honored and New Tiles. Published by Clarkson Potter, it is billed as a comprehensive guide on how to choose tile for your home. If you are not on a first-name basis with Ann Sacks, Nemo, and Kaleidoscope, this book is for you.
Photographs by Larry Weinberg; The Art of Tile cover art courtesy of Clarkson Potter.