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Volume 9, No. 9 - December/January 2000
More in this Issue



Stephen Ferry, photojournalist and author of I Am Rich Potosi; The Mountain That Eats Men (Monacelli, 1999).

"The experience of reading Steve Lehman's Tibetans: A Struggle To Survive (Umbrage, 1998), a rare eyewitness report from inside the Chinese colony of Tibet, is at once informative and immediate. While it is a photo book, it should be read from beginning to end, because, for all its wild graphic gestures, it is highly structured. The book first plunges us into the heart of the conflict, then secretes us behind Chinese lines on a tense tour of occupied Tibet, and finally arrives, with much of the Tibetan population and its spiritual leadership, in Dharamsala, India, the Tibetans' place of exile. Much of this is ground first broken, at considerable personal danger, by Lehman himself. The dramatic front section, for instance, takes place in 1987 in Lhasa, where Buddhist monks and nuns rioted, only to be met with a violent Chinese reaction. Lehman alone managed to get these images out of Tibet and onto the world's front pages.

"Lehman presents complex collages made up of artifacts from his trips; he scrawls graffiti on his pictures; he shifts format abruptly from chapter to chapter, ranging from 35 mm color news shots, to clean black-and-white medium-format portraiture, to near-pastoral landscape. But there is a band of journalistic rigor that keeps this kaleidoscope from flying off into its many pretty pieces. The result is a fascinating montage of rigorous photojournalism, found objects, and genuine concern for the Tibetans."

Naomi Yang, designer and co-publisher of Exact Change press in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"I admire aspects of the design of many new books--clever cover ideas, elegant typography--but it's rare that I find books I enjoy as objects. With such a book, no one aspect need necessarily be outrageous or unusual, but rather the type, illustrations, paper, binding, and size all contribute to making the book a pleasure to look at and hold. Palm Desert: A Book By Rudy Vanderlans Based On Music and Lyrics By Van Dyke Parks (Emigre, 1999) by Rudy VanderLans, and Joseph Cornell - Marcel Duchamp: ...in Resonance (Cantz Verlag, 1998) are two such books. Palm Desert, with photography and design by the owner of Emigre, is a personal photographic and poetic homage to a single song by the eclectic musician Van Dyke Parks that years ago captured VanderLans's imagination. The typography is a quiet lesson in proportion, and the photographs of roadside Palm Desert and Los Angeles float throughout the book. Joseph Cornell/Marcel Duchamp ...in Resonance is a grand undertaking by numerous contributors to document associations between the two artists, taking as its basis a collection of ephemera Cornell called the Duchamp Dossier. This contains all manner of objects Cornell associated with Duchamp, from signed ready-mades to laundry receipts retrieved from Duchamp's garbage. The fantastic illustrations are lushly presented on both coated and uncoated paper, and the typesetting contains a few hidden surprises, which seems appropriate in a book devoted to Duchamp and Cornell."

Johanna Drucker, professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and author of Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923 (Chicago, 1994).

"The experimental vitality of literary works often depends on the visual and material properties of their original printed form. Poems first published in a mimeographed packet can look humdrum when slipped between the covers of a trade-press anthology. This conundrum is solved by two recent books, each of which takes as a point of departure the conviction that the 'artifactual' aspects of a text--the specifics of its production as well as of its layout and formal properties--are of literary importance. Imagining Language; An Anthology (MIT, 1998), edited by Steve McCaffery and Jed Rasula, is an anthology of highly visual literary works that range from the ideogramlike Easter Island Rongo-Rongo of the eighth century b.c. to Max Ernst's Maximiliana, which, the editors exclaim, 'exalts the doodle to a magisterial ideographic plenitude.' Imagining Language positively wallows in spaciousness, 'floating' each text or image in the middle of an expanse of smooth white paper. McCaffery and Rasula walk a curious line between pristine and densely replete approaches to presentation, mirroring the sensibility of many of the works they reproduce.

"A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures In Writing, 1960-1980 (New York Public Library and Granary Books, 1998), edited by Steven Clay and Rodney Phillips, is the catalog of a 1998 exhibit at the New York Public Library. It confines itself to twenty years of independently produced poetry, concentrating mainly on the New York City location identified in its title. The designer of A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, Marc Blaustein, assembled photographic images in an albumlike format. Snapshots, postcards, and other ephemeral memorabilia--scrapbook evidence of the private lives behind the published works--offer the reader a glimpse of the personal relationships that knit together the social fabric within which these poets worked."

William Drenttel, graphic designer and president emeritus of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

"A century ago, William Morris established Kelmscott Press and set a standard for quality that would remain the fine-press model for the twentieth century. While design and typography have varied enormously, the great private presses of the last hundred years--Doves, Officina Bodoni, and Golden Cockerel among them--have continued to share certain fundamental values related to bookmaking. A Century for the Century: Fine Printed Books, 1900-1999 (Grolier Club, 1999), a catalog from the exhibit of the same name with introductions by its curators, Martin Hutner and Jerry Kelly, beautifully documents the fine press tradition of twentieth-century publishing. Following a title-page design worthy of the book's subject, the essays are both informative and idiosyncratic. Included are Bibles, bibliographies, and seminal tomes that collectively suggest an almost millennial bias toward monumental works, gathering in one volume the best of this tradition.

"Yet as much as I admire fine printing, I often feel that fine presses are oblivious to contemporary culture. With the possible exception of modern poetry, it is rare to find examples of fine printing and superior contemporary writing in a single volume. Rare, too, are books that might be classified as monumental. Yet making 'big' books is perhaps one way of asserting presence and suggesting permanence: Bindings are increasingly being engineered to sustain such heft. Such architectural values are everywhere present in S, M, L, XL (Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large) (Monacelli, 1995), written by the prominent architect Rem Koolhaas and designed by Bruce Mau. Not since Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour's Learning From Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism Of Architectural Form (MIT, 1977) has the design of a book so eloquently expressed the point of view of its authors: It's 1,376 pages of architecture documented, argued, explained, sequenced, and layered. It's monumental. And it's beautiful, too."

Sven Birkerts, author of Readings (Graywolf, 1999) and editor of Tolstoy's Dictaphone: Technology And The Muse (Graywolf, 1996).

"For me, the beauty of a book is tied less to appearance as such than to pleasure in use. A beautiful book gladdens palm, fingers, and forearm with its weight--it should feel right, suggesting substance not excess, and balanced, like a well-packed bag of groceries feels in the crook of the arm. It should then open easily and without complaint, lying either flat or with minimum cleavage swell from the center. The print--the charged facade of content--ought to be a clear, clean font, medium-sized; the margins should be ample, especially at page bottom, where the eye naturally lingers for a beat. I like a securely sewn set of signatures, which is implicit, I guess, in any book that opens easily and stays open. On the spine, crisp lettering: title, author, publisher.

"As it happens, I am more or less describing a 1991 edition of Bleak House from Knopf's Everyman Library series. I find that I covet these books in the same way that I once coveted the old black-spined Penguin Classics in college. Every point of design has been thought out, but I register no aesthetic intrusion. The book is packaged to proclaim its self-sufficiency--nothing stands between the reader and his experience. I am reminded, if subtly, that the printed book has a peculiar status, just midway between the immaterial stuff of its digested contents and the material thing, a husk of sorts, that I hold in my hand."

Jean Wilcox, assistant design manager of MIT Press.

"In the late nineteenth century, Harvard's Charles Eliot Norton presided over the emergence of an arts and crafts movement peopled by Bostonians who were repulsed by the Gilded Age's mass-produced objects and overstuffed parlors and who believed passionately in the moral value of good design. Inspiring Reform: Boston's Arts And Crafts Movement (The Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, 1997), by Marilee Boyd Meyer, David Acton, and Edward S. Cooke, is a striking example of the very aesthetic it chronicles. The book's dust jacket features a handsome hand-tinted photograph by Wallace Nutting, printed on vellum stock, of a woman ascending a staircase. The vellum is slightly transparent, and beneath it bright copper text is embossed on deep-blue cloth. The text is an 1897 statement from Boston's Society of Arts and Crafts proclaiming its 'due regard for the relation between the form of the object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it.' The book itself befits this statement. It contains beautiful color reproductions of the pottery, jewelry, textiles, furniture, and art of the movement, and its layouts incorporate the floral ornaments used by the movement's artists and craftsmen. The typography resembles that of a turn-of-the-century letterpress, and the elongated trim size gives an overall graceful impression."

--John Palattella

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