Books: Too Good to Die

Antique_books_copyright_Jesse Karjalainen_iStockPhoto_5233400
© Jesse Karjalainen, iStockphoto® #5233400

True–you’re reading this online and you probably read eBooks of some sort. But technology also expands the options for traditional books as well.

Back in 2005, Valerie Kirschenbaum published Goodbye Gutenberg: How a Bronx Teacher Defied 500 Years of History and Launched an Astonishing Renaissance. She was teaching the Canterbury Tales when a high school student asked, “How come our books are not in color like they used to be?” This led to her researching beautifully designed books of earlier centuries, and proposing that since we’re no longer limited to black-and-white and a single font or two, why not design full out? She gets so carried away, there are chapters where you’re ready for boredom relief. But when you reach the chapter printed in black and white, it’s so stark, it’s hard to believe we’re tolerating that.

(I would have titled this book Welcome Back, Gutenberg. I’ve been to the Mainz museum and seen an original Gutenberg Bible; it was stunning. Gutenberg did not invent ugly books. Let’s blame someone else.)

Many of the possibilities she predicted are playing out all over the digital book world. We don’t even remember how recent this is. We’re already so accustomed to it, I feel obligated to apologize for not illustrating this post.

Meanwhile, traditional bookmaking–handbound, letterpress, you name it–is also kicking. Here are a few projects and ventures I happen to know of. Please chime in to share more!

Pyracantha Press at Arizona State University: fine art limited editions

The Paper Studio, Tempe, AZ and online

Elissa Campbell’s handcrafted journals at Blue Roof Designs

Quinn McDonald’s, Raw Art Journaling

University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Kohler Library of Artists’ Books

Minnesota Book Arts

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Carbon Dating for Books

Pile of Computer Trash
Pile of Computer Trash as seen on

You could always date a movie by the women’s hair and make-up. You can date a book by the technology.

Recently I’ve been teaching with a fifth edition textbook. That’s about ninety-five in book years. It shows, too, in the technology that infuses the writing samples. Someone complains that gas attendants don’t pump your gas anymore; you have to go inside to pay the attendant in the glass booth. (I barely remember that era, it was so quickly replaced by swiping debit cards at the pump.)

These authors suggest that you retype your draft whenever the proofreading marks get too thick. (Remember those computer-in-every-classroom fundraisers of the mid 1990s?)

I don’t mean to single them out. Reading a children’s novel published only a couple of years ago, my son and I were struck by a character using a cell phone–to talk instead of text.

At a writing conference, I told friends we were all writing historical fiction, and they laughed. I was classifying my novel (set in 1970) as historical fiction. I only lived part of it; I researched the rest. They could see that. But we’re still experiencing Moore’s Law, as we double the speed every few months. By the time you can finish writing a book (fiction or non), chances are good that your communications methods are outdated. What about where and how you watch a movie? How you communicate with colleagues? How involved you are in social media? It affects the plot and even affects the characters of many people I know.

This reminds me of dollhouse fanatics who create period miniatures with furnishings and inventions accurate to the given year, only now our writing anachronisms might be only a month off. To accurately portray our communications, you have to know when the technology first appeared, when it was adopted by people with that person’s economic status and personality traits, and when it became universal for that culture.

By the way, when I was involved in the Women & Books 2007 study, we learned that fewer than 2% of book purchases were eBooks, but that those buyers bought plenty of them. Less than four years later, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have announced that eBooks account for over half of their sales–their online sales anyway. (See, for example, this Fast Company article.) So add one more thing to watch for: how are characters reading their books in your book?

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011