06 Mar 2011

making a case for the book

Ulin, Wild and Pearson at “Making a Case for the Book in the Digital Age”. Photo via Big City Forum

Ulin, Wild and Pearson at “Making a Case for the Book in the Digital Age”. Photo via Big City Forum

On Wednesday night, I attended Big City Forum’s “Making a Case for the Book in the Digital Age” at ARTBOOK in Hollywood. Big City Forum is a project spearheaded by Leonardo Bravo. I admire the monthly dialogues and panels of creative minds from a variety of fields—urban planning, economic development, education, architecture, art and design, and community activism—Bravo assembles in spaces throughout Los Angeles. The thought-provoking events highlight this city’s potential to be a leading creative community.

This month’s offering was billed as “a lively conversation with David Ulin, book critic for the Los Angeles Times and author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Are So Important in a Distracted Time; Lisa Pearson, publisher of Siglio Press, and Lorraine Wild, renowned book designer and founder of Green Dragon Office....Ulin, Pearson and Wild will discuss books as physical artifacts, and the inherent qualities that cannot be replicated in other media.” Although this description is neutral in tone, I expected the evening would surely involve some “The sky is falling! Print is dead, all hail the iPad!” moments.

However, while Ulin attempted to frame Pearson’s and Wild’s presentations with the digital alternatives to books in mind, his introduction also had, for better or worse, the effect of neutralizing the “threat” of the iPad. Ulin level-headedly reminded us, “Writing books was always the product of technological revolution. We are living through a Gutenberg-ian moment and it is up to us to decide what we do with it.”

I was slightly bewildered. With the menace of “The Death of the ‘Physical Book’” preemptively slain, I wondered what remained to be presented and questioned. Then, Pearson began her thoughtful presentation about her practice and her commitment to publishing “uncommon books at the intersection of art and culture”.

Pearson methodically made the case for the “physical book” without explicitly mentioning the alternative. Instead, she walked the audience through several of Siglio’s titles and the curatorial and design decisions contributing to each. In doing so, one could not imagine a world without the book.

As she described her role as a publisher and editor, I saw parallels between her work, as experience maker and meaning framer, and a curator’s. In her words, her purpose is to be able to “embrace the book as possibility—a space for creating time, a space for convergence of form.”

“I’m interested in what the form can do,” she continued, “how all the elements contribute to the experience of the book.”

Pearson’s interest in the form was most apparent when looking at three of her titles: Sprawl by Danielle Dutton, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas by Denis Wood, and It is Almost That edited by Pearson.

Book images from sigliopress.com

Book images from sigliopress.com

Sprawl, recently nominated for The Believer Book Award, is Siglio Press’s first work of fiction. Pearson’s description of the novel as one long paragraph, as well as her assertion that other publishers might have shied away from executing Dutton’s vision because it was too expensive and used too much paper was intriguing. I wish she had shown interior spreads, rather than just the novel’s cover, because I had trouble visualizing the outcome.

Thankfully, Pearson did show the interiors of Everything Sings which she described as “disrupting the boundaries of cartography,” and It is Almost That, an anthology of work by women artists and writers. In doing so, it became much easier to grasp what she meant when she said she wants her work “to create a different kind of space, so you can see something new.” The images of It is Almost That worked best to illustrate how she uses each book’s structure—from its sequencing to the design of single spreads—to merge text and image and create new connections between artists’ work.

As I wrote at the start of this post, this evening did not set out to question whether “physical books” have a future in our digital world. For Ulin, Pearson and Wild, that issue was never on the table. Nonetheless, of the three panelists, Pearson did the bulk of the work in making the case for the book in the digital age. In presenting work that defies translation to the screen, she confirmed my belief that well-designed objects become living texts asking to be reread, speaking to readers in different ways at different moments in time.