SYP Conference 2012 – Seminar 1: Beautiful Books

In her seminar, ‘Beautiful Books’, Johanna Greary explored the discussion which underlined much of the SYP 2012 Conference : will ‘digital’ lead to the demise of the traditionally printed book? As Senior Editor of the Folio Society, publisher of fine, illustrated books, she is well placed to comment on the position of physical books in our modern lives.

Some of us are scared of it and some of us are excited by it, but it’s something that we’re all talking about and, working within the publishing industry, it’s something that’s got to be on our minds. As technology continues to develop, is there going to be a need, or demand, for the traditionally printed book going forwards? Johanna Greary argues, ‘yes, absolutely, more than ever’ and while that might seem nostalgic, optimistic or naive, she has an incredibly good point…. How many of you have been into a grocery store in the last month? A high street shop?  The bank? Listened to the radio? Posted some mail? Probably most of you. But if you think about it, you might have done these things for a slightly different purpose than you would have done five, ten or fifteen years ago. You might do most of your grocery shopping online, but pop into Waitrose for that beautiful bottle of bubbly. You might order the outfit online but go into the store to try on beautiful clothes , for the beautiful experience of the shop. And while you might download a new bestseller onto your Kindle, you’d buy a beautiful coffee table hardback , you would spend money on beautiful books. The shift towards digital has created an opportunity for fine, beautiful books to come into their own – books as gifts, as art and as items of luxury.

But what makes a book beautiful? In the seminar, Greary took us through the factors which contribute to the book’s aesthetics and how the factors must work in conjunction with each other. She started, and finished, with the text. The text must be close to the author’s intentions, pure to the original story. The text will then dictate how the other factors are addressed. The typography must be clear and easy to read, with the font being in line with the content. You wouldn’t want to read The Handmaid’s Tale in Comic Sans! The illustrations must reflect and enhance the style and the tone of the text. She explained how a fictitious book which was based on a true story benefited from photographic illustrations as the photo form adds an element of reality to the content. The binding design must then be consistent with these illustrations, giving the reader a good first impression of the beautiful experience inside. Finally, the printing and binding must allow the content stay true to its form. She gave the example of the long-lined poetry of Gerard Manley-Hopkins which the Folio Society chose to print in a square shaped book so that the lines were printed unbroken. And here we end back at the text, were we started.

So there seem to be two ways of defining Beautiful Books. First, and most obviously, a finely, illustrated book that would sit well on display in our homes.  And secondly, a book which is pure and true to its text in every aspect of its production. Having heard speakers in the opening and closing debates, I don’t see any reason why that can’t be a digital book. Digital content can surely capture the sentiment of the words, giving authors the options of music and interaction? This, however, will not lead to the demise of the printed book. It will just increase the pressure on the printing industry to produce beautiful items that motivate us to purchase. By judging the products I saw from the Folio Society, bound in silk and glitter and containing stunning images reflecting the content of the text, I am confident that there are publishers out there who will excel under this pressure, continuing to provide truly beautiful books to the public.


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