Media pundits have been forecasting the demise of the printed book for years now, alternately celebrating and lamenting the rise of the e-book and charting the decline of brick and mortar bookstores. The trend seems clear: Why carry around a stack of paper when you can have hundreds of books at your fingertips on an e-reader?
But the choice isn't always so simple. In fact, despite the indicators of print's demise, Los Angeles is currently experiencing a flowering of independent publishing activity: that is, people making printed books, on paper.
Perhaps the phenomenon is just another species of hipster nostalgia, akin to the renewed popularity of vinyl records and 19th century facial hair. Writing in the Huffington Post last year, Andrew Losowsky speculated that the rise of e-books had actually sparked a "fetishization of the printed page," resulting in ever more luxurious and detailed books. This is especially true in the area of art books, where e-book technology has not yet caught up with the old-timey possibilities of ink and paper.
"Right now the [e-book] technology obviously doesn't do justice to photography or art or architecture," says Josh Spencer, owner of The Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles, "I don't know how they're ever going to get technology to compete with a big coffee table book, unless you want to carry around a giant laptop."
This gap, where art meets literature, is being filled by a plethora of small, independent presses whose wares include everything from exhibition catalogs to artists' books to experimental writing to 'zines. A panorama will be on view starting January 31st at the L.A. Art Book Fair at The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art. This is the first time the fair, organized by New York art bookstore Printed Matter, has come to L.A. "We have so many exhibitors from the L.A. area at the New York Art Book Fair," says the fair's director, A.A. Bronson, "It's clearly a major center for publishing, even though it's never really viewed that way."
This outsider status is a boon for some L.A. publishers. "Because the whole world thinks publishing happens only in New York, you can be out here, doing your own thing, unfettered from that world and its expectations," says Lisa Pearson, founder of Siglio Press. Siglio specializes in "hybrid" works that blend art and literature in unconventional ways. Located outside of the high-pressure, New York publishing environment, Pearson feels she has greater freedom to select and develop idiosyncratic and even risky projects. "The pressure is off and you know why you're doing it," she says, "It's not being diluted by this idea that you're going to sell tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of copies of books."
Since founding the press in 2008, Pearson has allowed her personal interests rather than market imperatives to guide her selection of titles. The first book she decided to publish, "The Book of Ruth," was a deeply peculiar art-and-text work by the obscure, now-deceased artist Robert Seydel, a personal friend. When she wanted to publish "The Address Book," a well-known project by French artist Sophie Calle, she simply wrote her to see if she was interested. Calle's book is the first, full-length English-language edition of a work originally created in 1983. It's a record of her conversations with every person listed in an address book she found on the street. Originally serialized in the French paper Libération, it raised issues of privacy and caused a minor media scandal at the time. The book resembles a pocket notebook, complete with an elastic band to keep it closed.
Other recent titles include "Jess: O! Tricky Cad & Other Jessoterica" edited by Michael Duncan, and "Between Page and Screen" by Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse. "Jess" is an eclectic collection of the quirky collage artist's works from the 1960s and 70s, some of which are being published for the first time. A book seems the perfect medium for Jess's highly detailed, often intimately scaled work. It features a full-scale reproduction of one of his intricate collages as a fold out book jacket, as well as surreally altered comic book pages and a bound facsimile of an obscure 1960s pamphlet.
Experimental in a different way, "Between Page and Screen" exists somewhere between the printed book and a Web site. The book, which features a sequence of black and white squares instead of text, is "read" by visiting the Web site and holding the pages up to a web cam. The text, a series of epistolary exchanges between two ambivalent lovers, then appears in the camera image, as if sprung from the pages.
Pearson, who not only selects but designs all of Siglio's titles, wants to create complete, aesthetic experiences. "It's not just about saying here's what the work looks like," she says, "It's how can you make it live on the page so that the reader can truly engage it and be immersed in it?"
Another example is "Torture of Women," a book version of a 1976 work by artist Nancy Spero. The original piece, a 125-foot-long painting and collage consisting of 14 panels, juxtaposes accounts of torture with imagery from ancient myths. To convert it into a book, Pearson and Spero broke the panels up across several pages, or reproduced them multiple times with different croppings. The end result is more cinematic and episodic than the original. "The experience of this is really quite different from seeing this panel in the exhibition," says Pearson, "But it is really true to the work and tries to ask the question, 'What can a book do differently, but serve the work well?'"
Art Book Fair director Bronson finds there is an increasingly fine distinction between books that document art and those that are themselves works of art. "There's so many artists producing books now; it's phenomenal. And so many museums and galleries that are asking their artists to be involved in the design of their catalogs as well," he says, "It's hard to say what's an artist's book or what's a catalog anymore."
L.A. presses are also blurring the distinction between literature and art. Pearson started Siglio because she was interested in the "space in between the literary and the visual." She has edited a collection of image and text art by women, "It Is Almost That," which aims to bring art and literary audiences into each other's orbits. It includes works by such art world luminaries as Louise Bourgeois, Eleanor Antin, and Adrian Piper. "Those artists are not read by literary people and yet they should be," she says.
Teresa Carmody, co-founder and co-director of Les Figues Press, approaches this same, in between space from the literary side. Les Figues publishes experimental, avant-garde writing that fosters aesthetic conversations between writers and artists. Their book, "I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women," features many works that incorporate images or depend on unconventional, graphic arrangements of text to reveal their meanings. In some ways "I'll Drown My Book" can be seen as a sister publication to "It Is Almost That." The former is literature on the verge of becoming visual art, while the latter is art asking to be read as literature, too.
Carmody, who also does most of the design work for Les Figues, says that she approaches book design as a writer, first. "I'm interested in positioning the text so it brings out something that I see happening in the writing," she says. One case in point is "2500 Random Things About Me Too," by Matias Viegener. The book is actually a collection of 100 Facebook posts that Viegener wrote in response to the meme, "25 Random Things About Me" that circulated on the social networking site a few years ago. Rather than present the content as straightforward lists, Carmody devised an intricate system of numbering that served as a visual element, surrounding the text with numbers.
Such graphic devices are hard to reproduce in e-books, which privilege the reader's desire to make text bigger or smaller over the integrity of the page's design. But when Les Figues set out to make an e-book edition of one of their top selling titles, they came up against another limitation of the e-book format. "Dies: A Sentence," by the press's co-founder and co-director Vanessa Place, is a prose poem consisting of a single 50,000-word sentence. "We found that with e-books, you could only upload a certain amount of data," says Carmody, "Normally that's not a problem because it's really designed for chapter books or more conventional books." But when faced with a 50,000-word sentence, the e-book software automatically created an arbitrary break in the middle of the work. "It sort of has lost something," Carmody says, "I don't think that the technology is really there yet for more experimental kinds of things."
However, Carmody notes that the technologies that make e-books possible are closely related to those that have made desktop publishing so widely available and affordable. "There's this amazing renaissance in small press publishing that's happening right now," she says, adding that one no longer needs the large amounts of capital once required to publish books. Technological developments seen as sounding the death knell for the printed book have unexpectedly led to its further propagation, albeit in a much more precious, collectible form.
Carmody, Pearson and Bronson have all noticed a renewed fascination with the materiality of books, down to the type of paper and printing techniques used. "It's much more about the paper and the ink and the design," says Bronson of these small press books, "They're much more objects that you want to keep." Disembodied e-books, Carmody says, are fine for things like textbooks or fiction that you may only read once. By contrast, she hopes that readers will want to return to Les Figues books again and again. Similarly, Pearson says, "I want to publish books that people are loathe to get rid of, that they want to hold onto because they know that when they pick it up again, it'll give them something really special." In this sense, the book becomes both an experience and a collectible object (a collectible experience?). This renewed interest in the aesthetic and physical pleasures of printed tomes takes us back to the early days of the book, when people cherished and proudly displayed medieval illuminated manuscripts or jewel-encrusted prayer books.
The Last Bookstore owner Spencer thinks that printed books may serve a similar purpose today. He routinely sees people buying many more books than they can possibly read, or buying hard copies of books they've already read. He believes they're buying them to display on their shelves. After all, printed books are visible and tangible in a way that e-books will never be. For some, it's a form of home décor, but for others, it's a way of reflecting who they are to other people and to themselves. In this way, printed books become far more than stacks of paper; they are condensations of experience that remind us who we are and where we've been.