Friday, July 04, 2003


At the World Fantasy Convention last year, I moderated a panel on books as artifacts--the personal nature of books. I recently found the materials I prepared for that panel and thought I'd post them here. I like all of the answers from various writers, collected before the panel, but Michael Cisco's responses are particularly stunning to me, as are Zoran Zivkovic's rather cheeky replies.


Compiled by Jeff VanderMeer

Good evening. Thanks for joining us tonight. To be here at 10 at night on Halloween already demonstrates an abiding love for books. Or perhaps for panels. My name is Jeff VanderMeer and I'll be moderating tonight's panel on books.

By way of introduction, let me just say that a finely made book, well designed and executed, can be intoxicating. It exists as a creative act irrespective of the book's contents. And, at the place where content and format fuse, you will find the perfect book. That perfect book differs for every reader, but what remains constant among book lovers is a sense that their need for books is more than just an act of nostalgia. It can be highly personal and eccentric. It can be a search for order. Or it can represent an awareness of the aesthetics and culture behind book design and book execution.

We're here to talk about how books are personal to each of us and perhaps a little bit about the relevancy of books today.

But before we begin, I'd like to do two things—first, hand out this photo album with photos from the Babylon Lexicon at the New Orleans Independent Book Fair last weekend. The Babylon Lexicon is a display of hand-made and eccentric books from all over the country. What struck me as most interesting is that the majority of the books' creators were people in their twenties. They were all very excited about the possibilities of books as art and artifact. They did not find such an idea at odds with our modern world of computers and the Internet. In fact, they seemed to like living in both the world of books and the electronic world. Also for the Book Fair, I asked a number of writers and publishers from around the world about their relationship to books. Some of their responses are also included in this photo album and I'll also read from some during the course of the evening.

[Alas, no one actually taped the panel itself, but below you'll find some of the answers I'd solicited from various writers and editors in the months prior to the panel, in preparation for it.]

What do you most like about the book as a physical object?

Des Lewis: The book as physical object was the container, the thing that gifted what I yearned – so, by association with what it gifted, it became a loved object, by look and smell and feel, and assumed taste. The stitching, the tooled spine, the foxing, the heady waft of predictions of nostalgia in future life …

Ian Nichols: Its sensuality. A book is tangible, and the paper picks up scents, finger marks, stains and dust. It is, in itself, a history, as well as a text.

Michael Cisco: It is silent. Patient. It waits for me to animate it, and to animate me in turn. This patience and quietness are related, and both in turn related to the book's relationship to time. Real books are created to endure for the benefit of unborn persons, like time capsules. They act as silent witnesses, whose testimony is immediately available.

Zoran Zivkovic: The erotic fact that I can take it with me to the bed.

Do you have any rituals or procedures you go through after acquiring a new (or used) book? (Some writers indicate they bite or smell books.)

Gordon Van Gelder: The former CEO at St. Martin's, Tom McCormack, loved the smell of old books. I was taken aback in a meeting when I brought out an 1950s book from my father's library and Tom cracked open the book, stuck his nose deep in the binding, and took a big whiff.

David Langford: Doesn't everyone have a quick sniff? New books are rarely aromatically interesting, but certain U.S. paper from the first half of the 20th century has matured to exude a waft of Essential Book. Another small ritual consists of either gently removing penciled-in second-hand prices with an art eraser, or shouting F***WIT! at prices scrawled in ink.

Michael Cisco: I have sniffed books in my time, but not as part of a fixed protocol of book-buying (more like a pastime). When I buy books and bring them home, I set them aside in piles, depending on the kind of reading they represent (research, pleasure, subway). When I've read them, they all go onto a shelving pile. Once the shelving pile is a foot or two high, I alphabetize the books, measure the height of the pile, displace an equivalent amount of already-shelved books to make room for the new ones (my shelves are deep enough for double-stacking: the back rows are all filled, and now the fronts are filling up), then insert the new books in the proper places. In this way, I am able to find any book fairly swiftly. I derive from this operation, also, a profound sense of well-being. I don't merely possess my books; they form a precisely-ordered system over which I preside. Looking at the books on my shelves, I enjoy their order.

Tamar Yellin: I feel its weight, and flip through its pages to feel the weight and quality of the paper. The smell is also important. At some point -- unable to help myself -- I will check how many pages it has. This seems to answer some deep psychological need, like establishing how many miles there are to cover on a journey, whether or not it's meant to be a journey of pleasure.

Is it necessary for books to exist as physical objects in our increasingly electronic world? If so, why?

Zoran Zivkovic: Of course it is! I can think of many, many reasons. One of them is the practical impossibility and moral abomination of taking a computer with me to the bed.

Michael Cisco: I've never heard yet any suggestion that paintings on gallery walls be replaced with computer facsimilies hanging on flat screens, or that all music henceforth be created exclusively on computers. Or that all food be cooked on computer screens and eaten by little programs while the user sucks feebly at the keyboard. Our world may be increasingly electronic, but it might becoming decreasingly electronic in the future; and nowhere is it written that everyone everywhere will eventually have computer access. Scrapping books would be like insisting everyone live underground - expensive and pointless.

What recent examples stand out for you as exemplar of well-designed, well-made books?

Jack Dann: the Folio Society in London make very nice books. Also small press publishers such as Arkham House, Easton Press, Ziesing, Lord John Press, Shadowlands Press, and especially Donald M. Grant.

Stephen Gallagher: THE ANNOTATED LOST WORLD, edited by Pilot and Rodin. Published by The Wessex Press, Indianapolis. A perfect meshing of content, design and materials.

Rhys Hughes: I admire the productions of Tartarus, Sarob and Savoy.

Harvey Jacobs: The books published by Pushcart Press are particularly attractive.

John Klima: Mark Z. Danielewski's HOUSE OF LEAVES did some very difficult things with layout, leading me to say that it was well-designed, but that the design didn’t help the story. THE CHEESE MONKEYS by Chip Kidd had phenomenal design.

David Langford: Alasdair Gray's anthology =The Book of Prefaces= (2000)

Stephen Jones: Quite simply, the best books currently being produced in the genre are the Robert E. Howard titles being published by Wandering Star.

Jay Lake: the limited edition printing of Gene Wolfe's EMPIRES OF FOLIAGE AND FLOWERS

Scott Thomas: The Monkey's Paw and Other Tales of Mystery and the Macabre, from Academy of Chicago Publishers, has a lovely autumnal cover by French artist Victor Prouve that sets the perfect tone for a collection of old fashioned stories.

Lisa Tuttle: "Everyman's Library" (London: J.M. Dent & Co.)

Gordon Van Gelder: The hardcover of A GENTLE MADNESS by Nicholas Basbanes (Holt)

Ellen Datlow: _Coraline_ by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean. --

Do you have any memory connected to books that you would like to share?

Jack Dann: One of my earliest memories of reading was that when I opened a book, all the characters would come alive; when I closed it, they would go to sleep. On some level, I still believe that.

Jeff Topham: About 10 years ago, my then-girlfriend and I spent two delirious months on a rambling cross-country road trip. The only book I brought was Tom Robbins' Another Roadside Attraction, whose endpapers, and eventually even its margins, became filled with my travel journal. It traveled with me to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was soaked during a thunderstorm at Glacier National Park. Its front cover was singed during a hilariously inept attempt to smoke a small amount of opium we'd bought. It is a ruin of a book. It is priceless to me.


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