Sunday, September 15, 2013

Beautiful Objects (Melbourne Writers Festival)

Whilst the final day of the Melbourne Writers Festival for this year was a couple of weeks ago, I still have one session to write up. I could just let it go, but it was a session that I enjoyed so here we are. I feel as though the fact that I did enjoy it so much is something of a bonus as it was the last session I booked because I needed one more to fill up my pass. I had searched the program numerous times before in the end I kind of just went...well, that one looks interesting! And it was!

After having attended the Cooking the Books session early on Sunday morning (which I wrote about for last week's Weekend Cooking post) I had a short time to get to the local markets, buy a new handbag and eat lunch in time to be back for the Beautiful Objects session. The brief summary of the session from the festival program said

Antique books, first editions, and art books each harbour aesthetic qualities that transcend mere function. Author and book designer Kevin Kwan joins publisher Pauline De Leavaux and Stephanie Hicks to explore the beauty of books, their transposition from the everyday to luxury items, and whether the future of eBooks will be quite as beautiful.

The session started with each of the guests being asked to give examples of beautiful books. Pauline De Leavaux works for publisher Thames and Hudson. She talked about in her first jobs, and for a lot of bigger publishers, there is always a struggle between aesthetics and budget constraints. Thames and Hudson is different in that there are fewer limits placed on the pursuit of publishing beautiful books.

In her examples of beautiful books, Pauline started with a book called I Wonder by Marian Bantjes (pictured at the top of the post). This is a book that is at the absolute pinnacle of production extremes. The front cover is embossed and gilded, the paper edges are gold, there are many more colours used inside the book and there's a ribbon. It is a book that may well be seen as a cultural artifact in the future. To get some ideas of the production values of the book click here to head to the author's website.

The next book that Pauline offered up was The Architectural Photography of John Gollings, which has a cloth bound, foiled cover underneath the slipcover and is printed on special paperstock.

The third book though proves that a book doesn't have to be expensive to make in order to be beautiful. Owl Know How by Cat Rabbit and Isabel Knowles is a children's picture book. There is no special treatments in terms of paper or the casing or gilding. What makes this book beautiful is that all of the images in it have been painstakingly made out of felt by the authors and then photographed.

Next Kevin Kwan, author and designer, shared his beautiful books. He talked about being enamoured by gorgeous old books as a child visiting his grandparents library and finding objects of wonder there.

His first object was The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk. At first this book appears as though it just has the iconic blue stripes that were used in so many of his designs but as you slowly pull down the white plastic slip cover you can see two other images as they are revealed. The first is of JPG himself and the next image is of one of his muse. I have included the slip cover on image and the whole cover above. Hopefully it will give some idea of how it works.

His next book was And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman - a year long journey that is told by way of incredible illustrations and a funny narrative.

The next two books both had the crowd reacting audibly for different reasons. The first was called A Flight of Butterflies which was a reproduction of a book from the early 1900s which features a number of woodcuts of butterflies. It is bound in an oriental style with no spine, so that each pages unfolds, in effect revealing more and more of the images. Hopefully this photo gives some idea of the effect of the book.

The final book was A Hundred Times Nguyen. This book features a series of images of a young girl repeated over and over again. I must confess to being a bit puzzled as Kwan was showing us this book, and then he read the only paragraph of text in the book which explains the images. I am sure I was not the only person who wanted to get hold of that book straight away.

The conversation went on to talk about the cover that Kevin Kwan ended up with for his new book Crazy Rich Asians, a journey that went through four very different incarnations before everyone involved in the decision making process was happy with it.

Other topics that were touched included how cover trends, and how ebooks are impacting on book productions. Whilst ebooks tend to be a growing market there is still a market for beautiful books as objects, especially in sections of the market like cookbooks and childrens books - books that will pull the reader into bookstores. What ebooks haven't been able to do is create that feeling of beauty. Even just getting images formatted correctly doesn't seem to have happened yet (one of the reasons I don't really do cookbooks on my ereader) but ebook design is really in it's infancy so those kinds of things will develop. For the time being though, ebooks are pretty much still functional items as opposed to items of beauty. A lot of readers will still go and buy a physical copy of the book if they love it as an ebook just for the physical sensation of being able to hold a book in their hands.

All of this discussion of books as beautiful objects has me wondering about the books I buy. Do I buy them as functionary items or are there some that I buy because of their aesthetic values, beyond a pretty cover, as well? I must confess that I get a little excited if I borrow a hardcover book from the library and it has a ribbon in it or if it has deckled edge paper - small things, but to me it makes a book so much more attractive. And if a book has end papers I am curiously pleased. The most recent example of that I can think of was Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore but there could be more. Of course, I like to look at the books where the edges of the pages are coloured but that in itself does not necessarily make a book beautiful. I saw some the other day where the cover of a book was black as were the edges of the pages, so it was kind of monotone in appearance.

I do really want to buy some of the cloth covered classics. They just look so pretty, but I haven't yet actually bought one yet. One day!

What is the most beautiful book I own then? The first book that came to mind was probably the collectors edition of The Arrival by Shaun Tan that I bought a couple of years ago now. It comes in a case that is designed to look like an old leather bound book, which opens up to reveal both The Arrival and Sketches from a Nameless Land, an accompanying book that explains some of the art and story told in The Arrival. The Arrival itself is a gorgeous book because of the amazing art that tells the story. There are no words so everything in the story must be conveyed through the amazing imagery. There is a ribbon (bonus!) and it is a lovely hardcover finish. Below are some images (taken hastily at night so hopefully they will at least convey some of the gorgeousness).

What makes a beautiful book for you? What is the most beautiful book you own?

Currently Reading

Lilla's Feast by Frances Osborne, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, The Briny Cafe by Susan Duncan and listening to A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin.

Up Next

I should check. At this point on a Sunday night I have no idea!


  1. I buy beautiful books. I'm drawn to them. Words on a page aren't enough to make a book a keeper. Beauty is.

    Maybe that's why I buy so many children's picture books.

    1. Children's books are definitely one area where there is capacity for beautiful books to be produced.

  2. I love the Maria Kalman book Pursuit of Happiness. Love old books and old libraries -- in other people's homes. Don't have to own them, just enjoy from afar. Want to keep mine minimal.

    1. There is always a balance that has to be found between space, aesthetics and how much you can own isn't there?

  3. I have a few old books that were my moms, my favorite is the Little Women series. I'm such a cover snob though, and I've probably passed on some really great books.

    1. What's that old saying? Never judge a book by it's cover.

  4. What a great session. I've been thinking about books as objects recently as I just read one that was a beautiful object, The Boy Who Grew into a Tree, and am writing a post about it. I quite often buy a book that I find beautiful. One of the reasons that I so love Craig Silvey's The Amber Amulet is that it's a beautiful object not just a book. It's probably my favourite book object.

    1. The Amber Amulet is a great example of a recent book that has obviously had a lot of thought and care go into in terms of the production values.



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