x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Long live the printed book

Imaginatively designed vehicles for fiction and journalism are fighting back against the current flood of digital magazines, e-books and online news.

Visitors try out mobile devices to read books during last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair in October. Digital book sales may be outpacing print editions, but the appeal of a hardback lives on. Daniel Roland / AFP
Visitors try out mobile devices to read books during last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair in October. Digital book sales may be outpacing print editions, but the appeal of a hardback lives on. Daniel Roland / AFP

The novelist Dave Eggers' latest work of fiction isn't a book or a screenplay; it's a shower curtain. Printed with a monologue that starts, "I am your shower curtain and I am watching you," it constitutes the latest issue of The Thing Quarterly, a "periodical" consisting of a different object, adorned with text by a different author, each issue.

Previous editions have included a window blind by the filmmaker Miranda July ("if this shade is down I'm begging for your forgiveness…") and a mirror by the actor James Franco, which has a photo of the late actor Brad Renfro attached and the words "Brad Forever" written on it in lipstick. A year's subscription to The Thing costs US$200 (Dh735) and most back issues are already sold out.

It sounds like an expensive toy for literary hipsters, but there's more to The Thing than that. With its emphasis on text as a physical object and on pushing the boundaries of what a periodical can be, it's part of a new wave of imaginatively designed vehicles for fiction and journalism that are fighting back against the current flood of digital magazines, e-books and online news.

"I love newspapers," says Jonn Herschend, who cofounded and edits the periodical with fellow visual artist Will Rogan. "I love to sit and read them in the morning. The feel, the sound of the paper." He regrets that physical books are becoming "more of a novelty" and says that they are "the perfect delivery system for text". Both Herschend and Rogan are working on a non-fiction work, to be published by Chronicle in 2014, which will be "an investigation of the physical aspects of the book".

When asked which periodical has inspired Rogan and Herschend most, McSweeney's is the first name that comes up. A literary journal started in 1998, it has consistently raised the bar for design, with issues designed to look like everything from a bundle of mail or a newspaper to a box in the shape of a human head. Each issue is completely redesigned, and much use is made of elegant typefaces, die-cut-covers, magnetic bindings, cloth covers and other tactile effects.

Eggers has been a long-standing champion of print. In McSweeney's Issue 5, an oft-quoted mission statement hidden in the small print urged publishers against making cheap paperbacks or "icky, cold, robotic (electronic) books". Instead, it demanded well-designed hardcovers because they give "us people with fingers and eyes, what we want … to be surrounded by little heavy papery beautiful things". That was 12 years ago, and while e-book sales continue to grow, there is mounting evidence that publishers are taking notice of this desire, and catering to a growing market for top-quality, collectable books.

The Folio Society, a London publisher dedicated to illustrated hardback editions of classics, currently has a membership list of 100,000, and has recently started selling books online to non-members, as well as in select locations such as the British Museum, Fortnum & Mason's and Paul Smith. Now, the company's publishing director David Hayden says, "other publishers are catching up to the power of the beautifully designed book. That is a function of the extremely rapid move to digital reading".

Hayden describes himself as pro-tech, but argues that "the physical book is still an incredibly effective piece of technology. Your memory of reading a book, all the tactile associations that go with that, are still very powerful". Like Eggers, he thinks that books can survive alongside e-readers if they provide something unique and emphasises the craft that goes into the Folio Society's maps, illustrations, indexes and choice of materials.

He also sings the praises of Coralie Bickford-Smith, the designer behind Penguin's popular Clothbound Classics series, who has shown that there is a market for longer-lasting, more beautiful (and more expensive) books. Among other high-end hardbacks, she has designed a new F Scott Fitzgerald series using a palette of gold, silver, bronze and cream, which has been cooed over in style magazines alongside shots of this season's flapper look. Bickford-Smith talks about books adding "a richness to my world which I could not imagine living without", and even admits that she owns volumes that she forbids anyone from reading, for fear of cracking the spines.

With Amazon's digital book sales overtaking its physical book sales for the first time last year, there are fears that we may be the last generation to hear the rustle of a turning page, but so long as there are people making enduring products that can't be replicated on a screen - whether that's a gorgeous book, a journal shaped like a head or a story on a shower curtain - it looks like there will be people who are willing to buy "little heavy papery beautiful things".

artslife@thenational.ae