This is a guest post from writer, book designer and Hugo House teacher, Corinne Manning. Her class Look Good: Book Design Principles for Chapbooks and Books, is offered by Richard Hugo House Saturday, February 16, 1-4 pm.
I’m a writer and a book designer and perhaps this makes me a little strange. Not justbecause I write or design books, but because there are extra qualities I seek whenI hold a book in my hands. Friends, if you go to a bookstore with me, you probablywon’t know about this secret snobbery. But if you run to me with a book in yourhands, with a nice looking cover (say, nothing innovative, but inspired highly byMcSweeney’s) I will take it appreciatively and always, always open up to the frontmatter (the first few pages that make up the title page, copyright page) and veryoften, deep down I will feel a kind of unsettling queasiness. Then I will open to thebody of the book, look recto (right) look verso (left) only to see too wide a text box,too large a typeface, too narrow a leading—oh, and God help me— a running headfar too close to the text box. Friends, you will never know that deep down I am bothsuffering and feeling deep sadness for the writer whose carefully chosen wordswere handled so carelessly.
In the Fall 2010 issue of Ninth Letter the Art Director writes:“We tend to think of printed material as dead—fixed in time—but its permanence isan illusion. To be in the physical world is to decay, to change, and to move.” His point being that our relationship to the book (or the books relationship to us)is one of transition. The pages go from crisp to worn. The grease from our handssmudges the cover. Our coffee rings brand pages. We crack the binding. The work ofcreating books borders on the holy—the physical book takes on a million little lives,in a million different hands. This is why I think it is so crucial, so vital, to put thepower of bookbuilding and the publishing arts into the hands of writers.
There’s much to be said about the literary-ness of our city and what first drewme to the PNW was the plethora of small presses (Some with whom I’ve had theopportunity to get involved, like Dark Coast Press, Perfect Day Publishing, and AliceBlue). What I love about Seattle is that writers here make chapbooks and zines.What I want to offer all the writers who make chapbooks and all the writers whowant to make chapbooks is the invisible art of making a spread (the left page andright page of a book) look really, really good. Richard Eckersly says: “Book design is a process so transparent and anonymous that one sometimeswonders whether it exists at all. It’s a negative quantity: a book is well designedto the extent that it is not badly designed, rather like the preferred porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears that was not too hot and not too cold but just right.”
Books are performances and are doing the same kind of work performance poets are doing. When a poet like Patricia Smith takes the stage her words grip yourheart, but so does her voice, the way she moves her hands the way she takes breathin sharply. These are the things that pull you to the edge of your seat. The book isdoing this too, but quietly. Perhaps the color of the cover makes you feel vaguelyaroused or comforted, and as you flip through the front matter—first the half titlepage, then the title page, you develop a growing excitement. What if the copyrightpage is actually something you want to look at? Then suddenly you are on thatchapter opening and the font moves across the page with ease and your eyes wantto follow it and in that moment the story takes over and the physical book’s breathand movement becomes synonymous with the writer’s power.
It’s not just the cover that sells the book, it’s the interior and it’s the interior thatyour reader is going to spend the most time with. On Saturday I’m teaching a class called Look Good—and during those three hoursall the invisible mysteries of the interior of a book will be revealed. In addition tolearning nuts and bolts, like the parts of a book, ideal margins, and the anatomy of atypeface we will also play with the book conceptually: i.e. how does my poem lookwhen it’s wearing that font? Let’s put more beautiful books with beautiful interiorsinto the world! Your poetry and prose will thank you.