“Steal don’t borrow” as advice is about using the inspiration of someone else’s creativity as part of the spark of something original using your own creativity.
One area in which this can be especially potent is book design, including the format of a project, which can either affect the text or reflect existing text’s properties.
In my case, contributing to Canongate’s marvelous The Libraries of Thought & Imagination (2001) woke up my interest in small books. The production values, including full-color interior art were wonderful, the content clever and thoughtful. But it was essentially the small size and nice design that hooked me.
So when I came up with the idea for Album Zutique (2003), a surrealist/decadent series, I wanted to use the prior book as a jumping off point. Keeping a remnant of the original’s color scheme, I decided I wanted to ditch the idea of a photographic cover and play with typography–typography that became art, but was still readable. Jonathan Edwards came up with a great design that perfectly captured what I was going for.
As you can see, the books look completely different in most ways, but, in my mind at least, some essential transaction still occurred between them, including the concept. Zutistes during the Decadent era would write in a communal book kept at a bar, creating their own library. Album Zutique was also the small companion volume to Leviathan 3, which had a theme of libraries and referenced the Canongate book in its introduction. Lev and AZ shared a couple of authors, including Jeffrey Ford, who contributed “The Beautiful Gelreesh” to AZ and “The Weight of Words” to Lev3. (And, I also liked the vertical lines in the Libraries cover photo, which were carried through to some extent in the AZ design.)
If the Album Zutique series had continued, we could’ve continued to explore the small book size in that context. However, another opportunity came when Prime published my collection Secret Lives (2008), designed by Garry Nurrish. As a series of short-shorts, it lent itself to a smaller format. The small format creates a different expectation of contents. It also, to my mind, promises a more intimate experience. Something perhaps quieter, in a sense. By now, of course, the original inspiration of the Libraries of the Imagination book is subsumed in a more general context of little books and things you can do with little books. The endpapers have illustrations on them and the boards have another image by the same artist who did the dustjacket. Both of these aspects create a further sense of the personal. That occurs in larger-sized books, too, but I do think there’s a sense of comfort created by using these extra touches in the smaller size.
The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals (2010), designed by John Coulthart and written by Ann and me, trades the rich burgundy shades of Secret Lives for a lighter color scheme that better reflects the humor of the subject matter. It, too, is a library–a library of imaginary animals. There is even less influence of Libraries of Thought and Imagination on the Kosher Guide than on Secret Lives, and yet there’s still a lingering ghost because that’s still the book that made me think about what going small does for the reading experience.
Here are a few more examples from my library, of small books. The Jabberwocky issues (2005) by Sean Wallace at Prime were partially influenced by AZ (and partially by my original mag Jabberwocky), while Bandersnatch (2007; edited by Paul Tremblay and Sean) influenced the use of an image across the boards under the dustjacket of Secret Lives.
The Logo and Lentz are from the wonderful Archipelago Books and the boxed set is a series of short stories from Nabokov, Will Self, Donna Tart, Muriel Spark, and others, to celebrate Penguin’s sixtieth birthday.
So…what small books do you treasure–and why?