Creative Mimicry Across Book Projects (and small books)

“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?


  1. says

    These are gorgeous… and what a fun look at the thoughts behind them.

    I have two tiny loves. One is a very small early 1900s edition of Pride and Prejudice. It’s been inked with someone’s name in thick script, but the pages. The binding. The little goldleaf scrollwork. Whenever I pick it up, I feel like that old edition is transporting me with its physical presence just as much as its textual context. I also have some pocket Shakespeare editions with floppy leather covers that date from the 1920s or so. Purty, purty. Merchant of Venice is my favorite.

  2. says

    Funny you should mention this Jeff, my PS order came in today including some small stuff like Jessup’s Glass Coffin Girls, and Mr Ford’s Cosmology of the Wider World. I really love the small stuff PS is putting out these days, particular favourites are Zoran’s Twelve Collections and the Teashop, and the wraparound art on The Situation. Pete and the gang do a great job.

  3. says

    Small books are awesome books. I really love the design of that penguin collection- it would be neat to do a series of zines like that. Like a collection of them, in a box. Ready to open. A years worth of weird…

  4. says

    I’ve got a pocket-sized hardcover edition of Moby-Dick from Oxford World’s Classics that’s no more than six inches by four. It’s like a bible to me.

    Somebody named Eric Darton wrote a book called Free City that was published in a charming, very small, jacketless hardcover edition. With purple boards, no less. I always wondered if he ever wrote anything else.

    I have two copies of Mots D’Heures: Gousses, Rames, which should indicate how I feel about that book. Written by Luis D’Antin Van Rooten about forty years ago, it’s a slim volume of poetry in French with elaborate notes that explain the cryptic text. Of course, if you read the poetry out loud, you realize that’s not at all what it is.

    Schott’s Original Miscellany, much imitated but never surpassed, probably deserves a mention. Worth owning just for the list of bizarre deaths of Burmese kings.

    New Directions has started putting out a small paperback line called Pearls–I really like Javier Marias’s Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico. Their regular editions of Cesar Aira and most of their Roberto Bolano would also qualify, particularly the latter’s Antwerp.

    Similarly, Melville House has a great Art of the Contemporary Novella series in paperback; I think Lore Segal’s Lucinella is the standout here.

    I probably went a little astray when I took that turn into paperbacks, but in hardcover most all of Jean Echenoz or Nicholson Baker give that same feeling of elegant compactness. And how about Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear or The Women of Nell Gwynne’s by Kage Baker?

    I’d better stop there. Is the next post going to be about favorite giant-sized books?

  5. says

    My favorite little book is called A Little Book of Beheadings.

    The cover:

    It’s a strange little book of hand lettered poetry and illustrations about saints who have been relieved of their noggins. Published by a small press out of Santa Fe that I can’t find a trace of on the Internet.

    This is a format I really wish places like Lulu supported, as I would love to see more strange little self-published books. Something about the format encourages eccentricity.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I completely agree! A good example is if you walk into Left Bank Books in Seattle or Powell’s in Portland. There are TONS of amazing hand-produced or mass-produced self-published tiny books. Not even including awesome small-book presses like Clear Cut, also from the Northwest. Definitely breeds eccentricity–a great thing in my opinion.

  7. says

    The 14 volumes of the Sparrow artbook series are 6″x6″ cardboard covers that fit very nicely with the artwork contained within. Also like the Loeb Classics and their small size and mostly quality texts.

  8. Daemon says

    Oh my god! The Logogryph! I bought that ages ago, read it while on a trip, misplaced it and have been trying to find it, or even remeber the title, ever since! Now at last I can recommend it to other people!

  9. says

    Small books are so, so lovely. My favourite is Cat Valente’s Yume no Hon, which I love for the beauty of the story itself as well as that small-book feel. The little Jabberwocky book-zines are great too; I’m glad Sean went back to the small format for the 4th volume (a bit selfishly, as I’ve a poem in it and I do like my work to appear in pretty objects). Your The Situation is another stand-out, again for the combination of the book as physical art and the words inside. In a slightly different style, the Payseur & Schmidt chapbooks I’ve seen are stunning.

  10. Jon Edwards says

    Album Zutique brings back fond memories. :)

    I’m partial to the small format. It reminds me of old paperbacks, like the roughed up Lolita I keep on display. While not ideal for every book, it often just feel right.