In the post below (NewLights Mission Statement), I mentioned a few different “types” of books, all of them produced by NewLights. I want to take a few moments today and try to define those types; but first, a few things about definitions in general.

Definitions, while extremely useful and even necessary sometimes, are tricky things. They often provide the illusion of stability, of some kind of authority filling the hollowness of the word. It is in that sense that they are misleading—they mislead in the fact that they make promises against such a thing. Definitions are not stable, and they are not finite—they are zones, porous and soft, and they bend to the will of their user.

Bookarts/Artists’ Books is a discourse with a particularly pernicious definition problem. The first question is always: “What is an artists’ book?” When one starts to look at the books though, there is the inevitable, “What is a book, anyway?” One could posit that every artists’ book starts with that question. But I do not intend to go down that road today. I want to speak more locally and immediately.

Do-It-Yourself Books: Starting with the easy one. The NewLights Press DIY Books are a series of books that are available in two different forms: a) as pre-printed, unbound, packaged pages, generally distributed at gallery shows, and b) as pre-designed digital files, available for downloading and printing. Both forms come with binding instructions so that the reader gets a free book and learns to make them at the same time. Up until now, only public domain texts have been published as DIY Books, but someday, someday, there will be new, original books made specifically for the format.

Chapbooks are, generally speaking, small books of poetry (I suppose one could have a chapbook of prose, right?). The magic number seems to be 20 pages. NewLights chapbooks are a little longer, are usually made in an edition of 50 or 100 (depending on how popular I think they’ll be), and almost always have a letterpress printed cover and digitally printed pages. Sometimes there is some sort of dustjacket as well. They are also sold cheap, anywhere from $5 - $20. This definition starts to fall apart when the emphasis on the object is cranked up to equal the writing. Is it still a chapbook, or does it make the leap to artists’ book? Or fine press book? This was the case with the somewhat infamous silver standard.

Fine Press Books are the older, more refined siblings of the chapbooks. Usually a fine-press book is thought of as an edition of a book (it could be old or new, Shakespeare or Brian Evenson) that is designed, printed, and bound by hand, with a great deal of attention being paid to materials and craft. In my somewhat limpid definition, they can contain text and/or image. In Johanna Drucker’s The Century of Artists’ Books (Granary Books, 1994), the classic text on artists’ books, she pretty much ignores un-imaged fine press books, and calls the kind with pictures livres d’artistes (“artists’ books” in French). A NewLights fine-press book could be all text, all image, or all both (heh). So far there have been two, and they both have text and images. NLP fine-press books are more elaborate productions and are printed in smaller editions that are sold for considerably more money. Question: is the difference between the fine press book and the chapbook economic?

Artists’ Books are the last and most porous category. Quick definition: a work of art realized in, meant to be, inseparable from, the form of the book. Implicit in the term and definition is a value judgment, hinging on the old art/craft divide. Fine press/chapbooks/mass produced literature is craft and design, artists’ books are art. This judgment also hinges on traditional separations between form and content. But more on that at another time.

So for the NewLights Press, artists’ books tend to be the books that are extremely specific to their own form and the form of the book in general. Things that I can perhaps safely call “not literary.” (But that falls apart immediately. This is a useless gesture.) They can be unique or editioned, precious or cheap. At the moment, all NLP artists’ book production is focused on large, unique, altered book works….


No comments: