There’s a whole class of paper books we haven’t discussed yet—the paratextually unremarkable, unimaginatively designed rows of paperbacks and late-edition hardcovers that line most of our shelves. These are headed for the same place most manufactured objects go eventually—the scrapheap.
In its own way, even the well-made paper book may someday reach a similar fate. The art market may have deep pockets, but historically it hasn’t been very hospitable to literature. As far as the “artist’s book” is concerned, the first term in the phrase has tended to take precedence, in the past century at least. A lover of literature can’t help feeling that—as the conventions of the paper book have come under the interrogation of the visual arts—poetry, rhetoric, narrative, and meaning have often suffered.
German artist Dieter Roth’s Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Work in 20 Volumes (1974) is an ominous example. Roth ground up the philosopher’s complete works and used them as a substitute for meat in a recipe for homemade sausage. The result is literaturwurst—a final possible future for the paper book in the age of digital proliferation.
Don’t forget to read about the key and the other objects featured in our series on everyday design.