Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada by Robert Bringhurst

Robert Bringhurst was at two of the events that I attended at the Vancouver writers festival. I was not impressed with him at the first one, "The Look of the Book," where he sat hunched in such a way as to be facing away from the rest of the panel and the audience, usually not looking at the images of the other authors' works on screen and giving curmudgeonly one-word answers to questions.

Seth, Anik See and Audrey Niffenegger were the other panelists. Their contributions were lively and thoughtful. I'll write about them in future blog posts.

My friend Merle kindly loaned me two of her books by Bringhurst after I blogged about The Elements of Typographic Style: they are The Surface of Meaning and The Solid Form of Language. The latter is an essay about the written forms of world languages and the special challenges inherent in recording sound and meaning in a visual form. It is a tiny, beautifully-made book with such a tactile dust jacket that I would say I liked the look of this book better than the contents, which are a bit too academic for me.

The Surface of Meaning, on the other hand, is very accessible and mostly consists of illustrations. It is a large book with glossy, heavy clay paper to reproduce the images as well as possible. I was particularly intrigued by Bringhurst's prologue, in which he argues that books are not necessarily physical objects. "In oral cultures, books are invisible - but in every healthy and mature oral culture, books are present. Oral books that occupy no shelf space can and do unfold to epic size in storytellers' voices - and can retain that size, and that complexity, in a thoughtful listener's mind."

I happened to come across an essay by William H. Glass (In Defense of the Book; Harper's Magazine; November 1999) this past week and he says a similar thing about books: "every real book (as opposed to dictionaries, almanacs and other compilations) is a mind, an imagination, a consciousness. Together they compose a civilization, or even several."

I was pleased that Bringhurst brought up this alternate definition of books at the festival, but the other authors were quick to disagree with him when he pronounced that neither a telephone directory nor a catalogue of paintings are books. It might have been after this interaction that Bringhurst partially withdrew from the remainder of the evening's discussion; I can't remember. Anyway, Bringhurst was also in the Saturday evening "Poetry Bash" and his poems and delivery were outstanding, so he totally redeemed himself in my eyes.

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