Book as Object


We’ve touched on this in a couple of other topics–there are some cases (rare book collecting, organizing books by color) which seem to value books more for their aesthetic than their contents. In a way, this feels wrong and shallow. (The old “judging a book by its cover” cliche.)

I actually really love a beautiful book cover, or a nicely bound book. Especially when the contents are worthy of it. I suspect I’m not alone. This got me thinking about examples of really beautiful books.

The ones I think about most are the blinged out religious texts, like these, which were on view at the Morgan in NYC:

Can’t argue with that.

Are there any particularly beautiful books you’ve come across, that you think deserve to be celebrated as objects? Or do you think that the corporeal being, the earthly form, of a book is completely irrelevant-- that what we call a “book” is really comprised of the words inside, regardless of form?

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Ah this is a great topic! I think a good reference text is this book I was gifted a few years ago:

Book Art Object

Book Art Object is a record of the proceedings and exhibitors attending the first biennial CODEX International Book Fair and Symposium titled “The Fate of the Art.” The events were held on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley in February of 2007 and showcased contemporary fine press artist books and fine art editions produced by many of the world’s most esteemed printers, book artists, and artisans. Work was represented at the fair that originated from and/or illustrated every continent including Antarctica."

So the book itself is less of an object itself but instead a compendium of books as art objects. Some selections from the linked page:

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Talking about this a bit IRL with @jinjin and a couple things came up—

One is how you can value the same book in different forms, for different reasons. We read Moby Dick together a couple years ago, and it was easiest to read on Kindle, for a few reasons: it’s old enough to be in the public domain so the ebook version is free; it’s quite long, so this made it more portable; and it’s rich in amazing language and great passages, so the ebook version was great for highlighting.

But it was such a great book, after reading I wanted to have an actual tangible copy as well. I ended up finding a really beautiful Franklin Library edition at a used bookstore and picked it up. I paid good money for it and I haven’t even re-read yet! But nice to have an edition that does justice to the text — good typography, leather bound, illustrated drop caps, stands out on a shelf…just a thing that feels nice to own!

The second thing that came to mind is considering that the “objecthood” of a book can be important / valuable in many different ways. Some of these might include:

  • For sentimental reasons: marking a great reading experience, memory of a gift, etc.
  • As a showcase of craftsmanship / bookmaking technology, as in the example @jinjin posted
  • As actual art objects where form and content or meaning are inextricable entangled
  • For practical knowledge-conveyance reasons e.g. a beautiful big atlas or botany textbook
  • Some other sort of aesthetic necessity…e.g. a graphic novel may be beautiful b/c of its creative vision but not necessarily an “art object” (yes these lines are blurry haha)

@kyle Book Art Object looks fantastic and seems like it might tick several of these boxes…thanks for sharing this one! I would like to learn more about some of the best artist books out there. I’ve heard of a few more well-known ones, but seems there are all kinds of great examples of books that push the boundaries of what books can be and do.


Book as Art Object looks so good!!

Just came across this twitter thread of student projects that explored the form of the book—really liking the idea of book as textile. I also like the one that’s just an existing collection of business cards that are bound via a binder ring. Love the idea that as soon as you physically connect a bunch of existing paper-like objects, they turn into a book.

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This is so fun to think about! My relationship to books as objects is (at the moment) based around practicality. I move around a lot, and every time I do I have to make a judgment call on which books I keep with me vs. leave behind. Keeping a book means that its presence as a physical object really symbolizes its personal significance. I think the form itself is an awesome symbol - it’s really neat and tidy between two covers, I can hold in my hands, and it encapsulates a memory/feeling/piece of myself.

On the other hand, if I’m not feeling super attached to the physical object, I sometimes feel a bit guilty/wasteful. I.e., once I read it, I’m done with it. I think a lot about books as a single-use object like this. I’m curious if any of you think about this and if you think there’s space for reuse, waste reduction, etc. with books just as there is in so many other areas. I feel like there could be a lot of creativity there in how we share this resource!


@sskellner I think you nailed It— keeping a physical book around is a mark of its abstract spiritual significance. In that sense the object-ness of the book is to be celebrated. And in that case, the nicer you can make the book the better. (And relatedly, celebrating the physical qualities of a book without any relation to its abstract contents is what feels wrong.)

But yeah if you don’t really love it, the object-ness is simply a burden. I’ve always loved that in NYC you can leave your books out on the sidewalk and inevitably they’ll be taken by someone. I think there are also programs that send books to prisons, and you can donate to libraries…come to think of it, getting all our books from a library is the most efficient for book recycling. It’s just that practically it doesn’t always make as much sense (selection not good, due dates too stringent.)

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This is a great point — made me think about how I often buy a paperback even when ebook version is available, not only because it may be a better reading experience or make sense for the price, but in large part because physical books give me a much stronger sense of tangible ownership.

However I don’t usually do much with books after I read them, besides putting them back on the shelf, or out on the stoop to get rid of (for ones I didn’t love enough to keep). I think I could do more when it comes to donating books, or even just passing them along to friends. Not always practical (it can often be almost as cheap to order a book from Amazon as to mail it to a friend in a different state) but I totally agree it’s worth thinking more about the life cycle of books and how it can be extended in useful ways.

One thing I did for my birthday a couple years back was host a “book bazaar”, kind of a bibliophile swap meet where everyone brought a few books to leave and took a few home. I think most people got rid of a couple they no longer wanted and took some new ones to keep. I think we had a few left over at the end, but easy to just donate those. Anyway it was lots of fun and I should prob do it again!


Saw this really cool thing via the Exlibris mailing list — “a selection of artists’ books with interesting structures”. (This link is an email preview from a rare bookseller; in case it breaks you can see a similar but less specifically curated list of artists books on their site here.)

Some highlights from the descriptions (though you really have to see the images too):

  • “collaborative piece with artifacts and mementos housed in a hat box”
  • “a charming miniature trunk holding the personal library of a lady explorer”
  • “tunnel book”
  • “card catalog box with a booklet for each letter of the alphabet”
  • “elaborate pedestal box with book bound on packed cords”

Lots of good stuff here for pushing the boundaries of what sort of physical form a book can take!


Oh something else comes to mind! There is the Brooklyn Art Library that houses The Sketchbook Project. The idea is that they send out artists a standard sketchbook, the artist then sketches in, on, and around the book, and then sends it back and they give it a home on their shelves.

Each artist is sent the same 5x7’’ blank custom SBP sketchbook . We’ve only got a few rules: first, your book must be used in some way - no sending us back an empty book or a completely different book!

It’s essentially a standized-ish Book as Object library. I’ve been before (and actually got married there) and the books there vary widely both in terms of traversal, material, contents, etc. Here’s a picture from their site of their variety:

They also have a digital library that allows you to browse the whole collection here:

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Love a good sketchbook! I love that those are collaborative, too.

99 percent invisible just put out a fun episode about the practice of “weeding” books, a process that happens at libraries to keep creating shelf space. Lots of interesting tidbits in there that touch on stuff we’ve discussed here:

  • physical books, especially nicely made ones, accentuating the pleasure of reading
  • “once a book has a spine, it has a soul”
  • frameworks for how to decide what books are ok to get rid of (including subjective ones…)
  • is the point of a library to house physical books, or to provide community space? Should one be done at the expense of the other?
  • digital reading/categorizing infrastructures taking over physical ones

I enjoyed it!

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So amazing that you post this now — I’m currently staring down three overstuffed bookshelves and trying to figure out a good framework for determining what books to get rid of! Will definitely check out this podcast!

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