Art Encased in Art: Innovations in Publishing

As a professional writer, I’m often asked what I think of the changing face of the publishing industry. Do I want to find an agent? Do I want to self-publish? Go strictly e-book? Publish “traditionally”? Really though, the question they most want to ask is: “Are books dying out?”

My answer to this is always a laughing “no,” simply because–while the industry is certainly changing in many ways–books have always been (and will always be) at once a source of both function and art. In this post from Medieval Books, we can see evidence of this fact in the simultaneously artful, creative, and intensely functional style of different ancient books.

Today, as the internet changes our needs, demands, and expectations of books, we are also beginning to see a return to the production of artistically crafted books–that is, books produced as works of art in and of themselves. The content, in this form of publishing, thus becomes art encased in art. For just a few examples of this growing trend, check out: Anteism, Publication Studio, Ugly Duckling Press, Perimeter Books, and Art Metropole.


Both medieval manuscripts and their modern counterparts are designed to accommodate human readers. Our two hands can keep an open book under control with ease by applying gentle pressure on the outer margins of the pages. Release the pressure with your right hand and a page lifts up in the air, just enough to conveniently flip it. With a rustling sound it travels from right to left, moved along by an impatient reader that is left in suspense for a second or two. The proportions of the page, too, are designed to accommodate consumption by human beings. Our eyes can handle only a small number of consecutively placed words, no more than eight or so, depending on the size of the letter. As a consequence, medieval page design shifted to presenting a text in two columns rather than one, a transition that occurred over the course of the twelfth century.

This relationship between book design and human anatomy is seen most vividly in a particularly peculiar bookish object…

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