Designing a Book

Jun 13, 2014

You can hardly find a college campus these days without its share of courses in creative writing. Novelists and poets instruct their artful students in the long history of literature and in its latest innovations. Guest writers give public readings in the evening to enthusiastic audiences. People line up at the end to buy books and have them signed by the very writer who composed them. The participants plainly think that something valuable, perhaps even magical, is going on. Occasionally a flat-footed literalist peeks into a poetry reading and wonders why so many people spend time on something that has no direct career value. It’s true, even on a college campus you meet folks who see no value in imagination, creativity, the illuminating flash of metaphor, or the power of literature to school us in the affairs of the human heart. You wonder how these master utilitarians spend their evenings.

In spite of their disapproval, the book lives on, perhaps even thrives, among the teachers and students in creative writing courses. Much less common, though, are classes in book design and production. These courses pass down the craft of making the physical object itself. I’m enjoying a course on this subject right now and want to enthuse about it with you today.

In the past, if you wanted to publish a book, you’d need a healthy stack of hundred dollar bills to buy the services of a printer. Not true any longer. On-line, on-demand printers like CreateSpace and Lulu will ship you a handful of books for a modest number of dollars. In a city like South Bend, local companies such as Stamprint can bind you up a box or two of paperback books for a very reasonable price. All you have to do is design it.

And that’s what we’re practicing in this summer’s course at IU South Bend. How do you fill the rectangle of the page so a reader’s eye is drawn in rather than glazed over? How much white space should there be between the lines of type? How generous should the margins be and how fancy the headings? What typeface will suit the spirit of the manuscript? How wide should the dashes be? How large the page numbers? It turns out that designing a book is for people who love these details, which are some of the small, fine differences that make up a graceful page. Each class member is putting a mark on an old literary text—stories by Chekhov or Dickens or Twain, for example—and publishing a small book and walking away at the end of the course with the skills to publish other books. They will be ready to preserve community history or broadcast the literary arts or fight for a worthy political cause. In those ways, people with publishing skills make themselves players on another level in society.

We all carry with us a metaphorical sort of book, the common sense and lore and handed-down tradition that elders wove into our hearts and brains as we grew up. Our contemporary creative writers erase passages from that metaphorical book. They rediscover obscure stories and set up new juxtapositions as they compose books that meet our needs today. The objects themselves, the physical books, are mundane or beautiful vessels. In the shape of a block of pages, bound at the spine, made pretty by design and lasting by good craft, the book contains the voices we need to get outside the narrow limits of our own insight and experience. So there are books and there are books and there are books, with human hands turning the pages as they will. A reader’s job is to choose. A reader closes one book after a few pages and tosses it aside forever, but returns to another book every second year for decades. A reader has the final say.