The book as a work of art

I recently had the opportunity to read Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Art of the Publisher’ recently released by Penguin Books. It was quite nice to read something in a single sitting, instead of taking years to go from cover to cover (i.e. Aquinas, Gibbon).

There were two things that particularly jumped at me at a book that otherwise didn’t especially meet my general oeuvre of interests.

The first and main point. Calasso’s main thesis in his series of essays was that a Publisher’s opus should be considered as a unified artistic whole. That is to say, looking at the range of everything a publisher has put out. A good publisher, according to Calasso, is not necessarily a financially successful one. It’s probably more middling, just about breaking even, according to Calasso. The suggestion (this will lead to my second point) to me was that unsuccessful publishing houses can be the greatest of them all.

Why should a publisher be considered as a singular aesthetic unity? Well, it can be on the basis of the output of titles they have. We might consider if there is anything common between them, or contrasting between them. We can also consider the factors about a book that are unique to physical books (and not to e-books or newer forms of publishing through PDFs etc). The feeling of the paper, the cover art, the way in which we have a tactile and visual experience of a book.

I have a Cambridge Edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and the footnotes can sometimes be longer than the page, which is immensely useful for scholarly purposes compared to having endnotes. Likewise, the typesetting of the Antinomies of Pure Reason of having the thesis and antithesis displayed on the same page parallel to each other is an exciting masterful decision as a reading and exegetical experience. I am slightly convinced of the idea that a publishing house can be considered as an aesthetic unity. However I’m a little bit cautious of the cynicism that Calasso had on the issue of e-publishing.

My second point is a little one. In one of the most amazing throwaway comments, Calasso gives an example of Suhrkamp Verlag. A little German publishing house which has been liquidated recently in 2013. Suhrkamp apparently is considered as visionary to Calasso and (apparently) his contemporaries for their decision to publish the works of certain people who have inspired a whole genre of literature that we might now call: Critical Theory. They made a pittance but they committed themselves to publishing the works of those none other than Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno.

Despite the fact that most of my European literature comes from translations or audiobooks or even PDFs – I am convinced of Calasso’s point that we owe a great deal to the publisher as a gatekeeper of literature. Today I think of the likes of Verso or Zer0 books as a publishers today making bold decisions on works that should have a wider distribution.