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Monday, October 17, 2011

What is a book? The book is a vase

Photo courtesy of photographer Ostillac Castillo of Bourq, France and

Whether it is on paper or digital, a book  is a particular kind of dreaming solitude that may, as Whitman said of himself, “contain multitudes.” 

Dreaming solitude must have a place to dream.

Dreaming solitude must begin and end.

It must be a place “away.”

If it is a collection of poetry or novel of a high order that is not part of the contemporary avant garde—let’s ignore them for nowit must have certain attributes. The book is a vessel.  

It is a vase, made to hold the water of life and be flowering.

It is not one with the internet, even if it is digital and downloadable.  If it becomes one with the internet, it no longer is a vessel and is not workable as a book.

It must exclude. 

It must exhibit shapeliness within itself.


More clarity in the comments, perhaps, as I respond to Gary about what I mean by a vessel--a great deal more than he assumes! That Gary. Maybe I wasn't clear enough... Well, it's a tricky subject. Nothing like being forced to clarify...


An analogy

Long before there was an internet, Yeats said that he made poems out of "a mouthful of air."

A poem is a vessel containing words.

It has a beginning, a middle, and end. It has a shape. It is its own shape.

It makes its own place.

It holds life (or else is a failure that attempts to hold life.)

It excludes everything that is not part of it.


  1. "If it becomes one with the internet, it no longer is a vessel and is not workable as a book."

    I guess it then follows that if the book was not copied by hand and rather it was printed on a press with movable type, it loses its touch with the writer and is no longer workable as as book.

    Does this mean that blind people who have texts read to them with a screen reader have less of an experience than sighted folks who read directly from the printed page?

    Does this mean that Bjorks new interactive "album" released as a tablet-based applet is not music?

  2. I did not say it couldn't be digital--just that it must have a shape, and if it is indistinguishable from the internet, there is no longer a shape.

    A blind person with a screen reader experiences a beginning, middle, and end, perhaps more sharply than those of us who are not in some sense alone in the dark with words.

    Does the "album" have a shape? Is it self-contained?

  3. Gary, either you are misunderstanding me or I am not clear enough.

    The book is a metaphysical shape that holds words. Good enough? But if it is not held--not a vase--the contents spill.

    I don't care how you hold the content. But it needs to be a wholeness, not scattered in bits and pieces, not indistinguishable from the mass of words around it.

  4. Oh, to get to the purist form of something...may be a never ending search.

    Miss you, Marly. Hope you're well.

    This post has got me thinking again about the difference between a story and what holds the story. Of course I'm a die hard book fan (hardback preferably...and stinky and old, if possible), but I've got no good logic to argue my love for the pages and my loathing for the screen.

    Hugs from afar. x

  5. Hugs, Robin!

    Oh, I prefer a book with paper pages, myself.

    Except I believe that there are many trashy books that don't deserve trees.

    Except I think children shouldn't be carried 60 pounds or more on their backs by middle school. They should be slipping a reader into those packs.

    And so forth.

    But yes, there is nothing like a beautiful book, and I think them especially desirable for first-rate poetry, short fiction collections, and children's books, things that allure the eye and are beautiful and handy and used over and over again. There is a pleasure that comes with the well-made object--a crafted book with all the decisions that somebody put into its making. Just like a beautiful piece of pottery or a basket.

    So I agree.

    But I think we will be embracing all modes of delivery.

  6. Marly,

    Fair enough!

    May a book always have a "container." But may other forms of fiction gush forth and break barriers and fill the cracks between the other content on the internet. Even if those forms shan't be called a book.

    And may we all always be open minded enough to see new forms of art and creativity arise that may not fit our pre-determined notions.


  7. Oh, certainly.

    New times make new forms. It has always been so, just as it has always been interesting for people to revive old forms in entirely new ways...

  8. Bemused. Got my first LinkedIn comment about a blog post from the ever-busy Robbi... I'm used to Facebook and Twitter comments but never even thought about how the blog also runs through LinkedIn. Can you tell I don't go there often? I'll have to just wave for now. Must get back to work!

  9. A book is made, a poem or a novel is written.

    Books are nice to hold and to read from, but they MULTIPLY! It is so easy to be surrounded by these vessels, and then the vessels take on an importance that is only loosely connected to the communication it holds.
    This is a problem I have with tangible books.
    I have favorites, and those ones are favorites only because of the language (and meaning) content they hold.

    This is rather like music and records/CDs and the like - as opposed to digital renderings?
    I have all my CDs stored away and listen to 'lossless' digital versions. Am I tempted to go and stroke (or lick!) the stored CDs sometimes?
    But I do listen to the music - ready unpacked for me whenever I wish to hear music.

    Books.... the same : )

    Marly - are you writing in order to fill up empty book pages, or are you writing 'pre-book form' (On a computer or typewriter, perhaps?)

  10. Paul,

    But I really don't think it's an either/or situation.

    I think that a beautifully made book of poems, say, is a whole different thing from a CD in a breakable jewel case! Right now we are plotting on "The Foliate Head," which will have beautiful prints on good paper (and I think art best on paper)and when closed will have a beautiful cover. And that wholly suits a collection of very "green" poems.

    I like poems in particular to be in tactile books. Preferably gorgeous letterpress books!

    My feeling is that there will be more and more collectible and beautiful books but in fewer numbers--and at the same time digital copies for all sorts of systems will appear, as well as less expensive paper copies.

    Words come in a great, streaming flood, but I don't insist that they be experienced exactly that way. Because they can't be. How you write at first isn't how it must appear...

    What I think is that there is a place for all modes of delivery--admittedly, novels and nonfiction books are going to be more and more digital in nature. But others will be multiple, particularly poetry.

  11. More comments! What fonts do you like best in your books? I have to choose fonts for the app being made from my yoga book, and I was at a loss. I think I finally said Trebuchet, but I don't know what to say.

  12. RE: the "vase" container of a book, I think you and Gary are still talking about two different things. He is thinking something material; you are thinking something conceptual. The book has to have a shape, or it is just a bunch of miscellaneous junk. Even an anthology or a collection of pieces by the same person has, or ought to have, a shape. Where that shaped object eventually appears is not the point.

  13. Sans serif fonts seem to be recommended for screen reading, and serif fonts for reading on paper.

    "True type" fonts can be embedded in a digital app (or whatever) and remain the same when you move them to different machines.

    Letters that look great on a bigger screen can look very different on a small one.

    I believe Trebuchet is well-regarded as a font for web pages. I don't really know about mobile ones, but it seems a good sans serif without too-small enclosed elements.

    Other thoughts:

    DejaVu Sans
    Fontin Sans

    You want to make sure that going small doesn't close the space in the "e" or "a," too. Or the tail of the "g," which in Trebuchet is an unclosed oval.

    Take a look at the fonts above here:

    If your guy knows what he is doing, he should know these sorts of things.

  14. Robbi,

    Yes, I meant a shape created by the mind. (And that's why I left out the avant garde because there are various ways of evading choosing shape.)

  15. But you know, the container is only a gesture. What makes the difference is the intimacy, and the constancy, of -- on the one hand the writing; and on the other the reading. It's the commitment to following the the thing, wherever it goes, all the way to the end.

    And actually our attention dribbles away all the time, on both sides. We set the book down to work a sudoku. We stop writing the story because a poem has overtaken us, or because we have a sudden craving for key lime pie. But that doesn't invalidate the contract. The intimacy and the constancy are right there, waiting, when we come back. It's not really bounded either in time or in space.

    It becomes so much harder, as I get older, to make and keep these contracts. I could blame the web, but that would be a feeble excuse. Really its my own shallowness and inconstancy that I need to fear.

  16. Key lime pie.

    That definitely dragged my attention away!

    Like this, Dale. Only now I will be dragged away by the need to go pick up my football boy.

  17. What do you think of ITC Willow?

  18. i confess that i was confused, until i read into the comments. And, as usual, i'm the odd one. i have a very difficult time with sans serif. Can't read long passages of it.Makes my eyes go all wobbly :^)
    i will copy and paste into word so i can change it into Georgia, or whatever.

  19. Robbi,

    It is very stylish, as one might expect from a typeface based on a Charles Rennie Macintosh design.

    However, on mobile I believe you would run into trouble with things like the double bar on the letter H, which probably would end up looking like a solid box instead of two cross-bars on some devices.

    But I don't do apps, so I don't really know for sure.

    I would never use that face for more than titles, though. It's too extreme.

  20. zephyr,

    I need a cigar and suspenders: Harumph! I suppose that will teach me to go abstract!

    I almost always prefer a serif style, although there are some stylish sans serif font.

    But evidently the people who study such things have studied them and readers and found that sans serif is easier on the eyes online/on screens.

    Me, I like serif all the same. But when you go to a tiny mobile screen (I know they're working on a minute reader that shows one word at a time in ribbon-like fashion), the serif styles can go very crude and blocky.

  21. Maybe it would do for the title?

  22. It is an interesting font--sure. Ask your app-designer whether that would work (I think the only issue is whether reduction would make the letters look thick and blocky. But the title should be bigger.

  23. i didn't mean to be critical. Just sharing the fact that sans strains my eyes. Always has. Even when they were younger.

    The whole font thing is curious...i'm afraid i am very skeptical of research on design issues that tells me "a majority prefer..." because it almost never tells me how many "test" subjects were used. My tiny screen on my unsmart phone is serif, gratefully, or i would be blind by now. most artists/writers i read are like you and prefer/use serif fonts. As do many major newspaper websites and The New Yorker.
    If i weren't so lazy, i would read more articles from the CSMonitor...but by the time i get around to it i'm usually too tired to bother with selecting/copying/pasting. Unless it seems really important.

  24. zephyr,

    Never worry about me taking offense. That's not in me. I was thinking more of the definition of "book" anyway.

    Yes, serif is almost always more beautiful. But I guess it is a problem on teeny screens, or some of them... Does not bother me on web sites, though.

    It is hard to rely on what "other people" like, isn't it? Because one isn't "other people." And may indeed be "other."

  25. And now, it is time for me to rest these peepers.

  26. Enjoy that!

    I'm staying up with the night owls tonight. Must finish the polish on "Thaliad" and start something else.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.