In 2002, I was a high school student on a four-day retreat with my creative writing class where we took walks in the woods, did lakeside writing exercises and learned how to make handmade paper. Our teacher led us through the various steps, making a wet pulp of recycled materials, flattening it on a mesh screen and decorating with leaves and scraps. I thought it was so neat and quaint but eventually useless because the bumpy sheet was too thick to write on.
Almost a decade later, it turns out there’s a burgeoning movement of artists and writers making handmade and/or hand-bound books and paper as a response to the digital book world.
Evidence of the aforementioned: In the fall of this year, the University of Iowa will launch its new Master of Fine Arts in Book Arts. The first cohort will choose between emphases in Artist Bookwork, Bookbinding, Calligraphy, Digital Bookwork, Papermaking and Printing.
Along with U. of Iowa, there are seventeen members of the three-year old College Book Art Association. Ten years ago, most of these programs didn’t exist and people didn’t think of book making as art.
All this while people continue talking about how e-books may be hurting paperback sales. In fact, it seems they are also inspiring a growing number of small presses to treat book-making as an artistic medium.
There are hundreds of small presses cropping up all over the country, publishing in small volumes, often using handmade or letterpress technologies.
One notable example is Ugly Duckling Presse (UDP), a Brooklyn-based small press that makes chapbooks, broadsides and artist books in their one-room studio. They’ve published over 200 titles in the last ten years and many of the ones they put out have some handmade element, whether it be a letterpress cover or a hand-stitched or rubber band binding.
Co-founder and UDP collective member Matvei Yankelevich says that treating books as art objects is a natural reaction to the digitizing of texts: “Because of the ephemerality of blogs and the internet, people want a reminder of the tactile sensations of reading.”
Since 2000, the number of presses like UDP has been growing and there are resources that support this expanding network. One example is the Center for Book Arts in New York City (many similar centers exist across the country).
According to Sarah Nicholls, program manager at the Center, the rosters for their classes on book making are exploding these days. They get a range of students: from graphic designers tired of staring at a screen all day, to writers who want to learn to make their own books, to teachers who want to get their students more excited in reading by offering kids a chance to make stuff with their hands.
Nicholls sees the resurgence of interest in book arts as part of a larger cultural shift towards valuing things that are made locally and in a small scale (i.e. food, crafts).
Whatever it is, I’m happy to see it, even if it’s just plain ol’ nostalgia. Yankelevich adds, “the romance with efficiency has dwindled.” And he’s right: UDP books are well-made objects that encourage you to read more slowly, to really look at each page.
To look through the UDP digital archive, click here.