The smallest book

It was a delight to welcome the writer Steven Johnson to Leeds last week and to hear first person some of the themes in his book, the Invention of Air. We were, I think, doubly fortunate to hear Steven just a day after his appearance alongside Brian Eno at the ICA. It’s worth listening to the audio from the event, right to the questions at the end, where the pair responded to Matt Jones’ challenge: how would you write a minimum book?

It chimed with some stuff I’ve been wondering about lately, such as how the emergence of the web on devices smaller than a paperback could change the medium of the book itself. It certainly seems as if the publishing industry could be about to go through the kind of transformation that has beset the music business in the past decade.

And just as some of the greatest beneficiaries of the music revolution were the unsigned “long tail” artists, so I think the place to look first might be in the world of self-published, small books, pamphlets, chapbooks, and the like. These seem in a way to be more suited to the new mobile media than the big set-piece hardbacks like Johnson’s inestimable canon.

Small books

Ivor Cutler’s unique works apart, the foremost examples of the art must be the 16-page pocket books published by the late JL Carr under the Quince Tree Press imprint.

As you can see, I raided our bookshelves but frustratingly could only find one. I think my sister has more.

The Death of Parcy Read

Parcy Reed detail

The books, some Carr’s own work, some reprints of out-of-copyright poetry, were distributed through East Anglian bookshops and tourist attractions, and made perfect pocket money purchases even in the days before Borders invented the gauntlet of “Little Books of” and YuGiOh cards at the checkout. I love the idea that Carr offered the books at two prices, one for adults and one for children.

Sadly Carr died the year that was founded. What would his pocket books have looked like in the internet age, I wondered?

So I’ve decided to make a prototype.

Next Wednesday night, I’m giving a talk at Ignite London, on some of the political and technological heroes of 1794. It’s a five minutes, 20 slides format, which somehow lends itself to minimal storytelling. Afterwards I’ll try to turn it into my first idea of a minimal book – a book minus the binding and much of the content, but still tangible enough to have value. It needs just enough to “excite the attentions of the ingenious,” possibly with a dash of Eno’s Oblique Strategies thrown in.

Bill of materials:

  • 1 story
  • 20 web pages
  • 20 Moo cards
  • 21 Stickers
  • 1 Engraved card holder

We’ll see how it turns out next week.

One thought on “The smallest book

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