By ALICE RAWSTHORN
LONDON — Some things seem to designed to do their jobs perfectly, and the old-fashioned book is one. What else could be quite as efficient at packaging so many thousands of words in a form, which is sufficiently sturdy to protect them, yet so small and light that it can be carried around to be read whenever its owner wishes? The pages, type, binding and jacket of a traditional printed book do all of the above, as well as giving its designer just enough scope to make the result look beautiful, witty or intriguing.
Anyone who wishes to be reminded of quite how beguiling old-fashioned books can be should visit “The Printed Book: A Visual History,” an exhibition running through May 13 at the Special Collections department of the University of Amsterdam. Drawn from the university’s book collection, which is among the world’s finest, the exhibition traces the evolution of book design through some of the most compellingly designed books of the last 500 years.
From the oldest exhibit, which was published in Latin in 1471 by the French printer Nicolas Jenson, to the newest, “James Jennifer Georgina,” Irma Boom’s poignant compilation of the postcards sent by a mother to her daughter every day for a decade, “The Printed Book” presents a resounding defense of its subject. And it does so at a delicate time, when the traditional book is under assault from e-books, by which I mean both the electronic books that are downloaded on to dedicated readers like the Amazon Kindle, and the more sophisticated interactive books read on computers.
Many of the publishers of e-books also produce printed books, and have adopted the new formats, just as record labels once diversified from vinyl to cassette tapes, then compact discs and, now, digital files. But some traditional publishers are shunning e-books on principle. The owners of Steidl, the art publishing house, recently issued a statement explaining why. “Doubtless there are some wonderful e-books out there but it is something of a misnomer to call them Books,” it declared. “Our philosophy is straightforward and unique — we will remain 100% analogue.”
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