[From Craig Mod...]
In my previous post, I mentioned that Robert Bringhurst's Elements of Typographic Style is a fine specimen of pages crafted with care. If we consider most mass paperbacks to be the extreme of template based layouts — where texts are simply dumped into preset design patterns — then Elements lands somewhere on the other side of the spectrum.
Elements, however, falls short of becoming what I'd define as a "literary object." I consider something to be a literary object when all aspects of production and editorial come together to form something that is entirely complete in execution. That is to say the typography, layouts, papers, binding, cover, size and any other miscellaneous aspects of the object itself have been carefully considered and chosen to form something whole and much greater than the text alone.
Elements carries with it whispers of literary objectiveness in the editorial craft, but it fails to match this detailed nuance in production. This is probably not because Bringhurst is unable execute the production side of things as well as he executes the interior layouts, but most likely because the publisher was trying to hit a certain price point, or wanted to maintain strict control over printing. And therefore we're left with an excellent guide to typography, but not something that feels (to me, anyway) like a truly whole object.
It's nearly impossible, I'd propose, to achieve this idea of literary-object-ness unless you, as the author, have taken control of all aspects of production. (Or are able to work extremely closely with the designer.) You must be the author, editor, designer (or art director), typographer, and publisher. You, not the market, determine the price point. You build (indeed, perhaps with a dash of selfishness) the object you desire — the object you see fit to wrap the subject and text you've written.
There aren't many books that achieve this level of completeness. Art Space Tokyo was built in this spirit, but whether or not it comes close to achieving some nirvana of editorial and design is up to the readers to determine.
One set of books I do feel comes close to achieving the grand title of literary object is Edward Tufte's collection of books on information design. Tufte, a Professor Emeritus on a variety of things statistical at Yale University, has done with these books what most authors don't have the luxury of doing: he published them himself, on his own time table, with his own money. He's clearly a design obsessive, and as such has made sure every component of these books illuminates the message they carry.
His most recent book, Beautiful Evidence, has nary a broken spread. I'm currently traveling (this is being written in a friend's flat on 112th Street near Columbia University) and don't have access to my library, so I can't do a quick scan to look for bad pages. But I've spent enough time marveling over this book to know that if there are any layout zingers, they are few and far between.
Almost every passage in Beautiful Evidence starts and ends on the same page or spread. Page breaks, when they do occur, are logical and clean. There are no widowed or orphaned lines. You can tell the text has been written and rewritten. It feels as if the book has been composed in InDesign (although, thankfully, it doesn't read like that) — with Tufte carefully choosing words not only for their economy of meaning but also that of space.
If that was all this book achieved — near perfection in editorial — then that would be laudable. But no, what makes these truly spectacular books is how compelling and well arranged the gorgeous visuals are. There are few back references; all relevant images appear next to the corresponding text or logical thematic passage. The design of his examples — the rebuilding of charts and graphs — is done with the grace of a master of not only design but also information architecture. They make sense, and one immediately grasps the why of how these redesigns work.
It may sound like I'm being overly effusive towards Tufte. After all, if you Google him you'll get quite a few hits from dissenters from his "religion of clean data." But even if you don't agree with everything he's saying (and he's saying a lot — he's been talking about data for over 20 years — so there should be things you don't agree with), you can't deny that these books are a product of a man focused and obsessed. He, in becoming both publisher and author, and in having such a keen eye for design and layout, has managed to achieve the elusive — the literary object.