Every year in various European countries beautiful books are nominated for an annual award. This is a celebration of finest quality books, creative design and traditional print craftsmanship. The typography may be as accurate as ever, the layout as original, paper as unique and production as intricate as can be, but the annual nominations offer few surprises. Year on year the same high standard is unmistakeable. Art triumphs over literature, while the image wins out over the text – these are common factors for many of these books. Then, there’s a third common factor that’s certainly related to perfecting the art of traditional book craftsmanship down the centuries. You cannot avoid the impression that this competition is like a kind of Formula 1: highly tuned products turn in circles and delight the mind. Yet what kind of space, one wonders, is afforded to criteria such as originality and innovation that are set out as requirements in the competition rules.
Presently, there is plenty of talk about art books, artists’ books or artistic books. Book art is enjoying a wave of popularity. This can also be seen as a reaction to digitalization that is leaving its traces in the book sector. Nevertheless, it’s still amazing why everybody is concerned with traditional handcrafting, while ebooks are as ugly as ever. Might there not be an equally substantial as well as important potential for development here that could also benefit readers? New e-readers should finally be made more attractive in terms of their excellent typography, suitable layout and reader-friendly design of the tools and functionality. As much as we all love and appreciate beautiful books, the book trade and literary marketplace continues to deceive itself that it might be possible to read digital products. They should remain ugly, so that they don’t represent any competition. Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Instead of merely celebrating Gutenberg high culture, beautiful books could also pave the way for technical originality and innovation. Presumably, that’s less a criticism of the competition and jury than of the incoming entries.
By Beat Mazenauer
Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright