How is a book … made history?

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In my three trips to the Yale Bookstore this past week, I saw flocks of people, many of whom were shelling out hundreds of dollars for their course books. In my three trips to the Beinecke this past week to see the current exhibit, “How is a book …,” I saw no one.

That might say more about the kinds of people who go to the Beinecke than the exhibit itself, which runs until Oct. 1 and offers an intimate look at the process of writing, illustrating, printing and binding, well, books. Although billed as a celebration of the craft of making books, the exhibit — which is surprisingly not boring given the subject — comes across more as an preemptive memorial for an art form on its deathbed.

There is something macabre to the entire display, which features two sections on either side of the library’s ground floor. One captures the creative process behind D’Aulaires’ “Book of Greek Myths”; the other displays in-progress versions of children’s literature like “Madeleine.” Kindle screens just don’t do justice to the delicate color work in many of the pieces. iPads have debased the interplay of text and visuals in the name of expedience. And the love and care that goes into producing any book of quality has been forgotten amid the ease of one-click shopping and free shipping on amazon.com.

For those of us that share these laments, the Beinecke exhibit shows both what is working and what is broken in the print industry. For instance, the process behind the beautiful illustrations that enchanted us as children is on full display: the initial outlines, the addition of primary coats, and the finish in vibrant color. Also implicit in the layout of these multiple stages is the time required to produce such quality. Therein lies the reason for the industry’s ruin.

The curator, Timothy Young, notes the time-sensitive nature of the exhibit.

“The use of computers as tools for book production has caused us to lose the trail from the idea for a book to the finished product,” he told the News on Sept. 5. “Since files can just be overwritten, there is no natural archive created of the steps along the way.”

Natural is one way to describe the pieces on show. Glue stains and awkward scissor cuts hearken back to the days when page layout was about physical design and not InDesign. The exhibit tries to remind us that when you glued a block of text over an image, you committed to something; you put yourself and your handiwork at risk of damage and embarrassment.

D’Aulaires’ mock-ups bring to mind the utility of the ‘undo’ button, but more than that, they indict the ethos of constant updating and reissuing that drives more than a small part of book commerce nowadays. Some of the offerings at the Yale Bookstore — the ‘new’ editions with petty improvements like comforting imagery or a slightly modified structure — serve as a mockery of the time when books were made to last.

The writing process, shown in a few of the manuscripts on display, is perhaps the only part that hasn’t changed much. Seeing working drafts covered in aggressive pencil scrawl will bring warm feelings to anyone who cares about editing, whether on paper or on a word processor.

That same warm feeling is probably applicable to the entire exhibit. It’s a mélange of familiarity and nostalgia, tinged with the sadness that comes from seeing a culture that is disappearing before our eyes.

And the problem, in some ways, is the same for the Beinecke as it is for the book industry. This society, one of Blackberry-induced `busy-ness’ and cold convenience, sometimes forgets the hard-earned rewards of the analog age.

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