Worth a thousand words

What does the e-book offer? It’s cheap and convenient to download and use. But it isn’t pretty, you can’t feel it and you can’t treasure it.

One way for the traditional print book to compete with the e-book is to play up its own virtues. ”Printed books will have to become more beautiful, more durable and more tactile,” Melbourne author and artist Antoni Jach says.

When you push such virtues to an extreme, you get a small but growing phenomenon: the contemporary rare book. We think of rare books as antiques, but they are being made today in luxury limited editions. You might not see them in your local bookshop because they sell to libraries and dedicated collectors.

These booklovers will need deep pockets, but they are buying real treasures. Taschen has just published a wondrous book, Genesis, a collection of work by Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, conceived, edited and designed by his wife, Lelia Wanick Salgado. It’s the result of an eight-year expedition to discover landscapes, animals and people untouched by modern society, and it coincides with exhibitions around the world.

Taschen has even commissioned an architect, Tadao Ando, to create a custom-built book stand for this huge volume. There’s a print run of 3000 signed and numbered copies and one can be yours for just £2500 ($4098).

We’re making rare books in Australia, too. Antoni Jach has created Faded World, a book of images and text inspired by one of the great books of history, the 21-volume Description de l’Egypte. Published in 1829, it was a record of engravings celebrating Napoleon’s encounter with the remains of an ancient civilisation.

The State Library of Victoria has two editions of this book, and Jach used a library fellowship to copy some of the engravings and then reproduce them as works of art, employing a solvent transfer drawing process inspired by American artist Robert Rauschenberg.

Jach was interested not so much in the drawings that Napoleon’s team of artist-savants made of the great Egyptian temples, as in the little figures they put in the foreground. These were characters with mysterious stories of their own, such as ancient Egyptians and Arabs, dancing girls, the artists’ heroic self-portraits and naked men running with goats. His enlarged images have an eerie, dreamlike quality (Napoleon said, ”In Egypt, I felt that I could abandon myself to the most brilliant dreams”).

Jach has also written a 10,000-word lyrical essay to accompany the images, laid out on the page like a long poem. It’s bound in linen and feral goatskin, the page edges are gold and red ochre; you can buy a limited-edition copy for $1995.

These are not projects that are going to make their creators rich; they are very much labours of love. The State Library fellowships have helped other makers of rare books, including artist Peter Lyssiotis, a specialist in ”book arts”. He produced his book A Gardener at Midnight in 2004, inspired by another 19th-century book in the library collection, David Roberts’ The Holy Land. Lyssiotis produced images and text based on contemporary Iraq and Brian Castro contributed an essay about Yabez al-Kitab, a fictional companion of Roberts on his travels.

According to the University of Queensland library, only 10 copies of this extraordinary volume are in existence, but they will endure as works of art and literature. Let’s hope we can create more forms of patronage that will make more rare books bloom.

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.