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On bible-ophilia, and a call for better pagan book design

Fri 18 Feb 2011 by mskala Tags used: ,

I hope to push the first release of Tsukurimashou out the door tomorrow, and as part of that, I was looking at the possibility of adding optical sizes to it. That won't happen in tomorrow's release, but it will happen eventually, and the train of thought led from there to a thing I once saw in an historical mail-order catalog: an entire multi-page selection of Christian Bibles, organized by different optional features, such as type size, paper and binding quality, and so on. It occurred to me to look on the Net for the current state of the art in such things, and that led me to this site, which is fascinating. It's an entire Web log about the design of Bibles.

Looking at that site and reading some of the articles, I felt a certain amount of envy. What came to my mind was, why can't we have this too? I mean, as neopagans, why can't we have someone paying this level of attention to our religious books? I look at the visual design of the pagan and related books on my shelf, and they're an amateurish disaster. I'm not quite old enough to have any that were printed on a mimeograph, but I think my Mom has a couple astrology works that were, if she hasn't chucked them out by now on the reasonable grounds that she'd never read them again partly because they were so unreadable; and I do have a couple of mouldering old Tarot works that were evidently printed from supposedly "camera-ready" typescript. Then looking at slightly newer books, cheap desktop publishing systems and people who didn't really know how to use them are clearly in evidence. Others have suffered from the limitations of print-on-demand publishing, and a misguided desire to save money by shrinking the type and the margins to the absolute smallest possible. Very, very few are hardcover, and that's not because I chose paper to save money; no choice was offered.

Then there are plenty that clearly have had a lot of professional attention paid to their visual appeal, but it's all sizzle and no steak: books designed to look pretty enough on a glance at the cover and a casual flip-through, to get you to buy them in Chapters or off a dealer's table at a festival. They're not constructed as artifacts that will be used. Even Tarot cards, which aren't exactly books but are printed matter, and you'd think someone would have the idea they might be subjected to such procedures as shuffling, often aren't constructed to withstand real use. Compare that with the Bibles discussed on J. M. Bertrand's site: he and the publishers are treating these books not just as merchandise to be flogged off in the shop, but as tools of religious practice. Some are designed for reading; some are designed for reference; they know the difference between the two; the good ones are intended to be family heirlooms and remain usable for a lifetime or more; there is clear attention paid to suiting the design of each book to the needs and purposes of the people who will use it; and the priority is on the content, not visibly on the publisher's sales and branding. The fact that these are all editions of the same book throws the focus sharply onto the design aspects of the problem.

The Christians would be ashamed to produce Bibles at the physical quality and usability level of most pagan works. Someone could easily spin that comment into something snarky about idolatry - and such a snark contains at least the grain of truth that Christianity has a thing about the words themselves being holy, which differs from the more traditionally pagan view that it's us and what we do that are holy. But I actually think that having a whole Web log just about Bible design is a good thing. Shouldn't we all take our books that seriously, whether we're Christian or not? Isn't the attention to detail here part of what makes the words holy?

One big problem, as I quickly discovered when I thought about it some more, is that it's not just a matter of designing the books properly. What books would we even design? As pagans, what are the books that we love the way Christians love the Bible? Looking at my shelf I'm hard-pressed to name even one that I think deserves such treatment. That seems kind of sad in itself. We can talk about an "oral tradition"; we can talk about "diversity"; and for sure there are many of us who have self-made, handwritten, one-of-a-kind Books of Shadows or whatever, which do benefit from serious attention to design and are meant for living, real-life ritual use. Nonetheless, I think there's room for loving care to be devoted to design of printed pagan literature in editions of more than one copy also, and I think the community would be better off if we did more of that.

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I don't know why I missed this earlier because it deals with two things I love, typography and theogony (to keep our terminology Greek). So I am foolishly responding even before clicking on the above link. I happen to have three Christian Bibles and one Jewish Tanakh on my shelves - Latin, English, French, and American - and they are all sturdily but plainly bound, and dignified rather than fancy. That is the way I see sacred books. My copy of Robert Graves' translation of The Golden Ass - which I would inlcude at least as a minor sacred text - is a Penguin Classic in a thin but hard red binding. Not quite as well done as the Bibles but still passes muster.

Fact is, I think all books should benefit from good typography, design, and execution. (Which brings up a supplementary question, since I have not yet touched, let alone bought, an electronic reading device: do they come with software that allows the user to select the typeface? That will be a minimum requirement for me.)

What books would I consider canonical pagan texts? The question is a minefield. The Homeric hymns. The poetic Edda. The Vedas. But should we be making such lists? To me paganism is precisely not a single thing. It is about your gods and my gods.
Axel - 2011-02-24 15:00
I guess what struck me about Bertrand's Web log, which I do recommend visiting, is the view of Bibles as *tools*. The physical book isn't just a storage and communication medium, but is an artifact he uses in ritual, even if that might not be exactly the terminology he'd choose to describe it. The features he considers desirable in a Bible aren't just intended to make it beautiful because it's holy, but to make it better suited for its use as a tool. People pay attention to design of athames; I don't think the same kind of thought is given to books.

I was reminded of my experience with Hellenic Spirit in Toronto, where it often ended up being my role to read something aloud. And the texts we used for that were typically dug out of scholarly editions of things (the Orphic Hymns were among them) so that I had the choice of either dealing with a small-print, falling-apart paperback full of footnotes and scholarly annotations that I had to filter and rearrange mentally while reading, or else reading from a homemade computer printout in larger print, usually covered with highlighter markings and last-minute handwritten edits. The scholarly book, although perhaps reasonably well-designed for its original intended users, wasn't designed for my needs as someone reading it aloud to a group during a ritual. There are editions of the Bible, on the other hand, designed specifically for such use, to be the book that sits on the podium when the minister reads aloud from it; and those are not the same editions designed to be the book you carry in your pocket to read one chapter of every day for personal improvement or whatever. That kind of attention to the intended use is what I'm really calling for.

As pagans we have lots of books, not just one, and lots of things we can do with books; but that just means MORE possibilities for sensible design of them. What I think might be a bigger obstacle would be a general distaste for writing things down, and an (in my opinion misplaced) emphasis on the "oral tradition" as being better. I've a friend in Toronto who is an Irish priest and uses storytelling in most of his rituals. Would it be better to hear him tell the story of the Coming of the Sons of Mil, in person, instead of reading it out of a book? You bet! But can I have him fly out here and tell me that story every time I would benefit by hearing it? No, I can't. Reading a book is still a worthwhile activity even if we also value our oral traditions; and I'd like to increase the acknowledgement of books and the written word as being legitimate tools for use in religious practice. Designing them better would help.
Matt - 2011-02-25 14:34

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