The sleepy, industrial building on Berkeley’s 4th St. in which the Codex Foundation resides belies the international significance of its residents. Were it not for one meek sign, I might’ve walked right past it. But behind the concrete walls and roll-up doors is a plenitude of bookmakers and bookmaking implements—not to mention the products of their combination. Founded in 2005 by Berkeley resident, artist, and publisher Peter Rutledge Koch, the Codex Foundation is constituted of a number of curators, experts, collectors, and printers of fine books, all of whom share the goal of propagating both the technical know-how and the appreciation of crafting, as Koch calls them, “artisanal” books. These editions aren’t your average paperbacks; they’re about as far as one can get from the mass-marketable. Instead of placing value on reaching the largest audience possible, Koch and the Codex Foundation have something else in mind: returning the book to its status as an object of art. His approach refuses to take for granted the materiality of texts—the physical existence of the book isn’t viewed as a necessary vehicle for what it might contain, but something fundamentally inextricable from the notion of what a book is, and has been, throughout human history.
The proliferation of electronically-published works—and a larger migration toward electronic text and communication in general—has delivered plenty of challenges, not all insignificant, to the future of the book as a material thing. Koch’s protests against what he terms the “dematerialization” of the book take the form of vigorous and sense-oriented artworks that “would be worth owning for five lifetimes,” ranging from a freshly-translated edition of the fragments of Parmenides to a three-way collaboration between poet Mary Julia Klimenko, artist Manuel Neri, and photographer M. Lee Fatherree that includes hand-painted silver-gelatin prints and costs $28,000 (his most expensive item). Koch is committed, first and foremost, to the creation of remarkable and original books in a milieu where low-quality publishing materials, due to the constraints of distribution and funding, are the norm. In his 4th St. studio and office hangs a miscellany of pieces worth observing: several broadsides printed for W. S. Merwin, a cluster of paintings, several presses more than a century old, and a confetti of printing tools and devices. Here, Koch works with a number of assistants and collaborators to complete his projects, most of which take years; some take decades. Workbenches and stations lined with wood, polymer, zinc, and lead types testify to the expansive spectrum of Koch’s interest, which encompasses his work with the Codex Foundation—founded by him in 2005—and his own proprietary press, Peter Koch Printers. Koch produces art criticism and essays on the book through the CODE(X) + 1 monograph series; in the past, he’s produced the art of Ira Yeager, and the art of Kara Walker paired with the poetry of Toni Morrison for Rainmaker Editions.
The value of these projects is, as Koch believes, self-evident. The quality of their making is as palpable and admiration-worthy as the texts they contain. But he and the Codex Foundation are also committed to the community around handmade books and to ensuring that the rare heritage they carry doesn’t vanish in the walls of this warehouse. If Koch is right, there’s no threat of its disappearance; rather, he says, the art of the handmade book is becoming a movement, one that strives to satiate a renewed interest in physically-embodied art in an age of pixelated everything. Koch, a Montana native, began coming to the Bay Area in 1962, staying for stretches of two and five years before settling there permanently in 1978. Now, he and the Codex Foundation host one of the largest international book fairs dedicated explicitly to handmade work; the Codex Book Fair and Symposium offer venues for booksellers, printers, editors, press owners, artists, and collectors from around the globe to see the best work in artisanal books today. The next book fair and symposium will be in February, 2013; before then, Koch will be present on a community panel about the future of the book at the Book Club of California’s Centennial Symposium, to be held in San Francisco in October.
On July 25, 2012, I talked to Peter about bookmaking, e-publishing, collage art, Heidegger, the decline of American letterpress, science fiction, and bad typography at the site of the Codex Foundation. He began by telling me about his thoughts on the allocation of funding for digitization of text versus funding for its “re-materialization,” induced by a recent visit to esteemed poetry publisher Copper Canyon Press in Washington. The rest of our conversation is reproduced below.
Peter Koch: …it occurred to me immediately that here are these guys who have done everything on earth to dematerialize information. And now they’re sticking their fingers into poetry. And, okay, now they have to dematerialize poetry—poetry on demand, poetry as information, poetry almost as raw as hearing it, except it’s in another form. This is fantastic that they’re doing this, I mean—I don’t know if e-publishing means print on demand or not, but somebody’s text is going to be available to everybody for a reduced amount of money, anywhere in the world, at any time. So this is a magnificent way to do a big end-run around the horrors of distribution—a terrible, terrible, terrible burden, distribution is. Sometimes they want as much as 75 percent of the deal, which means that the poor publisher basically has to make the cheapest, shoddiest book that can be made just in order to keep it. Once you hand the distributor 75 percent of the cover, you can keep the book in the range of a grad student. E-publishing—let’s just get rid of that whole thing. At the same time, this opens up a floodgate of ideas. If on one hand the Paul Allen Foundation is giving them [Copper Canyon] money to dematerialize the books, why wouldn’t they, at the same time, give them a little more money to re-materialize them at the other end of the spectrum? At the same time that you’re transferring these texts into electronic texts, why not have something else going on? Something else is justified, in my view, by the fact that humans want books. We have five, ten fingers [raises hands]. The book is like the spoon—you don’t have to reinvent it. These electronic devices are not books. Kindle is not a book. Kindle is a text, an electronic text… it’s an object… it has nothing to do with books. It is something completely different. Books are ten fingers, made by hand for centuries, millennia.
Now, all these books you’ve seen all your life, all these things [grabs a university press paperback on the table], these are made of junk—these are ordinary paperbacks. This is pulp. This is landfill. There is no reason for this book to exist if you’ve got it electronically. The reasons why there’s no reason for this book to exist are many. Library shelves are groaning—what the hell are they going to do with all these books? There are a million of these books published every year; no library can keep up. And in the manufacture of this book, there’s absolutely no information [flips over and examines book] worthy of keeping under any circumstances. I mean, there’s nothing interesting about this book in its physical nature. Nothing. It was printed in the crappiest printing in quick offset technology by a few people who know how to print. They got the type the right color. It’s got a ground-off paper spine, so it’s not a book; it’s actually a pad, it’s padded. If you do this to it [mimics tearing a page out] there’s no returning it to its form, because it’s not a real book. It’s a ground-off paperback. This stuff is just… who cares? So, okay, you buy them, and then they’re ephemeral. They’re meant to be so. End of discussion. Why wouldn’t we want to, then… let us say we dematerialize it, we’ve made it available to everybody at a reduced price. What about those of us who will spend 75 dollars on a pizza and a martini at the nearest restaurant—why couldn’t we spend 75 dollars on something that would be worth owning for five lifetimes? Ten lifetimes? 500 years? It’s not that difficult to make the transition, especially with books of poetry, because they don’t rely on all kinds of heavy photo illustrations.
Texts—pure texts—and typographic design can be so elegant that it’s almost heartbreaking. I can show you books—my library’s full of books that I would never part with because of the beauty of them, even if in some cases I don’t particularly care for the content. But in most of the cases, books that are made beautifully, and with the artisanal character that you would want your salad made, the bread made, the pizza made, the care taken on your automobile or whatever—you put it into a book form, well, it’s going to raise the price from $15 to $75. But then on the other hand what you’ve got is something that if a library bought it at $75, 300 years from now it could exist in special collections somewhere and not be buried in a landfill like they’re going to have to do with all the rest of this crap. Re-materialization, dematerialization—they’re simultaneous. And that’s what I’m thinking about, and what I want to see happen in the poetry world. I’ve even conceived of an exhibition, which I would call the Poetry Museum, and what it is is the physical support of poetry over the history of mark making. So you would start in your museum of the printed word, or whatever you want to call it—the physical word, you might start with the cuneiform, papyrus—where did the first poem appear that wasn’t just oral? Where were the first visual paradigms? And you can track this stuff right through up to today and sure, you could have a Kindle, but you could also in that museum have a broadside, one of those things that I did with W. S. Merwin on handmade paper [points to broadside on nearby wall], with hand-drawn… [illustrations]
The Kenyon Review: Gorgeous stuff.
PK: Yeah, that kind of stuff. And, you know—what I’m trying to get at is that without people like The Kenyon Review and Copper Canyon Press and people who have the intelligence to even understand what the hell I’m talking about, you know, the experience of having seen a fine piece of writing printed—not handwritten, I mean, nothing in holographs, but printed—that they would treasure it. There should be a movement. I have thought, now that I’ve been seven years into Codex, that Codex is becoming a movement, and people are starting to think of what we’ve done here as a movement. We have these 200 followers that are actually producing, and we have another couple thousand followers who are watching us, coming to the events, spending—not just book collectors, but people who read, readers—because you can buy a book at the Codex Book Fair for $15 to $150,000. It is democratic in that sense. It’s not a “democratic multiple” place, where everything is cheap and produced for the mass—because basically I don’t think of this as a mass thing. I think that poetry is certainly not a mass taste, although I think one in ten people on earth consider themselves a poet, probably—
KR: Yes, that’s the case.
PK: —because I think we’ve all written poems, those of us who’ve been exposed to writing and poetry. We all have. And we were probably damned pleased with our work—when we’re seven, nine. And then some people go on and really make it a lifetime vocation. Anyway, this is where I’m thinking. This is the neighborhood.
KR: You talk about poetry not being a mass interest or a mass community—is that just by virtue of there being a naturally small number of people who are actually interested in buying books and engaging with poetry that way?
PK: Yeah. I think they’re devoted. With every poet I know… I mean, I specialize in poetry, right? My first book was a poetry book—not my own originally, but the first one I made. And the first book that I wrote was a book of poems.
KR: Did you publish them yourself?
PK: No, no. They were published years and years and years ago, back in the ‘60s.
KR: Do you still write poetry today?
PK: Yeah, yeah. I published a suite of seven poems that I wrote about ten years ago, but that’s the only thing I’ve done since the ‘70s. I’m not active as a poet—I’m an occasional poet, an amateur. I do it for love, or I don’t do it at all. Of course, I’ve got notebooks full of things, but they’re not things that I’m working up for print. They’re more like sketches. But every poet that I’ve met has a vast library of poems. Most of them, I suppose, were given to them by the poets—because that’s what you do, you self-publish, you get someone to publish you that’s your best friend, or if you’re fortunate you’ve got an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux—if you’re at that level. But at all levels, people are just handing their books out. And they’re keeping them. When a poet’s library comes up for sale, and you see it—you know, you’ve seen Serendipity Books [a rare book and manuscript store in Berkeley, the contents of which were auctioned off after the death of the owner in 2011]—
PK: —and now you see them wherever, you know, at some used bookstore. They’re a wonder to go through. They’re like the chronicle of a man’s life, or a woman’s life, when this happens. I think that the physical nature of the book is going to matter more—matter in every sense; I use that word very richly—it’s going to matter more and more as time goes on. Because as these things become dematerialized, the so-called “quality” paperback is not a quality paperback. That is an oxymoron. They’re just paperbacks that are a little bit larger than the pulpy ones.
PK: I think as that world becomes more and more endangered—as it is becoming more and more endangered, because people aren’t going to bookstores and buying books, because you’re buying from Amazon. Well, pretty soon, why bother to buy a book? Why not just have an electronic transmission? And as more and more people become accustomed to their Kindles, and maybe even get a taste for it that way—there will always be reasons for something like this [holds paperback] to live around for a while. Take in the bathtub, throw it in the canoe. If you’ll be gone for ten days, it’s nice to have one of these things and catch up on your reading list. And you might not want to worry about the condition it’s going to be in at the end of the trip. Airplane reads—although now, Kindles are like every other airplane seat, right?
KR: Do you think this is a dangerous development?
PK: The Kindle?
KR: No, I mean, the movement towards—
KR: —dematerialization and text as information.
PK: I don’t think it’s dangerous, I think it’s inevitable. The dangerous thing is, well—it’s dangerous in the sense that all text becomes mutant, or mutable. All texts become mutant, right? Anyone can change it. You don’t know. If it comes that way you just change a word. I mean, who’s to know? It’s not like you have a printed document that exists as evidence so that later bibliographers can come in and take over and say, “That’s wrong. That whole paragraph doesn’t belong here.” It’s all too mutable. Well, therefore, I think there should be something called a leafmaster. There should be something in print for everything that is worth a life. If you’ve spent your life, or a considerable portion of your life invested in your novel or your book of poems or your essays on philosophy or your literary criticism, or whatever you want to call it, your cultural offering, then I think you should have an archive—a paper-based archive. Without that, it’s pretty ephemeral.
But in the end, the lucky people, the people with taste and the luck, I suppose, of the draw, and a certain knowledge, are going to have nicely made books—letterpress printed books. There are some presses you can single out, like the Elizabeth Press. All their work back in the 60s and 70s, I think, was printed by an Italian press called Stamperia Valdonega in Verona—beautiful stuff, beautiful stuff. I have their books just because… I may not give a hoot for the poet, but I wouldn’t throw that book out in a million years because I know what’s in it. The workmanship, the craftsmanship. So I think that better be coming back, or—if it doesn’t come back—then we are in trouble. Because I don’t think that the future lies in this stuff [waves paperback], I really don’t. And I don’t mean to belittle them, because I have a house full of them, and I read them all the time. But for the most part, I see a movement toward the re-materialization… in the material of our lives. And that goes for everything from fine bicycles to fine books. Maybe if the Silicon Valley kids… all they can think about, probably, is how to buy their $30,000 bicycle, as opposed to a normal $200 bicycle, but sooner or later, one would hope that at least the ones that grew up in houses with books and read, that they would start thinking, “Well, yeah, the same applies.” The same feeling about our material environment—quality is what we want. We want old-growth trees, we want beautiful books, we want good food, we want handcrafted furniture… And if you can’t afford it, make it.
Anyway, that’s the whole rationale between here and there. When more of that is happening, it’s just a process of people learning about it. I mean, when you first learned about poetry, god knows what you were presented with—could have been a line of doggerel, it could have been something that was really hard to read. I don’t know. But sooner or later, with enough repeated exposure… What I’m looking for is experimental presses, or someone who is willing to say, “Yeah, we want to try this, we want to invest in it, and give it a go, give it a try.” And then let’s just see if we can’t take the books of Copper Canyon Press and make nice editions on truly good, substantial paper. Not gilded lilies, no gold leaf, none of that stuff. Simple, straightforward, honest, moral design—with character, with history, with depth, with meaning. Not this stuff [waves paperback]. This stuff is just garbage. This is a perfectly reasonable university press, and probably this book has been read by 11 students, and more power to it. I’m interested in the text when I have it. But if it were available to me for $75, I would’ve bought it in letterpress sooner than I would’ve bought this for $15. I don’t think I paid $15, for it; I see this thing on it [points to price sticker], but I think I probably paid $2 for it Amazon.
KR: So most of those inflated costs are from distribution.
PK: Yeah, right.
KR: The actual value of the object itself is very little.
PK: Yeah. Almost nothing, in my opinion. The actual value is, you know, a dollar—especially something like this that’s been Magic Markered by the student. It’s just sitting here because I can’t bring myself to throw it out.
KR: I know how that is.
PK: I want this text, and I’m not ready to just spend $15 to get a new one, because it’s not that important that I have it. But I would spend $75 to have it if it was an object that I wanted, because I collect those, just like maybe you collect vinyl records, you know. I collect books.
KR: How many books would you say you have?
KR: Are these at your home?
PK: Home and here [the Codex Foundation]. All that’s a library, behind there—that’s all bookshelves [points to portion of office]. And then the house is a library, more or less.
KR: Do you live here in Berkeley?
KR: How long have you been collecting those? I mean, that’s a substantial collection you’ve got—
PK: Well, that’s a very interesting question because, of course, my first collection long ago got sold. But I’ve been collecting books, I suppose, since I was 14. I always bought them with my own money; I had a job. I bought science fiction, and I wanted every Ace Double science fiction book there was, and one time I had a huge library… it got sold. But I’ve been collecting since I was young. I also have something else going on. I have a 150-year-old collection that was started by my great grandfather. I inherited it, and it’s in my house. It’s a history of the scientific exploration of the west—like the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Pike expedition, and the Powell expedition, and the Fremont expedition, and government documents and the history of Louisiana, and the Carver expedition… on and on. It’s a very specific library that he collected in his lifetime, and he passed it down to his son who passed it to his—so his grandson passed it to me. I got them all.
KR: What did the one you sold earlier consist of?
PK: Oh, science fiction. Another collection I sold was of surrealism—I was completely besotted with surrealism in the 60s and 70s [laughs]. I bought every book I could find. But then eventually I got the point of groaning shelves, and I didn’t have enough money and substance at the time to carry it around with me, so off to Moe’s [Moe’s Books in Berkeley] it went! But now, in the last thirty years or forty years, I haven’t been selling any books unless I decided to de-assess them for reasons of, well, I don’t want it around because I read it once and it has no value. I collect books about books, I collect books about the history of books and the history of typography, and also poetry, some philosophy, and certain authors—I have a huge collection of Robert Bringhurst, but then he’s a collaborator I’ve been working with for thirty years.
KR: He has a book or two in the CODE(X) + 1 monograph series.
PK: Yeah. And he’s got a shelf of books [raises hands].
KR: I was looking at the statistics for Bowker’s Books in Print—and you probably know this way better than I do—but several hundred thousand new print editions are published in the United States every year, and I can’t imagine that very many of those last beyond a first print run. Is digital or electronic text still more ephemeral than printed text, or just ephemeral in a different way? Does that make sense?
PK: I think it’s ephemeral in a different way. This [holds up paperback] is ephemeral in the sense that it’s like a butterfly. It’s got a body, it exists for a short period of time, and then—landfill. Electronic texts are ephemeral, more or less, only in the sense that… I don’t even know if you want to use the word “ephemeral.” They’re dematerialized. They don’t refer… “ephemera” refers to like a cocoon stage, or the butterfly stage of a worm, right? That’s ephemera. But it’s brief, beautiful… ephemera is always physical. So I would say that electronic text is not ephemeral, it’s disembodied, dematerialized—
KR: From the start—
PK: —yeah, from zero. Especially born digitals. A guy sits on his computer, he writes this poem, and then he submits it in PDF form, or in a Microsoft Word document that’s searchable, repeatable, splittable… until it gets to a material base, whether it’s printed off from your computer, or if it’s just on demand, or if it’s a real—what I call a real—book. It qualifies only as a sort of trade paperback—the trade paperback qualifies as a real book in every sense except that it’s pretty uninteresting to me as an object. The text might be great—
KR: But you care about the structure.
PK: The only way I can read Heidegger in translation is in shoddy little paperbacks like these, but I’m happy to have them.
KR: This March, the Encyclopedia Britannica moved entirely online and stopped producing print editions—
PK: Yeah, I heard about that. I’ve got all 20 volumes sitting on my shelf. And it’s print. And it’ll be updated, but that’s okay—it’s a period piece.
KR: When they went out of print, its president, Jorge Cauz, said about the publication: “We may not be as big as Wikipedia. but we have a scholarly voice, an editorial process, and fact-based, well-written articles.” I was interested in hearing your thoughts on whether or not the length of time that it takes to develop an artistic creation has any bearing on its quality. Wikipedia can be edited instantly; Britannica can’t. Things can be posted to the internet instantly; crafting an artisanal book, like you’ve said, takes a lot of time. And do you think that there’s anything inherently different about just the length of time it takes—
PK: Well, yes and no. The yes part would be—yes, there’s something inherently different. It shows. If a lot of effort goes into it, it shows. It just does. I’ve seen Wikipedia articles that were absolute hoots—just an absolute laugh, and I’ve posted them to my friends and said, “Don’t change it! It is so bad! If you see this, don’t say anything about this! This is just what they deserve, out there, those idiots.” But on the other hand, I don’t really believe that in all cases. I think there is obviously something to be said. On the other hand, Wikipedia must be valuable because it will last over time, and the edits will take place over time, and so maybe the Wikipedia of 30 years from now will be a whole different animal than it is today. I don’t know. I just don’t know. Like everyone else on earth, I rely on that kind of instant information for conversational purposes, or [when] I need a word—I’m writing, and I need something—there’s Wikipedia. But if I’m going to contemplate a word origin, I go to the OED [Oxford English Dictionary]. And I might want to contemplate it because, you know… like the word “matter.” When we say the word “matter,” it can mean a whole lot, or it can mean very little. So if I’m going to use it, I want to know the whole lot and the little, and I want to be able to distinguish between them. And sometimes I get my information on how to distinguish between them by reading—well, it was originally a French word, or a Latin word, “mother,” or something like that. “Oh, well, that’s an interesting suggestion, because what matters…”, or “Does matter matter?”, or “Does…” et cetera, et cetera. And mattering—I think we need that depth. And so, yeah, I mean, clearly the Encyclopedia Britannica in its electronic version is worth more to me than the free Wikipedia and therefore, if I were buying one—if I needed one, I’d buy it. I don’t happen to need one. And I’m not particularly interested in the finer points of ortholinguistic research. So the next update is really not going to do me a whole lot; I’m really more or less interested in words that have been around for hundreds of years.
KR: Static knowledge, yeah. You know, what’s interesting about “matter”—I think the Greek word for… or at least the word that Aristotle uses in some of his texts that’s translated as “matter” actually has a dual definition as “timber” [“hyle”]. It seems so pragmatic—
PK: Well, what do you build your house with? Matter [laughs]. And then when abstract it, you end up with an idea like the matter converter—a science fiction idea. You dial up roast turkey, and then out of the ether comes a turkey because this matter converter has agglutinated a turkey.
KR: It’s an interesting double meaning to think about how teleologically—in terms of purposes—matter gets thought about.
PK: Well, we who like to think in these terms—because we like to think—need our encyclopedias, and these great long hundred-year, five hundred year projects. The same goes for a book. When I made the Parmenides book, the fragments of Parmenides with Robert Bringhurst…
KR: When was this?
PK: Two-thousand and something. Early. Ten years ago. I worked on the project for ten years to get that book out, and that included… I had an entirely new Greek alphabet designed, and struck in steel by hand, and then driven into brass matrices and machine-cast on a very cranky old machine into lead, so that I had my own private Greek font—just for this one book, just for the Parmenides type. And then we had another electronic one made, another Greek font made, just so I could size it and use it in different sizes. I commissioned the translation, and he [Bringhurst] translated it because I asked him to. So therefore I got the text from him. His translation is a work of art. After the translation, I commissioned an artist to make abstract wood engravings to go with it—the wood engravings are fantastic—and then everything was hand-bound, the paper was made, the whole production was… more or less, the production you would say is well, I’ve taken it as far as I can do it—it’s time, given my limited resources and my taste. My taste wouldn’t go for jeweled binding, but it would go for quarter leather, and it would go for a fine font, and then handset type for the text… and hand-cut wood engravings printed by the artist himself, so it’s like original art, not a reproduction. And then hand-bound by bookbinders, hand-sewn, everything. For ten years’ worth of work. Now, the other day, I complained to Bringhurst; I whined and said, “For six years, this particular bookseller has had this book on their list. They haven’t sold it. What does this say, what does this say?” No one wants the book, or it’s too expensive, or everyone who wants it’s got it, or—
KR: How many copies did you make?
PK: I may have made as many as almost a hundred, or just over a hundred—I don’t remember how many. 126, or 106 [Koch’s website states 120]. I’ve made so many books, and I just don’t remember… Bringhurst wrote back and he said, “This book is good for thousands of years. Don’t worry about it.” It sits in that bookshelf for the next 75 years, it’ll survive. It’ll go somewhere else. You’re right—it’s never going to go to the dump; no one’s ever going to put that one in the dump, because they’ve got too much invested in it.
KR: A lot of the new developments in electronic text or informational text or dematerialized—whatever you want to call it—seem to focused on convenience, and then aesthetics sort of follow as a supplementary aspect. I was reading that when the first Roman codices were developed, the first-century poet Martial called them very useful. They were compilations of what would have otherwise been tablets he would have had to carry around—
PK: Or papyri.
KR: Yes. So it’s clear that efficiency is at least historically relative, that our sense of it has changed. I was wondering what you think makes a book “useful,” and how practical considerations around the materials you’re using come into the process of making a book.
PK: How a book is useful obviously depends on the person who’s using it. That’s pretty unique. It’s useful to you because you can leap back and forth in it—there are certain quantitative things about books that make them useful; you know how big it is. My wife complained she has no idea where she was in War and Peace when reading it on a Kindle, because she wanted to know how big the book was. She didn’t know if she was this far in or this far in [motions with hands]. And that kind of annoyed her. There’s so many different uses. Nowadays, it appears a lot of people really want to quote—a lot. In fact, there’s whole books being written about this new writing where people don’t write anything, all they do is they collage other peoples’ writings, and they put it together, and then they say, “I’m the DJ… this is the book, I’m not the artist—I am an artist, because look at my collection, or the way my selection—or the way I’ve arranged my selection.” Electronic text is extremely useful for that.
KR: How do you feel about that technique as an art practice?
PK: I’ll wait until I see something good [laughs]. I haven’t seen anything yet that’s gotten me all excited. But obviously, a bigger question is, “What is art?” —a deeper question, and if you ask that question with any real, solid intention of answering it, you’re probably going to end up saying, “Well, art lies in the artist.” The master has the artistry; the object is an artifact. Does the art live in the object after the artist has made it, with his or her knowledge and skill, and so forth? It depends on what they make. If they’ve made an electronic text I would say no, it doesn’t live in the object. But it definitely could live in the language. For me, the case of whether an electronic text is useful or not is made entirely by what I want to do with it. If I want to reproduce it, I want it electronic. If I want to quote it, I want it electronic—so I can quote it. I don’t want it in a PDF form that I would cut and paste… and Photoshop’s too clumsy. I’d rather do it in a word processor. I’m interested not so much in the usefulness of encrypted language—encrypted meaning digitalized—per se, but I wish I had all the text in my books in electronic form. Wouldn’t that be cool? Because I can’t type for shit. I can’t just sit down and type out a bazillion words. There are times when I’d like to put them in somewhere, like a commonplace book.
And that’s interesting, this whole idea of there being a new art form which is all about quotes. I met one of these guys. I’m in Paris last year, two years ago, I’m at a dinner party in a very fashionable part of town with a very fashionable couple, and they had invited a younger very fashionable couple to their dinner, and they were Parisians. And we get around to the inevitable, “What do you do? What are you doing?” and I was talking to the girl, and she was saying she’s getting a Ph.D. in literary criticism at the Sorbonne. Very fashionable, very nice, very smart-looking girl—couldn’t talk for very long at a dinner party—and then, what does her husband do? “Oh, he’s a poet.” “Oh, he’s a poet. Wow!” “So you’re a poet; what kind of poetry do you write?” And I tried to make that one of those questions like, you know, [where the answer would be] I write long lines, I like short lines, I like elegies—I wasn’t asking him about the content, just—are you into a form, or something like that? And he says, “I don’t write, I quote.” And he just stopped right there. And I thought… is this guy serious? So he finds readymade texts and turns them into poems, or something like that. If you believe all the flim-flam around the aesthetic art market—well, why not? If you don’t believe it, I guess you’d be like me, a skeptic—you’re going to have to show me something that’s got me going. Is this going to be better than Coleridge? Does it rhyme? Is there a genius behind it, or it just a matter of your vision… selecting things? I don’t know. It could be a genius of that sort… a panopticon mind that doesn’t create its own work but is constantly viewing other works and collecting them and that’s all information inside the brain, and then by some higglety-pigglety method, god knows what it is, it comes back out… I wait to be convinced.
KR: To go back to what you were talking about earlier with the electronic transcription of your own work, and wanting to do that—I was wondering, have you done that with all of your books, or—
KR: None? None of them? Do you worry every about accessibility, about, for instance, Bringhurst’s translations of Parmenides—
PK: I do worry about that, and when Bringhurst asked permission to reprint his translation in a mass-market paperback, I gave it to him. By all means, you shouldn’t restrict this to people who’ve got $2,000 to buy the book. No. But people come to me and say, “Can I have it in electronic form? I want to read it.” And I say no. That’s not what I’m doing here. I make things, and these things are for sale, and that’s how I make my living. And providing you with a readymade text is not what I’m doing. I’m making an object that is as beautiful and as elegant or as exceptional, or as… as I see it—as I want it. But I’m a private craftsman. I make them the way I want to make them. And, you know, it’s not about the marketplace. It’s about what I want to do. And the fact that a marketplace exists for it, is, I suppose, an indication of how successful or unsuccessful I am in what I do. If I can’t sell it, I’m unsuccessful. If I sell it, I’m successful.
KR: In brutal commercial terms.
PK: Yeah, in brutal commercial terms. I mean, did I sell them, or didn’t I? But I’m not here to do that. So when I publish a writer, I leave a copy right in their hands.
Jonathan Gerkin, assistant [walks in]: So, what is the future of the book here?
PK: Well, what is the future of the book? The future of the book, I’m convinced—
KR: We’re getting there.
PK: —I’m convinced that it has to do with the re-materialization of it. I’m convinced. That’s the future. That is the future. The rest of it—it’s just history. It’s just not interesting. And I shouldn’t say that, because a historian would hate it, but the rest of it just doesn’t interest me. The business of publishing, to me, this is one of the most boring businesses there is. I consider literature and thought and poetry a grand adventure, I really do—we went to Italy once, to Venice, to print a book, just because we wanted to go to Venice to print it… And there was the book Watermark by Joseph Brodsky [we were working on], about Venice, so we went to Venice and we printed it in Venice. Now, you can buy it for $1 on the internet—not my copy; it’d cost you $5,000 to buy my copy—but I’m not here trying to sell it to anybody. I’m not trying to sell anybody these books. Either you want them or you don’t, and if you don’t you—you may want them, but you can’t afford them, but don’t complain to me about that. I’m not denying you anything. That book is available for $1 on the internet. I’m not denying anybody anything. People scream, and I get complaints—
PK: Oh, yeah! “How dare you! I want a cheap edition.” If you want a cheap edition, go make it yourself! That’s not my business, to provide you. I’m not god. I’m not here trying to provide the world with something universal. Just something particular.
KR: So you’re not interested in providing things that are readily available for the masses, and—
PK: I’m perfectly interested in other people doing that, and I’ll buy their book. But me personally, I’d like to say that I’m like… If you’re a boat builder, you could build a boat that will get you across the river. You can build it out of sticks and buffalo hide and get over the Missouri River, or you might want to build an elegant rowing craft because you like to exercise. I want to build the elegant rowing craft because I like the exercise. There’s a marvelous story a friend of mine told me. He visited Heidegger—a professor of mine… When he visited, Heidegger must’ve been… a quite old man. Throughout the entire interview, he had this old leather-bound book in his hand and he was just feeling it… and I thought, yeah. That’s the stuff. That’s the stuff I want to be around. When I pick up a book, I feel better about the book that I picked up if it has some qualities that recommend it to me as a physical object. I can pick up a trade, hardcover book from 1935 that was published by Knopf and say, that’s a fine object, you know? It was made on letterpress printers, on good paper, before the depression. It’s got brilliant design in it; it’s got good honest buckram on its cover. You could buy it for five bucks at a junk sale if they didn’t know what they had, and you could probably go on an antiquarian list and spend $400. But I prefer that one. That’s the one I want to hold in my hand. It’s like the food I want to eat. My books are like food. They’re better quality, if you’re not put off by the fact that they’re expensive. In defense of libraries, I almost specialize in selling my books to libraries. You want to look through the book? Go to the library; it’ll cost you nothing. You can read.
KR: So I assume Bancroft [the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley] has your books, is that right?
PK: Yeah. You go the Bancroft, and all you need is a driver’s license to get in there, I think. Well, and you have to convince them that you’ve had a bath.
KR: There’s a pretty extensive information sheet you have to fill out.
PK: And, well, they should.
KR: Absolutely, yeah. I totally agree.
PK: They’ve got a few billion dollars worth of stuff in there.
KR: What university was that that you heard the story from the professor about visiting Heidegger?
PK: This was at the University of Montana.
KR: Is this where you’re from?
PK: Yeah. And he [Henry Bugbee] was a professor of philosophy. And he had studied with Gabriel Marcel and D. T. Suzuki and he’d made a pilgrimage to Heidegger to meet him. He’s deceased now; he was my professor when I was a youngster—your age. When I was a grad student and undergraduate, both.
KR: Has the study of philosophy influenced your work in books, do you think?
PK: Hugely! Huge, huge. Why do I publish philosophy books, ancient philosophers? Of course it’s influenced me. And especially the perennial philosophy. I re-read book by Ananda Coomaraswamy, essays by him. Last night I was reading “Why Exhibit a Work of Art?” and then another essay called, “What is the use of Art anyway?”
KR: That’s irresistible.
PK: His work is irresistible; do you think so? Have you read him?
KR: With a title like that—I haven’t, but I will.
PK: Oh, you have to! You have to. Or—“Is Art a Superstition or a Way of Life?” kind of thing. He writes in absolutely clear prose. He’s been dead for a hundred years, almost, but he was a genius of that stripe of the perennial philosophy. There’s this little Dover paperback that’s called Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, something like that, and he writes on traditional art forms. And his essays—it’s as good a philosophy as you can read anywhere. And I adore reading and re-reading Heidegger’s essay, “On the Origins of the Work of Art.” Read it, and re-read it. I love reading Ortega’s [José Ortega y Gasset] essays on the dehumanization of art. Certain essays I will read over and over and over again, and they inflect my work everyday. Eric Gill—Eric Gill was a hell of a philosopher, he just didn’t bill himself as one.
KR: You were telling me, earlier, about an edition from a publisher like Knopf being letterpress. Was there a… I have to confess complete ignorance about the traditions of the large publishing houses and the techniques that they’ve used, but was there a point that they stopped using letterpress? When was that?
PK: The ‘50s. There was a period that ended in the ‘50s—as a research topic, brilliant to see—you know, how I discovered this was when you go into bound volumes in the library, in the good old days, when you could walk into a library and books were in the stacks and not in storage at subterranean unit a hundred miles away. Print Magazine—I don’t know if you’ve seen it; it’s an advertising magazine for advertising media. Now—Print Magazine, I think it was, throughout the ‘40s, probably even in the ‘30s, somewhere in there… the change was when it went from being a magazine for printers to read about their craft, about their history, about typography, about how books are made, what fine books are—they were changed, utterly, somewhere in the late ‘60s, I think, and they became an advertising and design magazine. And it lost all interest to me. It instantly became garbage. It just became advertising media for graphic designers. What happened was that the letterpress technology was replaced by the computer technology, the photo-processing computers, primitive typesetting technologies. And when it was replaced, when the metal world changed to the electronic world, all the knowledge of the metal world died with that last generation that made that transition. And all of that knowledge was about the history of their profession, their art, their craft. These people who were making books in factories in the United States… the great American printers—these people, they had vocations. They were craftsmen with deep knowledge. They were like masters. And there was a time when being a printer meant that you could read five languages; you could edit a book. Then in the ‘50s came this division of labor, and a printer became a pressman, and a pressman needs a high school education at most. And a bindery man needs a high school education at most. And a printer—“printer” —would be in the executive department, and they’d need an education in business, and pretty soon all of that knowledge just disappeared from the books and this here [waves paperback] was what you got. Just disappeared. And little by little, the erosion is almost complete now—especially now with self-editing, where no one edits; you just give your electronic file to the university press or whoever and there’s a printer in China—and I have nothing against Chinese printers, I’m just not interested—and it’s gotten poor.
So somewhere in the ‘50s… and that’s not to say that letterpress means “good.” It doesn’t. Letterpress is not another word for “quality”; there can be really shitty, stupid, awful letterpress. But it can also be, if a good honest press takes pride in the work of doing it, a work of art. Because you need an artist, a craftsman. See, that’s what you get out of writers like Coomaraswamy, in their essays, is that artists aren’t con men—conceptual “con” artists—artists are people who embody great traditions and have great skill, and then if they’re kind of special, let’s just say their consciousness is finely grained, well… When you see who’s getting these MacArthur awards, and you start looking at what and why it is they got them—for the most part they’re doing a pretty good job of finding people that are just, more or less, hardworking individuals who have a vision. I think it’s great. But when you see it spread out on the newspapers with shark’s bodies in tanks of water—it’s shocking, it’s ridiculous [Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living]. I saw that tank. I was in a Renaissance exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum and I turned a corner there was the fucking shark in a tank with his flesh coming off. And the tank was rusty, and the glass was kind of gooey-looking—why is this in the same building? Why? Here I am looking at Renaissance masterpieces and then I’m looking at this piece of junk art. This is where Coomaraswamy becomes valuable. He wouldn’t allow that in the museum. See, that’s not a museum piece; that’s whatever you want to call it, but it sure as hell doesn’t belong in a museum. It doesn’t belong in a museum because, for one thing, it’s contemporary, and museums should be more or less about preserving those things that are in danger that speak of great humanity and reach to us as human beings. What the hell does that rotting shark in a tank got to do with anything? Well, okay, it’s conceptual, it’s an idea—I’ve heard people praise that work of art as being absolutely, shockingly unbelievable. You walk up and you confront it and you get a visceral feeling that you want, you create this feeling because it’s enlightening. I believe in all that—up to a point. I definitely think that it has nothing to do with museum culture. Galleries, yes; museums, no. And so I feel the same way about certain books. These things [paperback] belong in a bookstore but they don’t belong in a library. This is the future library, not the present library. The present library needs these because it may not exist in any other form. So therefore it needs to be there. But once the thing has been digitized, why would you actually want to store the physical object—when it’s useful only for study, that’s what it’s good for. Someone can come in with a pink Magic Marker and memorize a few lines for a test they’re going to get tomorrow.
KR: And that seems incredibly inefficient to me.
PK: It’s far better in electronic form. Right here, something this size, you’ve got it—you’ve got it all.
KR: It works very well, yeah—
PK: It’s fantastic. But the book as an information object, as a text transmission object, it should have something special about it—something materially interesting. Otherwise I’m not interested… this book [paperback], I can’t get it in any other form; I’ll keep it as long as the information’s relevant, but most libraries that I’ve sold in my lifetime—and probably you too, with the books that you’ve sold at Moe’s—were probably the ones that we just didn’t use anymore. You may regret a few of them, later—
KR: Oh, yeah.
PK: And then you find yourself re-buying them, right? I do that.
KR: Yeah. That’s frustrating. So—this knowledge that you’re talking about that was eroded, and which you indicated as being almost completely gone, is it still around at all? You’ve taught, if I’m correct, for a few decades at the Bancroft on the press—
PK: This is what I taught at the Bancroft. Yes, it’s still around.
KR: So you’re passing this on.
PK: I’m trying! I’m trying. The kids who are working here [at the Codex Foundation] are getting exposed to it, though not as much as they should be—I’m not being paid full-time to teach these kids. But I try to attend that they learn something. And I’ve got Jonathan [Gerkin] and several other people who are… there are people learning, and there just needs to be a lot more people learning. The tools are out there; they’re so easy to get. Public access to the tools are even available. I was even at a place in Portland, Oregon three weeks ago called Em-Space—do you what an “em” is?
KR: No—as in “em” dash?
PK: When you have actual, physical type in your hands, a capital M is basically the widest letter—or a capital W. It’s basically a squarish piece of lead. You need M-space because it’s perfectly square; it’s for “quadding out,” it’s called. There’s this whole language one learns about hand-setting type, which is like learning Latin. If you like books as physical objects, then you’ve got to learn letterpress. You just have to. If you loved writing English poetry, it seems to me you would need to read Shakespeare at least once.
KR: One hopes.
PK: And if you were really into it, it seems like you would maybe want to study some Latin and Greek.
KR: So you see it [an interest in letterpress and typography] as co-extensive with literature.
PK: Yeah. Letterpress technology and fine typography are equal parts of literature insofar as you consider the physical object. If you don’t consider the physical object, if you don’t give a shit about it—plenty of people out there will eat McDonald’s all their life—if you don’t give a shit about it, then no, no, you certainly don’t need to have anything to do with anything I’m doing. And these things will be taught by people who live in their minds and have a rich mental life going—you don’t need, necessarily, the finest of anything. People sleep on beds of nails.
KR: Do you think a conception of literature that doesn’t have any regard for its existence in objects is wrongheaded? It seems to be the prevailing sense, sadly.
PK: I would say sadly. I mean, just as an accompaniment, even—you go to a play, and you don’t need the play script. You don’t need an object. But you do need all of the trappings. You want the director or the writer of the play to include all of this material stuff so that when you go to the play you see it. A book is somewhat like that. If you’re a memorizer, hell, you don’t need the book.
KR: That’s interesting—
PK: Well, I think it’s wrongheaded, and I think it’s up to your generation to change it. Because, as I understand it… you’re at Berkeley?
KR: I am.
PK: As I understand, the English Department there has had almost no interest, over the last twenty years, in the physical object. They don’t teach that. I’ve had these graduate students coming to me at Cal, from Penn, from Columbia—and they were the best students I had. Because they had been in programs in English departments, both at Columbia and at Penn, where they were taken into special collections and handed off, like Lynn Huang [a graduate student in the English Department at Berkeley]. They learned about the physical transmission of the book, they learned about “blood on the page,” they learned about the archival object, because there were professors in these two schools that considered the physical object as important to the transmission of the knowledge. But it’s rare.
KR: It is.
PK: But it should be changing now. It should be going the other way now. Because there was a time when a graphic designer came to me and said, “Oh, Koch—letterpress is gonna be really big.” “So why do you say that?” He said, “Because we have become as flat and as gray as you can get.” So the next thing is going to be depth and blackness. Well, literature has been so dematerialized, so theorized and over-theorized and hyper-theorized, where can it go? It can’t go that way forever. It’s just like anything else; it becomes sterile. Inbreeding. So I think the re-materialization—and people will be a lot more interested in looking at Alfred Knopf books from the ‘30s suddenly.
KR: I think they are, generally speaking.
PK: Because there’s an aura to the object, right?
KR: That reminds me of Benjamin’s essay—
PK: Oh, sure, and that’s so important, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”
KR: That’s intriguing, because I know that Lyn Hejinian has a press that she runs, called Atelos Press, and then there’s also the New California Poetry series [by UC Press] that was putting out high-quality stuff—well, “high-quality,” in paperback terms—for a while until the funding got cut. So that’s gone.
PK: A lot of people start out like that. Hejinian, if I remember correctly, she had a little press called Tuumba. And she was printing it in her basement, right, or her garage? As far as I know—I didn’t know her; I still don’t know her. If she were in this room I wouldn’t recognize her. But her name is legion—everyone around here knows who she is, except me, since I haven’t met her. But she started out there. Copper Canyon started out there. Graywolf Press started out that way. Graywolf and Copper Canyon have both defenestrated their original leaders—gone, gone, gone. And then comes the era of this stuff [holds paperback]. Once you start nursing at the government mother, you start having these guidelines that you have to do this—in order to get this money, you have to do this many copies, and you have to reach this many people, and you have to keep the price down, and it has to be democratic. And even then, the Republicans are trying to hatchet and chop you, blow you up and poison you, whatever they can to get you off planet. Little by little, the more one becomes dependent on these government subsidies, the more, at least in America, they’ve tended toward the democratic multiple. But they’re being subsidized by an incomplete subsidy. In Germany, they subsidize literature. But that’s also partially to subsidize their home industries—you subsidize literature and then the printers get the work. But they don’t send it to China, they do it in Germany, and the craftsmanship is exquisite. I could take you to my house and show you dozens of catalogues that I have from my friends and artists in Germany, and writers. Fantastic quality considering that they’re not handmade—they’re made in a factory. So that subsidy is rightheaded, whereas the wrongheaded subsidy is, “Well, we’re just going to do the literature,” and the literature doesn’t have a physical body to start with. It’s just, “Get it out there…”
It’s wrongheaded, is what I would say. It’s just not the whole story. The whole story, one hopes—because you have a place to write to—will start to leak out! Let’s leak the story, man! You know, Wikileaks! Let’s leak the story that physicality matters. You walk into an antiquarian bookshop run by some young guy interested in literature, and you go in his backroom—he’s amassing a collection he’s going to want to sell somebody as a unit. Little by little, he finds this book for $7 and this one for $14. But eventually he’s going to have this critical mass of books—like Knopf from 1927 to 1934. So he can have books designed by W. A. Dwiggins, one of the greatest designers ever in commercial publishing. That’s a substantial subject. So when that collection is amassed, then you’ve got a selling point—and he can sell, hopefully, to the University of Utah or the University of Vermont. And then the literature students could go in and say, “Look at the work of W.A. Dwiggins, and look what he did with H.G. Wells, look what he did with…” Isn’t this interesting? Isn’t this a fascinating part of it? Look at the way these works are being interpreted by these designers as substance in 1934, and then look at this Kindle version—what are we learning here? There’s got to be some information transmitted.
KR: Can the craft of those books be so well-done that they become integral to the experience of the book? Are they ever inseparable?
PK: Well, they can be. Debra’s [Debra Magpie Earling] book [The Lost Journals of Sacajewea; 2010]—that one I’m told is inseparable. That one that’s up there—you want to pick that up and bring it over here? The one on the stand. That book—I’m told by everybody who sees it that the making of it is absolutely integral with the meaning of it. And the only true test that I have of that is that the author of the words was offered an opportunity to publish this with a prestigious university press, and she queried, she said, “Peter, should I do this?” And I said, “You have my permission, because I don’t own your words,” even though you wrote them more or less for this version. There are like 60 of these—you could have a few thousand. And she said, “They want to use your artwork, and they want to put some of these images in.” And I said absolutely not—if they touch this artwork in a cheap paperback edition, they’re going to ruin it, absolutely ruin it. No. It has to be like this, or it doesn’t exist. So, take your words, pull them out of here, sell them to that university press—just leave my artwork out of it and don’t use my typography. Don’t use it the way I did it.
KR: This is a book of poetry? Do you mind if I look at it?
PK: Oh, of course. This is a handling copy [opens book]. It starts at the first page and every surface is meaningful—every surface. That surface on the backside is meaningful, too, and the way it feels is meaningful—it should feel like a piece of skin, or an eyelid. This is about a dream that this woman is having and on the inside, this is what the dream looks like, and if you were looking through her eyelid from the outside you would see that on the other side. And this is the whole point—that this is a body. And the poem is written like a body. If you look at it, she has shaped it—she and I both shaped it; she shaped it originally and I reshaped it a little by typographical flourishes—but we did it in common. Everything about this book is integral. How this was made, and what it’s made of, the thirty-eight special cartridges that hang off the binding, the bone beads that are on it, everything about it is one. It’s inseparable. The meaning exists in this form. Now… she declined. I didn’t decline. She said, “No, I’m not going to do it. If we can’t do it your way, then it can’t be done.” And all I was asking for them to do was to respect the special case of the making. You put vellum in it, and you print one side, and you print it oversize a little bit—it doesn’t have to be that big—and you make some nods in the direction of my design that I control. If I control it, then it has my signature on it, just like her words have got her signature on them. But they wouldn’t let me do it, they said “No, no, no, this is a formatted poetry series, it has to look just like this…” Well, that’s fine, you can do what you want with the text. But she said, “No, I’m not gonna give it to them.” So I thought that was a validation, that she thought of this—Debra did—thought of this book as a collaboration and a work of art and not to be abstracted, one piece from another.
KR: What material is this on the cover, here?
PK: That is actually what I call a smoked buffalo rawhide cover—but it’s paper. That sheet of paper was made for me, it was cast just like that, and they painted it that color. They actually painted it. And every one is different.
KR: How long does the production of one of these take?
PK: A few years.
KR: How many of these did you make?
PK: I can never remember. I think 65.
KR: This crossed my mind when I was thinking about things to talk to you about. I was returning to this piece by Eric Alterman in The New Yorker in 2008, and he was talking about the disappearance of the newspaper. He said, “…it no longer requires a dystopic imagination to wonder who will have the dubious distinction of publishing America’s last genuine newspaper.” And I was wondering… what you thought about that, or if the worries about newspapers disappearing are relevant to the concerns about the handcrafted book having a cultural existence.
PK: What do you think? I don’t know. I would say it’s part and parcel of the same disease, but, on the other hand, there’s a side of me that says, “Why do we need to cut down the last remaining trees in British Columbia to have this newspaper on my doorstep?”
KR: It seems like the concern is efficiency.
PK: I don’t really want to take a large stand on that issue, because my wife loves having a newspaper. She doesn’t want the daily paper—but we get the Times Literary Supplement, the London Book Review, Bookforum, on and on and on. She loves the Times Literary Supplement; she just loves it, she devours it. “It’s written for me!” We want that on our doorstep. I don’t think we need a daily newspaper on our doorstep. I don’t think we do. I think that we need to get our news, and I think there’s a better—
KR: There’s a practical aim there.
PK: I think we need a way to get at it, but I don’t think we need a newspaper. On the other hand—and this is another argument, completely different, and it’s coming out of left field—trees are a renewable resource. All you need is sunlight and water. So, this electronic shit’s going to take nuclear power. Which way do you want to go? Do you want to husband your trees, grow them? I think it’s a fine idea to grow trees—and to grow them as forests to be harvested. Trees actually have a natural lifespan. There are old-growth trees, but those are the exceptions, right? Those are the ones that grew down in canyons and there were no fires because there was damp, and the fire went over the top. But basically trees burn every hundred years or so—everything burns. And then you get new trees. Why not harvest them 70 years out, and plant some more that way?
KR: Even the sequoia seed needs fire to open—
PK: And the same with the lodgepole [pine]. Without a fire, they don’t seed. And they become very, very sick forests after 100 years—very sick. Not the sequoias; they seem to last.
KR: I wanted to return to this distinction you made in your monograph for the CODE(X) + 1 series between books that are “containers of art” and books that are “ordinary books with art in them.” And I was wondering if you could, maybe, a little bit more about that. There seem to be a lot of mass-market editions out there that try to be “artful,” and I think you also mentioned—in the same quote—going into museum bookstores and seeing quote-unquote books of art by these people, but in the latter category; they were ordinary books with art in them.
PK: I suddenly realized one day that even some of these really high-end art books, artist’s books, they were crap. Let’s say that you’ve got a lithograph in a book—and so it’s an artist’s book, because the artist handmade the lithograph. But if you went in and erased the lithograph, you’d have an ordinary book. There’s nothing there to make you go, “Wow! Look at that! I wonder what was on there.” So I started thinking, further along the line—it became clear to me that there were cases where the kind of knowledge that artists have is fully exercised in a book. And then there’s the case where it’s not—the simple case where you’ve got a graphic designer who puts a cover on it, and then you have this hack who pours the text in, and then you have a Photoshop person who’s dropping photographs every once in a while. And what you have is not anything like a work of art, but it may have pictures of art in it. That’s at one end of the spectrum, and at the other end it’s like the Sacajawea [book] —it’s an integral object. This is it—it doesn’t exist in any other form. And everything about it’s original. It’s just one of those games that I play in my mind—I always have. Is it original, or is it a reproduction? You read Benjamin and say, “Is this a reproduction? Is this an original?” And if it’s a reproduction, how many steps removed from the original is it? I used to say that offset printing can never be original, because, first of all, you have a photograph of something that is not a photograph itself—a photograph is one thing—but once you take the photograph, and then you take the negative, and then you burn a plate, and then the plate is burned, and then it is inked and then printed onto a blanket and then the blanket is printing it back onto a sheet of paper—you might be five or six steps removed from the original. The original might be a negative, or the negative printed by the artist the way they wanted it to look. Then you take that, the way it’s printed by the artist, and you manipulate it in Photoshop and it adds another layer of creativity. But sooner or later you start just reproducing copies and copies and copies and copies. Or is it just a copy of a copy? Or is it original? And I love playing that game. It’s like playing bridge—you’re trying to get the better hand. The better hand, to me, is the closer you are to the origin of the work of art. If you want to go to the origin of the work of art, then you’re pretty much forced to go to the artist—who is the origin of it, or artisan—craftsman. You want it made by the craftsman. If there is no craftsman involved—if there’s just one guy punching numbers into the computer, another person shoving paper in and out of a giant machine, and the level of craftsmanship is only about is there enough ink, or isn’t there enough ink? If that’s the only question, then we’re not dealing with a very high level of art.
KR: I was taking a look at this book written in 1983 by two scholars (Skeat and Roberts), called The Birth of the Codex, and it was tracking the history of the book. And we spoke a little bit earlier about the Roman development of the codex as a compilation of leafs. They termed it the most important shift in the history of the book before the use of the printing press proliferated. And I was wondering—what do you think… Well, what does it mean to you that—you have this biennial fair—what does it mean to you that people, thousands of years after the advent of textual inscription when people have electronic, informational texts, that there’s still a sizable community interested in this?
PK: I knew it was there… It’s so important to have a marketplace. If the skills that were lost in the 1950s are going to be reintroduced into our culture, then they’re going to have to have a marketplace. People are going to have to be exposed to it. And the marketplace is so vitally important. I learned that the easy way. I went to Tangiers and went into a market; I went to Istanbul, and I went into a market; I went to Naples, and I went into a market. Where’s the liveliest part of town? It’s in the market. That’s where it’s happening. And all this not for-profit blah-blah-blah… I don’t think that this is a good idea. I think that ideas belong in the public realm. I get a little bit burned when really good intellectuals privatize themselves and only speak academic-speak. I hate that. I’d rather have them writing for my newspaper—then I would buy the newspapers, if people with intelligence would write for them, and editors with intelligence would allow intelligent writers to say their say-so in them. So we need the marketplace desperately, and so I created it with Codex. That’s the whole point—intellectual ferment.
KR: Do you see it extending and expanding into the future?
PK: I think it’s becoming a movement. I actually do. People all over the world now—I mean, Codex Australia has already started, Codex Mexico has already started. Who knows if there’ll be more, but the idea is catching. And to have a reference point—Codex, every two years, Berkeley—there’s a focus. And then there’s books; maybe you saw Book Art Object?
KR: I did.
PK: We’re going to have another one in a couple of months—bigger.
KR: What do you see, looking toward the future, as the next major development—if there is one to be had—in handmade books, or in bookmaking?
PK: I know what I’d like to see.
KR: What would you like to see?
PK: I’d like to see intelligent typography. It’s time [laughs]. And I just would. I mean, dumb-shit typography is everywhere—dumbed down to the point where it’s not interesting to me… Dada was really only active for four years—it was a good, hearty movement for four years. Let’s get rid of this “exploding the codex” and being dumb about it, and let’s get smart. For me, the biggest break would be the reintroduction of high-end typographic and artisanal skill into the work. That’s where it needs to go. That’s where it needs to happen. Nothing else is going to make my day. I don’t want it to get anymore electronic than it is, or universal—because frankly, I don’t know that every kid on the planet actually needs access to the phone book in Missoula, Montana. It’s good for a few hundred people; there are markets. I’m interested in growing the market of people who are interested in the book as a physical, mental, whole object.
All images courtesy Peter Koch.