Alice Twemlow | Essays

The Bandwidth of Books

Kiosk: Modes of Multiplication exhibition. Photograph by Alice Twemlow.

According to the Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid, writing in So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance, the human race publishes a book every 30 seconds. If current trends continue, by 2052 the number of people writing and publishing a book in a given year will exceed the number of people who will read one. Zaid sympathizes with the overwhelmed reader and points the finger at the inconsiderate author for whom, in extreme cases of verbosity, he recommends a "chastity glove."

Publishers like Nieves in Zurich, J&L Books in New York, Roma Publications in Amsterdam, or Gas in Tokyo, are publishing artists' work and the research and ideas generated from thinking about art. They are passionate about their missions, mostly locally focused and non-commercial in attitude. The quality of their work is often very high; their books well-conceived and produced, and innovatively designed.

But the question is, who is reading them?

The fecundity of contemporary publishing was brought home to me recently when I visited Kiosk: Modes of Multiplication, a traveling exhibition of independent publications on contemporary art. Christoph Keller, founder of the Frankfurt publishing house Revolver, launched the project in 2001 with a handful of books and it has been on the road ever since accumulating titles along the way. In its current configuration, in the Artists Space gallery in New York, 5,300 books and magazines are on display, the output of 360 independent publishing houses from all over the world. On the one hand, it's exciting to see that independent publishing on the visual arts is in such good health. On the other, it's hard to know what to make of such unmediated abundance.

Kiosk: Modes of Multiplication exhibition. Photograph by Alice Twemlow.

"Books are published at such a rapid rate that they make us exponentially more ignorant," writes Zaid. "If a person read a book a day, he would be neglecting to read 4,000 others... and his ignorance would grow 4,000 times faster than his knowledge." The idea that any individual would consider herself responsible for digesting this vast body of information is, of course, absurd. No one reads all of the publications even on a fairly limited subject such as contemporary art. In the 18th century a publisher could be sure of their readership for a particular book, since it was the subscriptions of prospective readers that funded its printing. Today, however, as any independent publisher will tell you, readers are tough to come by. "Sometimes it's hard to find 20 of them," says Keller of his own attempts to locate an audience.

Why keep on with the work of traditional publishing when the Internet would seem to provide a much more efficient means for reaching people? What is it about the book, pamphlet and magazine formats that continue to lure publishers onto the rocks of insolvency?

Perhaps it's the level of control that books afford. They are created from the top down: completed and finessed before their release, they provide few entry points for unpredictable reader contributions. Books are statements, serene and imperturbable.

In the age of "new media," it's the history of publishing that appears to provide much of the inspiration and content for today's visual arts publishers. Now that the larger projects of news and reference dissemination can be taken care of online, printed publications become available for the exploration of increasingly idiosyncratic obsessions — the more quirky, obscure and esoteric, the better. These publications have a very particular voice and visual appearance both of which derive from the dustier corners of book publishing's history: the heavily footnoted meanderings of science textbooks, earnest political treatises and tracts, hobby manuals and the like. For many, the ultimate goal is to channel the essence of an out-of-print illustrated pamphlet on the preferred techniques for the propagation of indoor ivy plants. The best-known touchstones of this meticulously arcane tone can be found in the satirical output of the McSweeney's empire and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information Press, for example.

Kiosk: Modes of Multiplication exhibition. Photograph by Alice Twemlow.

The publications at Artists Space, organized by publisher, rather than by author or artist, are heaped in piles on trestle tables. Those that work their way to the surface during my visit seem typical of this self-reflexive fascination with publishing: One is a book by Martin Beck, part of Florian Pumhösl's Montage series, titled half modern half something else (Charles Jencks, the Language of Post-Modern Architecture, first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh editions.) By reproducing the covers, and providing a comparative review of each edition of Jencks' book published between 1977 and 2002, Beck highlights the role of design and publishing in shaping the genealogy of architectural theory during this period. On the table of books made by designers turned publishers is Tourette's, a magazine that reproduces texts about art, located and collated by designers Will Holder and Stuart Bailey. Another project that reprints existing texts about art, and which uses the format of a paperback book with 19th century field guide style illustrations of fish on the cover, is FR David, a quarterly journal published by the de Appel Arts Center. Other books plumb the web for their content. Susanne Burner's lo-fi, one-color pamphlet titled Vanishing Point: How to Disappear in America without Leaving a Trace, for example, presents, with deadpan reverence, an edited version of an anonymous text she found on skeptic-tank.org.

The creators of such publications do not expect large readerships — nor do they depend upon sales. Instead their enterprises are funded by subsidies in Europe and in the U.S. many have opted for non-profit status. As Keller has pointed out, "All these art books would cost a fortune if they were rooted in a capitalistic market system... Of the 500 books I have published with Revolver, more than half the copies have been given away or swapped for other books." Such books function primarily as a currency within the network of other artists, other publishers, and other designers who share their particular sensibility. Yet even though their influence may at first seem limited to the initiated, over time it grows, helped by such project's as Keller's Kiosk which, after being shown at 20 venues, will be made available as an online research tool by the Berlin State Library. In Zaid's words, "to establish a publishing house... is to start a conversation — a conversation that springs, as it should, from local debate, but that opens up, as it should, to all places and times."

Alice Twemlow is a design writer and the chair of a new MFA program in Design Criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Posted in: Books

Comments [25]

I've often found myself completely lost in the absolute deluge of books one can find at any given bookstore. Which one to read? Better yet, which ones not to read? I'm happy to know I'm not the only one who thinks this is a problem.

On the other hand, when it comes to art and design books, I only wish I could read more. The reason I don't read many of the fine publications in this area is not time, however, but the price tags on the glossy, shiny books. Either the case is different here in Europe, or I have completely missed the "bargains" described in this article. The books I normally see for sale are severely overpriced for a student like I am, and I can only afford to buy one once every blue moon... Sure, I can find some good resources online, but much of the more "accredited" knowledge is still in books, and besides, there's just "something" about reading a book that sparks right up there.

So, what I am asking is: How can publishers wish for more readers, when they price their books so out of range of most people's wallets?
Bruno Abrantes

After 18 years designing new media professionally I have a portfolio where my most interesting work can no longer be easily experienced or demonstrated.

While I still fill my professional plate with work that only exists on a computer screen, the personal projects I have been developing for the last few years are all book projects.

The book form is an awesome platform for interactivity and the design possibilities have hardly been exhausted. Books don't need electricity and don't stop working when you get a new bookshelf. (Although, there will be tremendous possibilities for electric books when it becomes practical to embed a self-contained computer program and dedicated computer on a page in a book...)

Heck, soon all the cool kids will have their own book. Blogs will be so passé.

Kevin Steele

I have no idea what fecundity means but big fan of J+L Books. All are well designed and thoughtful.
felix sockwell

Oh, the irony. This had been on my mind for sometime, and it prompted me to make this.

I applaud Alice for focusing on a specific domain: art. Still, I can't help but wonder where else this problem has come up. With so many volumes of volumes of books, it's enough to bring one to their knees, but at the same time it will also create more work for architects, who pine over the details of how libraries can become centers of information as well as storage vessels.

On screen never replicates that tactile experience. It is always great to hold and feel that which one has created. And it is always great to be able to take reading material into the bubble bath...
Michelle French

creo acorde compartir un cuento de cortazar que aparece en el libro Historias de Cronopios y de Famas (1962)

"Como los escribas continuarán, los pocos lectores que en el mundo había van a cambiar de oficio y se pondrán también de escribas. Cada vez más los países serán de escribas y de fábricas de papel y tinta, los escribas de día y las máquinas de noche para imprimir el trabajo de los escribas. Primero las bibliotecas desbordarán de las casas, entonces las municipalidades deciden (ya estamos en la cosa) sacrificar los terrenos de juegos infantiles para ampliar las bibliotecas. Después ceden los teatros, las maternidades, los mataderos, las cantinas, los hospitales. Los pobres aprovechan los libros como ladrillos, los pegan con cemento y hacen paredes de libros y viven en cabañas de libros. Entonces pasa que los libros rebasan las ciudades y entran en los campos, van aplastando los trigales y los campos de girasol, apenas si la dirección de vialidad consigue que las rutas queden despejadas entre dos altísimas paredes de libros. A veces una pared cede y hay espantosas catástrofes automovilísticas. Los escribas trabajan sin tregua porque la humanidad respeta las vocaciones, y los impresores llegan ya a orillas del mar. El presidente de la república habla por teléfono con los presidentes de las repúblicas, y propone inteligentemente precipitar al mar el sobrante de libros, lo cual se cumple al mismo tiempo en todas las costas del mundo. Así los escribas siberianos ven sus impresos precipitados al mar glacial, y los escribas indonesios etcétera. Esto permite a los escribas aumentar su producción, porque en la tierra vuelve a haber espacio para almacenar sus libros. No piensan que el mar tiene fondo, y que en el fondo del mar empiezan a amontonarse los impresos, primero en forma de pasta aglutinante, después en forma de pasta consolidante, y por fin como un piso resistente aunque viscoso que sube diariamente algunos metros y que terminar por llegar a la superficie. Entonces muchas aguas invaden muchas tierras, se produce una nueva distribución de continentes y océanos, y presidentes de diversas repúblicas son sustituídos por lagos y penínsulas, presidentes de otras repúblicas ven abrirse inmensos territorios a sus ambiciones etcétera. El agua marina, puesta con tanta violencia a expandirse, se evapora más que antes, o busca reposo mesclándose con los impresos para formar la pasta aglutinante, al punto que un día los capitanes de los barcos de las grandes rutas advierten que los barcos avanzan lentamente, de treinta nudos bajan a veinte, a quince, y los motores jadean y las hélices se deforman. Por fin todos los barcos se detienen en distintos puntos de los mares, atrapados por la pasta, y los escribas del mundo entero escriben millares de impresos explicando el fenómeno y llenos de una gran alegría. Los presidentes y los capitanes deciden convertir los barcos en islas y casinos, el público va a pie sobre los mares de cartón a las islas y casinos donde orquestas típicas y características amenizan el ambiente climatizado y se baila hasta avanzadas horas de la madrugada. Nuevos impresos se amontonan a orillas del mar, pero es imposible meterlos en la pasta, y así crecen murallas de impresos y nacen montañas a orillas de los antiguos mares. Los escribas comprenden que las fábricas de papel y tinta van a quebrar, y escriben con letra cada vez más menuda, aprovechando hasta los rincones más imperceptibles de cada papel. Cuando se termina la tinta escriben con lápiz etcétera; al terminarse el papel escriben en tablas y baldosas etcétera. Empieza a difundirse la costumbre de intercalar un texto en otro para aprovechar las entrelíneas, o se borra con hojas de afeitar las letras impresas para usar de nuevo el papel. Los escribas trabajan lentamente, pero su número es tan inmenso que los impresos separan ya por completo las tierras de los lechos de los antiguos mares. En la tierra vive precariamente la raza de los escribas, condenada a extinguirse, y en el mar están las islas y los casinos o sea los transatlánticos donde se han refugiado los presidentes de las repúblicas, y donde se celebran grandes fiestas y se cambian mensajes de isla a isla, de presidente a presidente, y de capitán a capitán."

Everybody wants to be a star, an authority. Everyone in their own discipline wants to stand out, to leave a mark. Competition is what drives this ridiculous amount of publishing. Everyone wants to say "oh, I wrote a book." And books are made of words, a lot of words. Sometimes people can say what they want to say in two paragraphs. But two paragraphs don't constitute a book. Two paragraphs don't make you "a writer". Take this article for example. The point was made very quickly, but the author feels the need to fill out space by supporting his point with data, quotations, repetition.
Does writing more make us seems smarter? Does reading more (more words) makes us smarter?

"Books are published at such a rapid rate that they make us exponentially more ignorant," writes Zaid.

I'm always irritated by pointlessly loaded statements like this. It would be perfectly valid to stop at pointing out that nobody could possibly keep up with the rate of publishing, nevermind that many books are not meant to be "read," or even necessarily cracked open until needed for some specific reason.
Frankly, I have absolutely no worries about intelligence given that the a large portion of this deluge is made up of things like the Chicken Soup for the [something] Soul empire and quasi-mystic tripe like The Secret. There's a bizarre assumption here, and Zaid is blatantly ignoring the "90% of everything is crap" rule. I don't want to keep up; it would involve reading VC Andrews.

Narrowing back down to the concern with design publications in this piece, the question of opting instead for on-line/digital formats becomes more interesting because there's so much publishing being done in the Best Business Card Design volume 87 vein. That's precisely the kind of thing that would be much better served by a database-driven site or disc and a decent search engine than wasting a bunch of paper to produce a book that let's be honest, is not going to be looked at all that much.

I agree with Su that it is absolutely pointless to constantly point out any pauschalized "overload" of consumer goods. Why talk about books here instead of all the millions of biological species we are not aware of etc...
BUT increasing or decreasing production of certain things is always a noticable development to start reflections on the spheres they are acting in.
And with art publications we could witness an enormous inflation of production and activity during the last decade. Parallely to the raise of the digital empire, numbers of art publication - in print -- exploded.
I do believe there are two main answers to that:
1.) The production of art has changed itself into a production of knowledge, some kind of interdisciplinary research without having determinded its specific parameters yet. Instead of the mere documentation of art works in forms of catalogues, the printed matter has become an integral part of producing art itself. Even young students know about the mystic information abilities of publications, so they start to think about them and build them into their working process. (This could be much elaborated, but I do not have the time for that.)
2.) Speaking about "Currency" as Alice has put it, the printed art publication plays an important role as a sanctioner of artistic quality, a quality-proof. Whereas in digital media, every information is almost free, the printed publication still costs a fortune to produce. So, if anbody is ready and willing to but 30.000 Dollars on the table to produce a book with a young artist, this only shows/proofs, that the artist's work must be damn good and worth it. So, the printed format jumps in exactly where the web stops: in validization. (Of course control, editing, truth are phrases that add up to this...)

So, thinking about an inflationary outcome of art publications in the last years has definetely other roots tha just the vanity of it's authors. It actually makes sense to have a close look at it.

And regarding Gabriel Zaid's statements, I can only wonder, how anybody could think that his comments are in any form something new. All he points out has been true since centuries. It was never easy to find a reader for a book. Never.
Jean Paul has already pointed out -- as after him have done Martin Heidegger and Peter Sloterdijk -- that writing a book is like writing a letter to a future friend yet unknown. Not less, not more. As you see, it is not about quantity in readership and reception either, it is about the one address which has to be found. So multiplying in print has nothing to do with mass media, but with search.

This was the first time ever I have participated in that kind of blog or chat, and I will not do it again. I rather write a book.
But to be honest, all that I have said here, I have written before in books. So, that should be enough.
Christoph Keller

Great to read about this due to the fact that at this current time I am working to get a collaborative visual book from artists around the world published called Grab Bag Book.

Personally, I feel that books have a certain feeling to them. It is a much different experience to read and look at a book than to go sit in front of a computer.
Ethan Bodnar

as a book enthusiast I find it absolutely great that there are so many very special art and other books available nowadays. Internet is becoming an important resource to find these as the traditional bookstores get more and more uniform and just follow the bestseller lists.
I have started to produce booklets myself and I am proud to contribute to the diversity without making commercial sense. Thanks for the links...
and for defining new levels of ignorance..it´s good to look at it from that perspective every now and then

I enjoyed this post, and Zaid's poetic exasperation that "Books are published at such a rapid rate that they make us exponentially more ignorant."
It sends me back to my reading notes, where I find

Doctor Johnson's utterance, in conversation, that "It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing." (1 May 1783); and

Proust's preference for reading over writing, reading as the higher, more imaginative activity, its provision of "an intervention which, while coming from another, takes place in our own innermost selves, which is indeed the impetus of another mind, but received in the midst of solitude. Now we have seen that this was precisely the definition of reading, and that it fitted only reading." (from his preface to his own translation of John Ruskin's Sesame and Lilies; and finally

Diana Vreeland, in her DV, "I stopped reading — seriously reading — years ago. But what I read before then has remained forever secure in my mind, because I used to read and reread and reread."

The idea of the book begets books.
And then there are libraries, which are a kind of bookmark in the chaos, to remind us where we were and what we thought we were, yesterday.
John McVey

I think there will always be a demand and read for "the rate" with which books are being published, however I do sympathize with the point being made as well, I geuss I see this problem split into two categories, the first being the books that are reviewed, certified, and pass a certain "quality" test, and the second is the category of books that you could probably kill yourself goig thru forever.

Its like that collection of books in your library that you always intended on reading or finishing but never do. I still feel guilty when I can't make time to really consume every book in my library before I purchase more books. However that need of knowing more and needing more inspiration as a designer is what I think will always outdo our ability to "chastisize" the rate with bks are published, this field is like a bottomless tank and I don't think we will ever get to the bottom of it, regardless of how many people will read the books, because really thats not even a significant point to support.

(sorry for extreme sp gra mistakes, have not slept in 3 days)

Felipe, Amo a Cortazar!!!


gracias por el texto, !¿me creerás que lo había olvidado por completo?!


Take this article for example. The point was made very quickly, but the author feels the need to fill out space by supporting his point with data, quotations, repetition.

I was under the impression that supporting evidence, quotations, and so-called repetition instilled in the reader the idea that the writer's work is factual and that they know what they are talking about.

To make a statement and assume that people will buy it outright (with no supporting evidence) is complete foolishness.

As a matter of fact, I see this as the main reason why books will always be relevant. Aside from the tactile pleasures experienced by holding a tangible object, books generally have to be researched, analyzed and fact-checked before they are published. All you need to publish an idea on the web is a computer and a desire to do so.

Yeah, you are right.

Until I can comfortably read a computer screen in a unctuous hot bath. I prefer the book.

Until the scent of a computer screen reminds me of the paper-death smell of my lovers apartment one Thanksgiving in the middle of the 20th century, I prefer the book.

Until the heft of the laptop in my hand carries the gravid lightness of a novella, I prefer the book.

When I die, all this goes. My children blink at me thirty times a second and no longer understand as they interchange video, soundlessly through ether-cabled brain stems.

Robert Twizell

I love books, books of all shapes, sizes, genres, kinds, colors, textures, smells....but where to put them all for the greater good. So, I have started The Beatitudes Network, a porject aimed at helping to rebuild the public libraries of New Orleans...all royalties from sale of my boo, The Beatitude, to the NOLA Public Library Foundation....see www.beaitudesinneworleans.blogspot.com
Lyn LeJeune

"As regards anything besides these, my son, take a warning: To the making of many books there is no end, and much devotion [to them] is wearisome to the flesh."

Christoph—if you're still reading? if you'll ever come back?—are you talking about publications as kind of 'nodes' for communities? Like someone has an idea to write about something (not bothering whether it is 'new' or not, but just to write [that must have its benefits]) and then to publish and distribute that/those ideas in an attempt to find other like-minds. Many of the publications in Kiosk are 'marginal' (but I mean that with sincere affection), and I guess that you are pointing to the publication as a good way for people working in the margins to sort of work around the usual heirarchy?

Books are perfect for time shifting learning. My shelves are full of aspirational titles. In the future, when I've got the time to read them all, I'll be an expert in all things.

The tried and tested format of spines, paper and type make them perfect for long term storage and retrieval, ideally suited for the purpose - more so than .

Time shifting my learning means I can get on with more spurious and less substantial tasks, like watching television, drinking and working.
Simon Tickner

My mother's language is Assyrian, a Semitic language, also known as Neo-Aramaic. This language is also on the verge of extinction. I grew-up in Iran and moved to the United States in the mid 80s. Since early childhood, I remember constantly being corrected to speak Assyrian instead of Persian or English, especially if I was around family or kinships that were primarily Assyrian speakers.

I did my MFA in graphic design and focused on the aesthetics of Assyrian letterform and patterns, juxtaposing it with 20th century documentary content about Assyrian history.

The strength in the geometric form and curves of the letterforms as well as intricate detailed cultural patterns has definitely had a profound effect on my design aesthetics. I further believe that the forms of the letters have influenced the construction of meaning in my cognitive processing. Although more bi/trilingual now, when I think of the letter "Alap", its shape reminds me of the word "Alaha", whereas now "A" reminds me of "Apple" and so on...

I carry on the responsibility of investigating the form of these letters especially because this is a language on the verge of extinction. Perhaps it is due to historical and political shifts, cultural migrations or extreme repressions, from Saddam's policy of not allowing Assyrians to speak this language to today's Kurdish repression in the editing of textbooks to erase Assyrian history and rewriting it as Kurdish ancient history.

Regardless, I also find this sentence extremely interesting: "In other words, languages are design objects. And I thought: no one loves extinct or endangered design objects more than designers do."

As a point of interest, the upcoming ICOGRADA World Design Conference, "Design/Culture" will feature designers John and Ros Moriarty as keynote speakers who will address Australian Aboriginal culture's unique visual language among other topics.

Sample MFA work
Alap Beit: Aramaic Puzzle

I haven't read any kind of book since 2005, so I guess that means thousands upon thousands, maybe even millions (I suck at math) of books have been published since then. Any chance of me picking up at least one of them? None. It's pretty tough to squeeze in reading into my schedule.

Synopsis: The 12hr-ISBN-JPEG Project began
December 30, 1994. A `round-the-clock posting of sequenced hypermodern imagery by
Brad Brace. The hypermodern minimizes the familiar, the known, the recognizable;
it suspends identity, relations and history. This discourse, far from determining
the locus in which it speaks, is avoiding the ground on which it could find
support. It is trying to operate a decentering that leaves no privilege to any

The 12-hour ISBN JPEG Project
began December 30, 1994

Pointless Hypermodern Imagery... posted/mailed every 12 hours... a
spectral, trajective alignment for the 00`s! A continuum of minimalist
masks in the face of catastrophe; conjuring up transformative metaphors
for the everyday... A poetic reversibility of exclusive events...

A post-rhetorical, continuous, apparently random sequence of
imagery... genuine gritty, greyscale... corruptable, compact,
collectable and compelling convergence. The voluptuousness of the grey
imminence: the art of making the other disappear. Continual visual impact;
an optical drumming, sculpted in duration, on the endless present of the

I recently wrote a blog in response to this article talking about the benefits of on-demand printing from an economical and environmental point of view. Check it out here:

Matthew McNerney

Alice Twemlow Alice Twemlow is co-chair of the SVA MA in Design Research, Writing & Criticism in New York, and co-head of the MA in Design Curating & Writing at Design Academy Eindhoven. Twemlow has a Ph.D from the History of Design program run jointly by the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Royal College of Art in London, and is currently developing her doctoral thesis about the history of design criticism into a book to be published by MIT Press. 

She writes and lectures on design culture, and has recently contributed essays to Graphisme en France (CNAP, 2016), Iconic Designs: 50 Stories about 50 Things (Berg, 2014), Lolita—Story of a Cover Girl: Vladimir Nabokov’s Novel in Art and Design (Print, 2013), and The Aspen Complex(Sternberg Press, 2012).

Jobs | November 14