A conversation between Selva Hernández and Marco Perilli
Historically, a book is the most successful way of storing and transmitting information. Various specialized viewpoints, ranging from the author’s to the printer’s, participate in its making. This time around, in a coffee shop of the Juárez neighborhood in Mexico City, Límulus got together with two people who have dedicated their lives to making books and asked them to answer the same five questions from their respective disciplines. On the one hand, the director and editorial designer of Ediciones Acapulco, Selva Hernández and on the other, the director and publisher of AUIEO Ediciones, Marco Perilli, reflect two audacious and complementary visions in their answers that reveal their academic formation and their passion for reading.
Límulus [L]: What is a book?
Marco Perilli [MP]: It is a question that leaves you wordless. The book or the answer implies the place from which you think of the object of the book, because I could tell you that it’s an adventure, a dream, a memory, or that it is simply an object or a profession; so, if we talk as publishers, I can’t disregard my dimension as a reader or of the dimension that is linked to reading itself.
L: But, is there a legal definition of a book that depicts, for example, how many pages it must have?
MP: Well, I have a handwritten edition of the Divine Comedy in Italy, and the entire text is on a 50 by 70 cm page. It has a very peculiar story, it’s an 1883 edition. The printer had a son who had an accident and died, and because of the trauma this caused him, his optic nerve was affected, which allowed him to focus on invisible objects without having to significantly enlarge them, so, by being a printer, he wanted to take advantage of this problem, this affectation he suffered, and wrote (I don’t know what tool he used except maybe a paintbrush, a bristle, a thin hair) all the 14,233 verses of the Comedy. He drew a frame, subjected it a photomechanical process – I believe it was a heliography at the time – with a plaque, and made a few copies (I have one). The question: is it a book? Well, the Comedy is an independent book of support. This page can become a book the moment it contains a text that is defined as a book. Depending on the emphasis placed on the content or continent, we can define what a book is. It is also not enough to gather a few pages and say that that is a book. A book implies a concept, a conception, a development and a care that turns that text, regardless of its literary characteristic, into a book, in a publishing sense, of a unique dimension that the text entails.
Selva Hernández [SH]: I believe a book is the perfect invention, a great invention, something that has transformed itself according to the specific needs of humanity and the problems it faced, and its form adapted to the needs of each moment according to what occurred: how a codex was bound in the shape of a book, when in the past it was probably folded in the shape of an accordion or rolled, and how it was influenced by many cultures; if paper from China hadn’t been brought to Europe, it would still be parchment. Wikipedia says that less than 48 pages is not a book, although there are books with less than 48 pages that I consider to be books. It is a well done, defined, concrete and precise object, a perfect and beautiful object that needs no modification and contains everything that humans (at least until very recently) have invented, created, imagined, discovered. It contains man’s information in a very small and unique space that is very varied.
L: How does the shape of the book and its graphic communication relate with its textual content?
MP: I personally consider it an infinite, essential dialogue that is never solved. It might be a very personal deformation: I originally wanted to make cinema. But when I started university, I didn’t want to study Film in a film school, but Film within Literature, because I had always seen this relationship between the visual form and the literary discourse: the rhetoric of the image, the rhetoric of the word. And I find that even in the books I’ve written, there is always an intervention by a painter or a photographer, seldom have I made books without the complicity of someone that brings a different insight topint the content, it can be a photographic sequence or paint. This obviously is reflected in the publishing work. I cannot conceive a book that is only a row of words that simply mean a semantic field that is strictly linked to the word, I also need punctuation, the division of paragraphs, the type that produces a certain reading, a certain message, etc., to configure as an autonomous text in its form. That is where the search, if not for a solution, for a visual proposal where the capital letters, the spacing between lines, the family selection, the size, constitute a meaningful proposal, they carry an emotion, a taste.
SH: For me, it is a very particular relationship. I’m going to give a very personal answer because it has to do with my professional training. When I decided to study Graphic Communication it was because I could make books, so they’ve always had an inseparable relationship in my professional perspective. For example, every time I get a book to design, I think about the content a lot and the content dictates the form. And yes, there are always limitations about the number of pages: if it’s going to be printed here or there, if it has to have a certain size because it’s part of a certain collection, or whatever. But ever since I remember, what most interested me about books, since I was a young girl, was how what I read in this book was transformed because it was in that specific book. I often tell the story of when I asked my dad: “Hey, why is this book so expensive?” It was a Papeles Privados book, a book by Octavio Paz, with a print by Vicente Rojo, bound with leather, silk, with engravings… So he told me, “read it here” and he went and photocopied it all and then said to me, “now read it here and tell me what the difference is.” So I truly believe that the shape of the book, the papers and the materials transform the reading experience. A good text is not enough to make a good book.
L: Why did you choose the path of printed communication in a world where the digital culture seems to grow constantly?
MP: But I don’t think the digital culture grows more, or I refuse to believe it at least. I respect the digital culture always and when it is configured as a “culture” and not an “exit to the culture.” As a publishing house, we invest a lot in our webpage, not only as a technical support, but also as an aesthetic concept. We went through a lot of the details with the designer of the page regarding color selection, tones, spaces… we were very careful with the white space, even in the webpage, precisely so that it wouldn’t be an alternative or an opposition, a dilemma regarding the printed page but more a complement that could have a dialogue with the printed page. Therefore I think it’s a fair counterpoint to the written page. I also believe that the book is still a book as an object that you can leaf through, perceived at a sensory, personal and even intimate level, as an object in itself. I think the web works for certain type of data storage, but I don’t think that the experience of the book and reading can be entrusted to digital media.
SH: I think that the most interesting side of the digital format is how the text itself can be transformed according to what is happening in the virtual environment. I was very impressed when I started reading blogs and how the readers participated, commented, expressed themselves and how the author transformed the text according to the dialogue he had with the readers, which was a direct dialogue that does not occur with a book that is already written, printed, it is immovable. A while ago I was reading a critical reflection by the editor of Ubu Web that has to do with a reflection by Gabriel Zaid, that said that reading a text individually is not interesting, what is are the conversations it creates. That is what I find more interesting of the virtual realm: the transformation of a text through the conversations of the users. I think the electronic publications have to do with the use and transformation of the reading: the book produces an individual, personal reading, in a quiet place… electronic reading on the other hand, produces other kinds of reading experiences.
MP: I think that what you’re saying also has to do with the formation of the literary canon. What I mean is that the canon precisely comes from the conversation that is created by the texts, a conversation produced in the books that configure the dialogue between authors, or the books that configure the critical support created by the same texts they inspire. In the web, we can track the immediate conversation, in a way, it settles better with the texts written in the times of what we call literary tradition or literary canon, but the process is exactly the same. We could not talk of Mexican literature, Spanish-speaking literature, Western literature, without this idea of a conversation born from the reading of a single text. A single text has generated variations, oppositions, counterproposals, that constitute precisely what we call literature as a whole. So, I don’t see a great novelty in the possibility of this open dialogue on the web, but more like a new application of a very old, very traditional form, that is the idea of “open” literature, like a work in progress.
SH: Yes, I think the difference is the inscription. The book object remains there forever and there is no way of changing it; the form is immediate and we do not need to wait for someone to write their critic, send it to a literary magazine, for the latter to leak it, and decide if she publishes it or not. That’s the greatest criticism to the virtual: that there is no filter, it does not have to go through so many processes and it is more superficial… although they’re just sayings, right. I don’t think we truly know.
MP: Yes, time precisely, as you mention, is the limit between what is sneaked, what is filtered and what is meditated. Evidently for a printed text to create texts through decades, if not centuries, we need the generations of readers; alternatively, the comment written on the web can be immediate. Clearly, its reflection in time is linked to the support it has created. There are two different moments of the same reflection, of the same way to approach the text.
L: What is the responsibility of a designer regarding the content of a piece?
MP: It is very important. Now, I don’t think that the designer can carry with an individual responsibility, there’s always a dialogue with the publisher and the publishing house as a whole, like an organic speech. I believe a publishing house is one to the extent that its books are recognized with eyes opened or closed, through the task or the sensitivity of the hands. Thus, a designer has to propose a solution that can be his own but within the proposal and the demand of the publishing house. For example, the case of Alejandro Magallanes: I can’t imagine Almadía without the contribution, from its beginning, of Alexander Magallanes.
I think we could consider editorial design as a comment to the text, not only as a complement. That is, the way we present a specific literary text, the classics in particular – but not necessarily the classics -, it implies an attitude towards certain material, certain stories, certain contents, certain rhythms of writing and this, necessarily, implies certain – if not conditions – feelings that are breathe life to a generation of readers. Hence, when you present the Iliad with certain graphic norms that can include a comment or omit it, the original text or omit it, illustrations that accompany it and cannot stop putting pressure on the text or omit them… all this influences the reading, depending on the considerations of taste, culture, the publisher’s taste or purpose are determining. For example, I have a Spanish edition with all the covers of the Quijote up to the 19th century, if I remember correctly, and it is so interesting to see how, form the first edition, until the mid 19th century, the perception of the text, the story, the portrait of the character changes, depending on how we present it to you: the play between spaces, the illustrations that go with it, the emphasis made simply on the title or the privileges of the kingdom that accompanied the editions of the 18th century… because this explains how a society represents itself by communicating the same message, because Cervantes wrote the text.
SH: I think a lot of factors influence it, a lot of people participate in the publishing of a book and it’s not really up to the designer… I think it’s the work of all those that participate in it more than the designer, although the publisher is the one that leads the way. I think that regarding visual communication issues, the designers that have become editors are the ones that take more risks. The editorial designers I respect the most are those that have themselves made a story of the book, that reviewed the story of the design, they drew their own conclusions and transformed the editorial design. Oftentimes that has to do with the opportunity the editor you work with gives you: there are editors that give a lot of freedom and others that are more reserved. What’s valuable is not one or the other, but the dialogue that is created between editor, designer and author.
MP: We’re talking about the relationship between the editor and the designer. There has been an important participation of designers that have become editors and vice versa, but there is a very long tradition of editors focused on the construction of the texts regardless of the format in which the book appears. We assume that the Iliad and the Odyssey have so many books and chants, but this contribution did not come out of nowhere: centuries had to go by to reach that structure. We could then establish this criterion as our reading criteria, knowing that it is arbitrary and was the choice of a generation of readers that were constituted as the editors of the Homeric texts, those who have bequeathed the Homeric tradition as we know it. Or to get to more recent times: Eliot writes a text, he gives it to his friend Ezra Pound and he then turns it into The Waste Land; but if we compare the original text and the one edited by Pound, there is a significant intervention as to who conceives the text based on an original one (or more like who compares, censures or modifies an original text).
SH: There are many interesting cases of how texts are transformed according to their use: how an index is created, when do you start foliating the pages, how the cover comes up… the text is transformed by the use.
MP: The book is always an instrument.
L: Speaking of these transformations, why did you decide to use movable types in your books?
SH: There is always a nostalgic element, of love for the past, of curiosity for the form. In my case, I bought them because I gave a History of Design class and I had the hypothesis that the history of design could be imparted from the history of techniques, because it was much more interesting to see how the techniques influenced the form and how they modify themselves according to the needs. I bought them so my students could see why an editorial design program like InDesign still has picas and points, where do they come from. The moment they use movable types, they understand everything. Experimenting with movable types seemed interesting and the appropriate way to show the marvel that the birth of Gutenberg represented. And, of course, they have their own aesthetic. Juan Pasco, the great professor of movable types who’s still alive and whose workshop you can visit, says that the happiness that a good impression gives you is not easy to find. To have sessions with movable types is to have sessions of joy. To me, it’s about the experience with the technique because I’d like to use it more with books, but it is very slow, very expensive and very hard, so I leave it for more experimental projects or to share this experience with others. The only book I have entirely printed with movable types took me a week, with three assistants that I could’ve done in 15 minutes on a computer; my fingers hurt and I was touching the lead the entire time, but the experience was amazing.
MP: I use movable types for the pleasure of it. There is no other explanation. We use them for the covers.
L: What has been the criterion to create the catalogue of your publishing houses?
MP: In my personal experience, and I might be stating the obvious, it has been to take advantage of my condition as a foreigner in both countries where I have lived. When AUIEO came to life in Italy, I published Mexican writers seeing as I had a familiarity with Mexico (I was a kind of subsidiary of the Mexican embassy in Italy, because we were representing authors that weren’t known in Italy). And when I founded AUIEO here, I am also taking advantage of my own personal reading, of my personal formation, of books that had no diffusion in the Spanish-speaking market. I like these authors, they’re not in Mexico or in the Spanish speaking territory, so I think it’s important to publish them. It hasn’t been the case for all of them, but it has for many.
L: What do you think of Calasso’s idea that publishing can be considered as a literary genre in itself and that all the books in a printer’s catalogue are actually chapters or parts of one single book?
MP: I am totally in accordance with Calasso’s idea. Regarding his work as a writer, we can say the same: he says his books are pieces of one big mosaic where the words “the end” are still missing, it also lacks a general title, but his books – that apparently talk -, include or develop very diverse topics by subject, periods, genre, etc., they’re all part of the same book. So, I think that every title of very collection is a chapter of a single book and the books that can be the different collections of a publishing house are parts of, in the case of AUIEO, a triptych because there are three collections, they’re all part of a single discourse. I believe this is the root and core of the whole publishing discourse; if not, then it’s just about publishing numbers, titles.
SH: Acapulco’s catalogue has been created by the people that are close and those that are persistent, those that insist of publishing a book. Acapulco is a catalogue open to possibilities, I see it as a platform where things come to and some soar and succeed; we are open to people coming up to us to publish their book. There are things at every level. I like that our catalogue does not always have a quality of excellence at a textual level. I built the publishing house thinking that a good text does not make a good book; I have been approached by 15, 17 year old poets that are enthusiastic because they know we’ll publish a younger author, and I had this idea of making a “Green poetry” collection to see what happens with the texts by these people that are not yet authors, and have not yet faced the critics or a reader. I also really like to publish illustrators that have no aspiration of becoming illustrating artists. For example, I published the drawings of a friend who is a therapist and did not aspire to become an artist: this book was sold out yesterday or before yesterday and it’s a book that is less than three months old. I do it for the owners of the books to treasure them and keep them; I like to create this relationship between the reader based on the object, the design and the form.