Steven McCarthy, University of Minnesota

Digitized text and images are now unbound from printed ink on paper books, their conventional container for over a millennium. Any text or image can exist as data in a computer, as a screen-based instantiation, as an audio file, as an online dissemination, printed ‘on-demand’ – in myriad typefaces, colors and layouts – and as other forms and experiences. Text is free of books, and conversely, books can now be free of older manufacturing models, linear narrative and of the reader’s typical engagement with printed content.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s oft-cited quote, “everything, in the world, exists to end up in a book” (Derrida, 2005, p. 12) can now be flipped to consider how books exist to be in the world. This paper will examine the book as an element and medium in data, design and art, and describe how books have moved beyond the literal and documentary to the visual, temporal, material and spatial.

Leonid Taycher, a Google software engineer, posited that there were 129,864,880 unique book titles in the world (Taycher, 2010). UNESCO estimates that just between China, United States, United Kingdom and Russia, another million titles are printed annually (Wikipedia/UNESCO, 2016). Multiples of each make for an uncountable number of printed books; the Bible, the Quran, and Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (the ‘Little Red Book’) alone are counted in the billions of printed copies (Wikipedia, 2016).

Books outside of mainstream publishing – self-published or via digital on-demand services like Lulu or Blurb – that lack an International Standard Book Number (ISBN) likely drive the number even higher. The total number of books extant, world-wide, might approach one hundred billion volumes! What is their future, and that of libraries beyond the book? (Schnapp & Battles, 2014)

This abstract references two contemporary approaches to the architectonics of the book: as a material object that can be used to build or make things, and as a dataset that can be mined for literal and pictorial content. A parallel might found in found in art history: as photography’s realism drove painting towards expression and abstraction, digitized texts open unexpected pathways for the future of books. Specific examples follow, with one employing a digital humanities collage technique to create conceptual literature, and the second using books’ material and form to enliven environments.

In The Best American Book of the 20th Century by Société Réaliste (2014), designed by Project Projects, a simple device is used: single sentences of best-selling American novels are reset in a sequence that corresponds to certain rules. The order of lines (first, second, third, etc.) is tied to the original dates of publication, as the book aggregates sentences into a ‘new’ novel that spans the best sellers from 1900 to 1999. The book adheres to standard syntax at the level of sentences, paragraphs and pages while offering semantically random lines from different writers. Because the chronology is coherent, the writing evolves from late Victorian to post-Modern, stylistically spanning the century. The only editorial intervention – which both anonymizes characters and smoothes transitions – is that the “artist cooperative Société Réaliste replaces the proper nouns by pronouns” (Onomatopee, 2014).

The second project, also involving rules (cover color, size, width, age), is a commercial enterprise of Wonder Books, a used book seller in Washington, DC. They offer a “Books by the Foot service, where [they] sell books in bulk as decoration, props, and instant libraries…” (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, 2016). Unlike the digital parsing of best-sellers’ lines in The Best American Book of the 20th Century, Books by the Foot sorts books based on form over content. Do you need to create an impressive library of well-worn law books? To decorate your loft with a rainbow gradation of colors? Or to film a setting with an eclectically academic background? Wonder Books’ Books by the Foot program deals with “not the death of books, but their afterlife” (New York Public Radio, 2016, 00:34).

Both projects repurpose books in innovative ways and demonstrate how an architectonics of the book can vary in scale, method and context. The full paper will critically examine a range of examples and discuss the future of the printed book as object and system.


Steven McCarthy (MFA, 1985, Stanford University) is a professor of graphic design at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus. His long-standing interest in theories of design authorship – as both scholar and practitioner – has led to lectures, exhibits, publications and grant-funded research on six continents. His book on the topic, The Designer As… Author, Producer, Activist, Entrepreneur, Curator and Collaborator: New Models for Communicating was published in 2013 by BIS, Amsterdam. McCarthy has been in over 125 juried and invitational exhibitions and his artist’s books are in prestigious collections. He serves on the board of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.



Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (2016) (online 19 March 2016)

Derrida, J. (2005) Paper machine. Stanford University Press: Stanford, California.

New York Public Radio (2016) The business of books by the foot.

Onomatopee (2014) (online 19 March 2016)

Schnapp, J. T. & Battles, M. (2014) The Library Beyond the Book. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Société Réaliste (2014) The best American book of the 20th century. Onomatopee: Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

Taycher, L. (2010) Books of the world, stand up and be counted! All 129,864,880 of you. (online 19 March 2016)

Wikipedia/UNESCO – United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2016) Books published per country per year. (online 19 March 2016)

Wikipedia (2016) List of best-selling books. (online 19 March 2016)