Essay for Book Launch, Christchurch, 2012

Essay by John Newton.

There’s a theory, and I’m one of those who believes it, that we’re living through the last dying gasp of the Age of Print.

The argument goes that when moveable-type printing developed in the 15th century it ushered in the modern world. It gave us books. It gave us the bible, printed in English. It gave us rapidly expanding literacy, and with it newspapers and the novel. It also gave us the private, interior world of reading silently to oneself.

And now that whole world seems to be crumbling. In the on-line world, what it means to be literate – what it means to read – is changing dramatically. Text in a computer file (on a website or even on the screen of an e-reader) is not the same thing as text on page. The page is no longer the world’s most important medium. The Age of Print – 500 years of it – is passing away, and in the process we see the emergence of different kind of intelligence and a different kind of human person.

Now if you happen to be a writer, that’s a lot to digest. Is writing in the process of going entirely on line? What, in all this, is the future of books?

My view, I have to say, is pessimistic. I think literacy, in the form that we’ve known it, is on the way out. I do think books will survive in some form, but I’d say that reading on the page is going to become an increasingly marginal, niche interest.

But there is one positive thing to say . . a silver lining, if you will. And that is that a small group of writers and artists and designers and book-makers – and our friend Lucinda is all of these things – are going to driven by this situation to keep reminding us of the difference between a page and text-file. To keep showing us what the book can do that text & image on a screen can’t do.

And this beautiful work that we’re celebrating today – Somewhere Else – is a book that speaks in a wholly unanswerable way about this difference.

More explicitly than this, it’s a book that in some sense comes out of our present ecological moment – the age extinction, the climate crisis. On the imaginary islands that are mapped in this book we keep coming across tiny hold-outs and remnant populations surviving after various disasters of human making. There’s the undernourished miners of Jet Island, miles below sea level, digging away, always deeping their own prison. There’s the people who still live on Cobalt Island, which has disappeared entirely under the wreckage of the automobile age, and who hide underneath the tangled motorways to avoid being eaten by the giant seagulls. And so on.

So yes, it’s a book that comes out of current environmental and ecological crisis.

But it’s also a book that emerges from this other crisis that I’ve been talking about – this crisis of the book.

Lucinda, as most of us in this room probably know, is a swimmer and a diver and gardener and a musician. She’s a writer, she’s a graphic artist, she’s a photographer. And she’s also a dedicated a book-lover – a collector and conservator of books. 

And Somewhere Else strikes me above all as an artefact that speaks of that care of the book.

As you’ll know, if you’ve had a chance to look at it, what you’ll find between its beautiful linen covers, is a series of chapters, arranged alphabetically, each comprised of a swatch of beautifully saturated colour, a title page, a short text, and a map with inset flora and fauna. 

The texts might be prose, or they might be prose poetry. I think I’d like to call them Ficciones, fictions, after Borges, who is one of the writers whom this book calls to mind. Another is Calvino.  Another is NZ’s most famous book about an imaginary place, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon.

I’m pretty sure these texts would stand up by themselves.  Lucinda is probably best known as a writer  . . . she’s published several fictions in Sport, she’s won a Sunday Star Times competition, her work has been anthologised more than once . . . and if you took away the visuals and just ran these as texts I think they’d hold up pretty well. The writing is clean and subtle and wry and economical.

To say that the writing stands up in and of itself is obviously a compliment. I’m not sure, however, that this is the kind of compliment that the book is particularly asking for.

It’s a bit like when somebody says about a songwriter, the lyrics are so good they’re really poetry. Personally I don’t like that idea – I think, for instance, that giving Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize was silly. It’s a category error. A songwriter’s words aren’t poems, they’re song lyrics. They’re just one part of a larger experience, and  it’s a musical experience. They’re not meant to be abstracted from it.  You’re not doing them a favour by saying they’re really something else.

And the same with these texts. They’re part of a complete experience. If they were just texts you could almost put them on line. But they’re not. They’re just one element in the overall experience of the book.

Another writer who comes to mind in this respect is William Blake. I mention Blake because his Songs of Innocence and Experience is sometimes cited as the first example of what has come to be known as the Artist Book – which is what this is: the book conceived as a complete aesthetic object.  So Blake’s amazing drawings are as much a part of the book at the poems. 

Just like Somewhere Else: beautifully written, beautifully illustrated, beautifully designed and printed and bound by Lily Paris West of Wakefield’s Digital.

So when you pick up Lucinda’s book – and of course that’s one of the great things about books – you can pick them up and hold them and carry them around with you – you’re not just picking up a text. You’re picking up a visual object; you’re picking up a tactile object; you’re picking up a work of design – a spatial object, if you like.  (And there I have in mind two things – one that it’s extremely generous, open, spacious in its layout; and two, that with a book, unlike a text on screen, but appropriately for a folio of maps, you can orient yourself, you know where you are in space.)

So all of that. But something else too. Because it seems to me that in a subtle kind of way this book is also a sociable object.

It is, I think you’ll find, the kind of book that invites being shared. The kind of where you want to share the things you discover; the kind of book you want to pour over with someone else; the kind of book you want to take turns reading aloud. So in that way – and I think it’s a characteristic of the ‘artist book’ in general – it somehow reaches back beyond the solitary world of novel reading into something more convivial, in the way that oral culture is sociable and convivial.

And again, I need hardly add, this is not something that it shares with text on a screen. This is something you can only get from an object like this that you can pick up and hold and pass from hand to hand.

The imprint established to publish it is called ‘Lost in a Fog’.

And on the website it sets out its mission: ‘Rare books of wonder and dreaming’— that’s what it says it want to publish. ‘Enigmatic, beautiful books’.

And if that’s the kaupapa, then it couldn’t have started better than this. Because Somewhere Else is exactly those things: a beautiful, mysterious object. A ‘rare book of wonder and dreaming’.