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Discussing Dying and Death in America (And Why a Professor Wants You to Join the Conversation)

/ Published April 1, 2012

In a landscape teeming with laptops, iPads, iPods, Kindles and Nooks, where does something as seemingly old-fashioned as the ink-and-paper book fit in? Does it have a viable future?

Ask these questions of Barry Moser, acclaimed book artist, illustrator and printer to the college, and he’ll point to dozens of examples from history when new technologies and innovations threatened the printed book’s existence—yet still it prevailed, fundamentally intact. “People like me who have been in the business of building books for a long time, we’re seeing this new technology come along and we don’t know what to do with it yet,” he says. “But we will figure it out.”

Barry Moser, who is the Irwin and Pauline Alper Glass Professor of Art and Printer to the College, appreciates the way ink is absorbed on the printed page, how typography is used in juxtaposition to imagery and the impact of great photography—all qualities that are difficult to replicate on an electronic device, he says.

A traditionalist at heart, Moser is confident that the book as we’ve come to know it isn’t going anywhere fast. Rather it will adapt to the technologies of the times while maintaining its essence as a printed piece—and piece of art, much as it has throughout history.

Take, for example, the evolution from handwritten books to the invention of the printing press and movable type by Johannes Gutenberg. The process of creating books changed in light of the new, more modern machinery, but the end product remained largely the same. “Gutenberg’s invention of casting type was to make something like what was already in existence—handwritten type,” Moser says. He believes that something similar will probably happen here.

Convenience fuels the popularity of wireless devices like the iPad and Kindle —which fulfill all of your media needs (music, movies, books, the Internet) on a portable seven-inch screen, literally at your fingertips. And consumers are eating these up. During the holidays, for example, Amazon announced that it was selling more than a million Kindles a week. Apple has set sales records with its iPad, and, according to Publishers Weekly, e-book sales rose almost 40 percent in 2010; meanwhile sales of mass-market paperbacks fell in 2009 and 2010 by more than 13 percent.

Though Moser can appreciate the ease and immediacy made possible by new technologies, he suggests that much gets lost when our experience with great literature boils down to simply touching a screen. “If you’re going to present some major work of literature, it should have a form that more or less equates the importance of the document itself,” he says. “I just can’t imagine that reading Don Quixote on a television screen is nearly as exciting or as pleasurable as reading it [by] turning the pages.”

As a book artist who has illustrated a variety of works from Lewis Carroll’s Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the Holy Bible, Moser is particularly enamored of the way ink is absorbed on the printed page, how typography is used in juxtaposition to imagery and the impact of great photography—all qualities that are difficult to replicate on an electronic device. “If you were to bring up a reproduction of John James Audubon’s Birds of America on a Kindle, it’s [seven inches], and the original is an elephant folio—it’s about 30 inches. You can never do that on a Kindle, you’ll never be able to see the physical presence,” he says. “There are certain things that require majesty. And a Kindle ain’t never gonna be majestic.”

That’s not to say that a new generation of book lovers won’t be able to marry tradition and innovation in the next phase of book design. “Younger people coming on who were basically born with a mouse in their hand and who are in love with fine typography and so forth, they’re going to figure this out,” Moser says. “I’ll be gone by the time that happens and that’s fine.”

“I think eventually we’ll find that the technology is merely a tool, another tool,” he adds. “And I don’t think it’s a tool that’s going to replace books.”

Savoring the Book With a Concentration of Study

For a new generation of book lovers and scholars, Smith offers the concentration in book studies, which connects students with the exceptional resources of the Mortimer Rare Book Room and the wealth of book artists and craftspeople of the Pioneer Valley. Through classroom study, field projects and independent research, students in this concentration learn about the history, art and technology of the “book”—which has been broadly defined to extend from oral memory to papyrus scrolls to manuscripts, printed books and digital media. Book studies concentrators design capstone projects in a wide variety of areas that include medieval manuscripts, early and fine printing, book illustration, children’s picture books, the book trade, artists’ books, censorship, the history of publishing, the secrets of today’s bestsellers, the social history of books and literacy, the history of libraries and book collecting, and the effects of the current digital revolution on the material book. For more information go to