February 1, 2013

The book as machine: a brief history of the hybrid book


While we might think of ebooks on tablets as a form of contemporary digital technology that is in direct opposition to a history of thumbing through bound paper pages, a cursory look at 20th century book design reveals that the idea of a book-as-machine has come up before.

At the turn of the century, a group of poets, painters, and designers formed around the explosive words of Filippo Marinetti, an Italian poet who published a statement in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1909. Granted, this group that became known as the Italian Futurists did not ingratiate themselves to the art world with their design manifesto that glorified war, speed, technology, and the machine age. Marinetti proclaimed:

We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness. Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry … We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed … We will destroy museums, libraries, and fight against moralism, feminism, and all utilitarian cowardice.

Willing to sacrifice the history of art, the humanities, and cultural knowledge for a the future of slick machine-driven technology and rebuilding everything anew with speed and power, the controversial Italian Futurists were inspired to redesign the book form and page layout for a machine age. One key example is Depero Futurista or “The Bolt Book,” which was designed by Fortunato Depero in 1927

to advertise both his own work and that of the publishing house, Dinamo Azari … advertising, poems and examples of onomalingua (noise songs and poetry) were inserted by Depero into this machine-book, which was bound with two metal bolts and relative nuts and cotter-pins, to give the users the impression that it could be dismantled at will.

More contemporary examples of hybrid machine-books include Waldek Węgrzyn’s Electrolibrary, which allows the book to become a website interface, Blink, a book that incorporates multimedia links into the pages with the use of conductive ink, and Weise7, an exhibition book that includes a tiny wireless server inside.

And of course, here at Melville House, we have our Hybridbooks, a union of print and electronic media designed to provide a unique reading experience by offering additional curated materials — Illuminations — that expand the world of the book through text and illustrations. Examples of Hybridbook material can be found in this brochure.



Claire Kelley is a the former Director of Library and Academic Marketing.