Friday Book Design Blog: The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, by Caspar Henderson (and side notes in general)
Caspar Henderson’s The Book of Barely Imagined Beings (out now in paperback from Granta) is a fascinating book, if perhaps slightly over-self-fascinated. It’s high concept, in a rather high-minded way, taking its cue from Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings, and concluding that there are animals enough on planet earth that defy our imaginations quite as much as the Basilisk, Harpy and Three-Legged Ass.
Henderson’s main concern is the extreme biology of the Axolotl, Pufferfish, Octopus and 23 other incredible creatures that we share the planet with – though the Human gets its chapter too. However, when you weave in his environmental concern and a literary tendency that pulls in chapter head epigraphs from the likes of Montaigne, Calvino, Don Paterson and Christopher Smart, you end up with something that, for all its ingeniousness, intelligence and readability, seems a little too much of its moment, a little too modish in its modus operandi.
What’s beyond doubt, though, is that it’s a splendid looking book, with two-tone printing, plentiful illustrations both sourced and original, including bespoke chapter heads (by Golbanou Moghaddas, see image above), and lavish decorative initial caps.
Best of all, though, is the use of side notes, rather than footnotes, set in the wide margins. These come in a russet red, with the body text word or phrase they accompany picked out in the same tone. It’s a subtle and elegant device – that enhances the reading experience, by virtue of squeezing the body text into a thin column which, as a result, pads out the book to make a significantly higher page count. Not a decision to be taken lightly by the publisher, but kudos to them for doing so, and letting Friederike Huber’s text design breathe in all its glory. (All this design loveliness, it should be pointed out, applies primarily to the hardback. The paperback does all the same, though without the two-tone printing. The ebook – be warned – relegates the notes to the chapter ends.)
Seeing the side notes sent me searching for other examples. I first reached for Alasdair Gray’s Book of Prefaces, which if there is a book from the last 20 years that achieves timelessness is surely it. An anthology of prefaces from great British literature, it revels in Gray’s superlative and unsurpassed text design and illustration, something that graces so many of his books. (Such a shame that when Canongate reissued his landmark novel Lanark, they did so in a deluxe box set that hid some of the roughest, gloomiest paper I’ve come across.)
Of course, what Gray provides in The Book of Prefaces is not side notes but a gloss (an explanation or commentary on the text, rather than simply additional, less important information). It makes the book a work of true, expansive erudition – as it wonderfully has it on its flyleaf, “Do not let smart children handle this book. It will help them pass examinations without reading anything else.”
Sidenotes and marginal glosses aren’t just handy – so much more than handier than end- or footnotes – fulminated against in Carter and Barker’s ABC For Book Collectors thus: “The detestable further economy of placing such notes at the end of a book, or yet worse chapter, still persists although made obsolete by automated page make-up systems.” They are also beautiful, though of course it’s beauty that comes at a cost of extra pages. Here’s a spread from an 1890 book by the painter James McNeill Whistler, that comes with the title The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, and uses its glosses to include quotes from the works of John Ruskin – who is being not so gently critiqued in the main body text, for his attacks on the author.
The most recent example of side notes I can think of is that of Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, which came, in its first edition, in a nearly square format, so as to allow the wide margins, in which Coupland inserted his famous mini-definitions (McJob, knee-jerk irony, boomer envy, etc.) that, it must be pointed out, never actually matched the text they were set alongside. How postmodern can you get! These side notes are now no longer glosses (explanations), nor extrapolations, digressions or diversions from the text, but distractions from it, pure and simple.
Actually, the Coupland connection makes me reach for another book that features marginal notes: McSweeneys issue 31, a collection of resurrected obsolete literary forms, to which Coupland contributed a Biji, a sort of travelogue/notebook/commonplace book that originated in China.
Not just his, but all the contributions to this McSweeney’s, have marginal notes, again in red. Here, though, the permanence of the design sits at odds with the transience of the journal format – as, to twist back to the beginning, it does just a touch with Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings. That’s the thing about Gray’s Book of Prefaces – not just the design, and not even just the writers anthologised, but also Gray’s erudite contributions, are built for the ages.
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