(Call For) Books On Books
Umberto Eco in his studio, ph. Giovanna Silva

(Call For) Books On Books

Nunzio Mazzaferro

There is a publishing genre called “books on books,” which means libri sui libri in Italian. In the 19th century, the French excelled in this genre, and we can think of bibliophiles like Nodier. However, from the 20th century onwards, the genre has had a unique flourishing in Anglo-Saxon countries. Of course, many books talk about other books, as is the case with literary histories, but the genre of “books on books” refers to the history and collecting of books.

Umberto Eco

As I approached typeface design, drawing letterforms and calligraphy, I found myself wanting to know more and deep-dive into typesetting and editorial design too. I graduated in 2017, the same year Collletttivo was founded, but it wasn’t until 2019 that I took some time off work to attend Fraser Muggerdidge’s Typography Summer School to explore this further. The London iteration of the workshop was hosted in the Victorian building of St. Bride Library and Foundation, first established in 1891 in the east end of the city. Nowadays, thanks to a regular events programme, and its large print and publishing collection, it has become one of London’s hidden gems for typography enthusiasts. During the four days of lectures and conversations, I wrote down at least a dozen of titles I wanted to dig for and, eventually, managed to scavenge and read. The more I consumed and collected, the more I started noticing a great amount of periodicals and book series that have been discontinued: Typographica, Motif and Visible Language but also the more recent Alphabet, Codex and Baseline.

While looking for a copy of Robin Kinross’ Modern Typography, I stumbled across an Italian translation of the book, which I had no idea existed so I immediately bought it. When it arrived, I looked at the back cover and found a list of books, from the same series called Scritture (Writings) and published by Stampa Alternativa & Graffiti. It is worth visiting the unique story of this publishing house. Stampa Alternativa was founded in 1970 in Rome, by Marcello Baraghini, looking after the model of English and American alternative presses (I recommend reading a more recent interview with him here). Its focus, at first, was periodicals and counter-culture publications about contemporary problems such as drugs or abortion. In 1976 they published Manuale per La Coltivazione Della Marijuana, a manual to grow marijuana that sold more than half a million copies. The same year the book Contro la famiglia - Manuale di autodifesa dei minorenni (Against Family – Self-defense manual for minors) caused Baraghini to get arrested and Stampa Alternativa to temporarily shut its doors. After an amnesty, Stampa Alternativa resumed its activity in 1979, purely as a publishing house. In 1989, a pivotal moment occurred with the emergence of Mille Lire books. From the interview: “These compact volumes, measuring 10x14 cm, were priced at the cost of a cup of coffee. Marcello packed them into a suitcase and sold them on a mat at markets and subway stations. The Mille Lire book that triggered a sensation was Epicurus’s Letter on Happiness. It fell into the hands of Corrado Augias, who discussed it on national television, showcased it to the camera, and declared, ‘See this book? It’s worth millions but costs only a thousand lire.’ Letter on Happiness would go on to sell one and a half million copies.”

The Scritture series launched in 1996, conceived and directed by Giovanni Lussu, a graphic designer and a scholar who has taught at Italy’s best art and technical schools. He is an honorary member of AIAP (the Italian Association for Visual Designers) and the prestigious Double Crown Club. Lussu’s writings and his direction of the Scritture series have been pivotal for a generation of designers and communicators, spreading important ideas that challenge Western Latin-centrism and our vague, mostly erroneous, concept of what writing is and, supposedly, is not. In his words:

It [the understanding of writing] can only be achieved by getting rid of the alphabetical prejudice, abandoning the crude frameworks that place the alphabet at the imperfect apex of a presumed evolutionary progress, and starting to recognize that other writing systems (such as Mesoamerican ones, certainly, but also the Chinese system, for example, so vital and dynamic, and the Korean system, so well-organized and functional) have much more developed substantial synthesis between thought and form than ours.

 Giovanni Lussu, Script, NB-NotaBene, n.1 anno III, 2012.

If obsessively studied, the 25 books of the Scritture series alone would be enough to become an erudite, not only about the intricate history of the alphabet and its formal and structural transformations, but also about its cultural and philosophical implications. Lussu was far-sighted enough to be the first to translate Stories of your life and others by Ted Chiang (in 2008), which only later became the source material for the movie Arrival by Dennis Villeneuve. Other must-reads for designers and typographers were also for the first time available in Italian, such as The Origin of Writing and Rethinking Writing by Roy Harris or While You're Reading by Gerard Unger. During its last years, the series issued writings by influential Italian designers and scholars like Luciano Perondi’s Sinsemie and Riccardo Falcinelli’s Guardare Pensare Progettare (Look, Think, Design). Another great read is Questioni di carattere by Matteo Ricci and Manuela Rattin, inquiring “typography as the represention of national history”. Finally, in the same series, the texts by Caterina Marrone tackle the topic of writing from even more perspectives: secret writing systems, the Cylinder of Thomas Jefferson, Alan Turing and the Enigma machine, Renaissance encrypted codes, Leonardo da Vinci, Athanasius Kircher, the universal writings of the Enlightenment age, the Klingon alien language from Star Trek, Saussure’s anagrams, Wittgenstein’s linguistic games...

The last published book inside the series was Gianfranco Torri’s Lampi di Grafica (2020), based on loosely 12,000 pages of personal notes written between 1980 and 1990, which documents the political debates around the profession of graphic designers and its “public utility” in Italy. According to Falcinelli (Einaudi, 2022) this led to “the appreciation of the cultural aspects of graphic design, not just the commercial or corporate ones” and, ultimately, the creation of the Scritture series itself. He continues: “In Italy, the emergence of critical reflection is due to the protagonists of that era; and we owe it primarily to them if graphic design is now a cultural object.” Giovanni Lussu was indeed a protagonist of that era and one of the authors of the Carta del progetto grafico (Charter of Graphic Design)

Unfortunately, even though their last activity might seem rather recent, the printing of all the aforementioned books was long discontinued before 2020, making them almost impossible to find today. I continued my survey and realized that Stampa Alternativa was not the only publisher to discontinue its activity after publishing very important texts: Edizioni Sylvestre Bonnard, was founded in 1995 by Vittorio Di Giuro e Luca Formenton. The publishing house cared for bibliophiles and aimed to publish “books that talk about books”, it was the first (and only so far) to publish an Italian edition of renowned titles like The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, The form of the book by Jan Tschicold, The Stroke by Gerrit Noordzij or An essay on Typography by Eric Gill. In an interview from 2001 with one of the founders, Di Giuro was asked if he feared technology would eventually menace his practice and, ultimately, the company. He replied with:

It could, but many things have been killed only to be reborn in other forms, in other ways. History and culture are full of “phoenixes”.

Sylvestre Bonnard officially ended up closing down in 2008, even though it kept publishing books occasionally up until 2010. Recently, Italy has also lost a few periodicals: TipoItalia (bilingual, edited by Claudio Rocha) and Quaderni di Cultura Tipografica by Tipoteca with two numbers out so far, the latest of which was published in 2020.

Fortunately, the trend is slowly reversing. Founded by Luca Barcellona, Riccardo Bello, Debbie Bibo and Massimo Pitis, Lazy Dog’s motto is short and reassuring: “in books we trust”. They issued Barcellona’s Take Your Pleasure Seriously, James Clough’s Signs of Italy and the first Italian edition of Hochuli’s Detail in Typography. They reissued Noordzij’s The Stroke and the company also houses publications by the Italian type foundry CAST and has recently published Designing type revivals by Riccardo Olocco and Michele Patanè. Also, Ronzani Editore, started in 2015, is trying to fill the gap by re-issuing some of the Sylvestre Bonnard books about typography. I sincerely hope both companies continue their masterful work. 

As of today (April 2023), I find it quite disheartening that the majority of the books I suggest to students and colleagues are no longer accessible and there is no legitimate means to acquire a digital copy of these works. Now more than ever, in a world that is slowly giving up writing over typing, there is a need to render accessible to everybody what has been published so far. Ultimately, this situation poses significant disadvantages to whom is starting to approach the practice, enthusiasts, and professionals alike. Umberto Eco, a prolific Italian writer and semiotician, noticed an increased interest exactly 10 years ago, in 2013, in regards to a genre that he referred to as “books on books”. Everything came full circle: if even Eco was aware of the relevant work some of these editors were doing, it means we might be at risk of losing something very important for future generations of designers, communicators and bookmakers. If, while reading this, you asked yourself why there is so much interest in this niche genre of books and publications, Eco answered in the following way:

The first answer is: precisely for this reason, because it is at the moment when an object disappears from the market that people begin to collect surviving specimens. But this seems like a limiting answer, because book collecting thrived even when new printed books were constantly being produced. The most convincing answer is perhaps that, faced with the foolishly apocalyptic threat of the disappearance of books, the love for this magical object that has accompanied us even before the invention of the printing press is reawakened and flourishes. And it is precisely the thrill that we feel at the idea that these objects might disappear that leads us to talk about those that have proven to be able to survive for more than five hundred years.

Update June 2023: I started drafting this article around April of this year. It looks like something is moving: a group of designers called Zabar started this Instagram profile. We (im)patiently wait for more information!

Update November 2023: Scritture is coming back! Order the books here.

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