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Going by the Book

The delightfully imaginative world of Visual Editions created by Anna Gerber and Britt Iversen is where the text becomes the visual and the visual becomes the text, redefining the quintessential reading experience. Edited excerpts from the story.

 Visual Editions' first collection of books. Image Courtesy of Visual Editions.

It’s hard to explain the hypnotic quality of holding a book in your hands. The cover that quietly converses with our fingerprints, the words that march across like regimented soldiers, the soft flap of turning pages that settles down at the blink of an eye, and the stiff spine slowly relaxing are such familiar constructs that we are seldom privy to the subtle ways in which the act of holding a book changes us. It permeates the skin of our soul like imagined dreams so that when we free the book from our hands, we snap out of this strange sense of otherworldliness, unsure of its existence beyond the story we carry in our collective consciousness. We identify the ‘book’ for what it is and yet, shy away from giving it an identity independent of the title, the author, the publisher, or even ourselves, the reader. 

And that is what Visual Editions does. It makes you ‘see’ the book, it makes you conscious of its contours, and it makes you ‘read’ the story differently. Here, the book preens, it pirouettes, it bows dramatically and grins under the spotlight like a cheeky monkey delighting itself in playing this game of hide and seek with you. Because play it does, as it participates just as actively in the narrative as our minds, and collaborates with the writer with a sagacity that surprises you. ‘The idea for Visual Editions came from our mutual personal frustration of wanting to “make” more and “talk” less. Culturally and more broadly what we saw was a surprisingly large gap between beautifully designed art, design, photography books as one extreme and disposable paperback airport novels as the other extreme. We wanted to collapse the two to see what might happen,’ says Anna Gerber who co-founded Visual Editions with Britt Iversen.

What did happen was pure magic as boundaries between the physicality of the page and the physicality of the word merged and blended to create an exciting new territory for writers that Anna and Britt call ‘visual writing’. Which means, writer Jonathan Safran Foer could experiment with the die-cut technique and literally “carve” out a book from ‘The Street of Crocodiles’ by Bruno Schulz. French writer Marc Saporta’s ‘Compostion No. 1’ could be re-imagined as the ‘first ever book in a box’ where each of the loose pages within gives the reader the choice to experience the story any which way they want. And British writer Adam Thirlwell could give his ‘high-speed monologue’ an exciting lift in ‘Kapow!’ with text that runs in multiple directions and pages that unfold, cleverly mirroring the thoughts of his ‘over-doped, over-caffeinated and overweight’ narrator.

Tree of Codes (2010) by Jonathan Safran Foer carved out of an existing story using a unique die-cut on every page. Image Courtesy of Visual Editions. 

In this free space, ideas emerge with such concentrated ferocity that the challenge for Anna and Britt then is to convert these ideas into ‘good looking stories’, and to constantly mediate between the twin forces of the visual and the text. ‘We think of it as a circular process: with the writing feeding into the visual and the visual feeding into the writing continuously until the moment before we press print. We think of ourselves as conductors in this process and one thing we always ask of anyone involved in the process is why. Why do we need this? What’s the reason for it? And if the rationale seems convincing to us then we are happy to go ahead. We are also always aware of there being a balance between the writing and the experience of the book. The books we publish are very much books that are to be read, with storytelling that is immersive so the last thing we want is for the visual experience to get in the way of that. This, of course, works the other way too,’ says Anna. 

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