Norma Levarie (1920-1999) was a graphic designer and author of children’s books, one a winner of a New York Herald Tribune award — Little People in a Big Country. But, in addition to her design work for the National Audubon Society, The Jewish Museum, The University of Chicago Press, Oxford University Press, Random House and Harry N. Abrams, this Virginian’s most important gift to those interested in the evolution of the book and book arts is her volume The Art & History of the Book (New York: James H. Heineman, 1968).
The quality of her research and writing measures up to the best. If only Heineman had been able to afford color reproductions, her ability to handle illustrations and her keen eye for selection of examples would have placed this book in good company with works such as Michael Olmert’s The Smithsonian Book of Books (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1992). Still, Levarie’s book merits a bookmark for its overarching message, which is cleverly embodied in the book’s organization.
Facing the stark image of the Prism of Sennacherib on the opposite page, these words of Ashburnipal launch the book on the recto page:
“. . . I read the beautiful clay tablets from Sumer and the obscure Akkadian writing which is hard to master.
I had my joy in the reading of inscriptions in stone from the time before the flood. . . .”
Continuing chronologically up to the fifteenth century and “block book,” Levarie switches to a geographical approach, starting of course with Germany, ending with England and returning to a timeline overview from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, the last illustrated with pages from Spiral Press’s Ecclesiastes (New York, 1965), drawings by Ben Shahn, engraving by Stefan Martin and calligraphy by David Shoshensky, and Apollonaire’s Le Bestiare (Paris, 1911).
This structure neatly builds to these concluding words:
“The homogenizing forces of our time have broken many barriers of national style, and sometimes it is difficult to tell at a glance the origin of a book. But local differences in production or taste still exist, and where they are manifest they bring the pleasure of variety. . . .
For the lover of fine books, nothing can replace the bite of type or plate into good paper, the play of well-cut, well-set text against illustration or decoration of deep artistic value. But an inexpensive edition can carry its own aesthetic validity through imaginative or appropriate design. These are not matters of concern only for aesthetes; if, in an era of uncertain values, we want to keep alive respect for ideas and knowledge, it is important to give books a form that encourages respect. The style and production of books, for all the centuries they have been made, still have much to offer the designer and publisher in challenge, the reader in pleasure.” (303-06)
Leaping ahead more than fifty years to the shift from print to digital, we find that many of the observations and message legitimately reassert themselves. Websites and ebooks do vary in design from region to region, but standardization and, more so, the global character of the Web and the products of the technology industries counter-assert a homogeneity in design. Sven Birkerts‘ elegies for Gutenberg are echoed across blogs devoted to the continuing pleasures of the printed book. But likewise Levarie’s stand that these are not merely matters for the elite is echoed across the debate of print vs digital in the popular press and the democratizing blogosphere.
What still must be translated from her message is how to make the leap that, if we respect ideas and knowledge, we must give online books as well as print books a form that encourages respect.