Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Container versus Content

The Buddha's First Sermon
Chinese, 1422-36

In my former existence as a descriptive-bibliography guru, I would teach a key, initial lesson to young seekers after enlightenment who had found their way to my coenobitic retreat, whether by design or by malign fate: ignore the content, and concentrate on the container. You don't need to have read The Glass Bead Game, much less understood it, in order to make it available to those whose desire is to read it or, above all, to make manifest to those who wish to know what versions of it exist within your monastic walls. Perhaps the original German edition, published in Switzerland in 1943, or the latest English translation in paperback? Or even, in the future, a streamed Netflix adaptation (how about Game On!, starring Charlie Hunnam as Joe "Game Boy" Knecht?). But to be able to do that you do need to be very clear about the conventions of publishing, and about what bits of information go where, when, and why. Remember: concentrate on the container. There is much to learn there, Grasshopper!

So, for me, one of the most intriguing things about the British Library's Buddhism exhibition was to see the variety of containers from a non-Western tradition on display. Besides, the doctrinal content was entirely inaccessible to me, anyway, being written in various scripts about which I know nothing beyond how beautiful they look. It is actually a curiously enlightening experience, to be rendered as illiterate as some mediaeval peasant. On the one hand, you realise just how far the medium can be the message, and how the superficial, decorative appeal of the material is really a supplementary, subliminal, standalone rendering of the content. On the other hand, you also understand how the persistence of priestly power resides in jealously guarding the secrets of literacy from the populace. Not to mention keeping the sacred texts for as long as possible in some difficult-to-learn dead language.

Buddhas of previous world cycles
Burmese, 19th century

The Heart Sutra
modern calligraphy by Miyamoto Chikkei

The Flower Garland Sutra
Korean, c. 1400

Perfection of Wisdom Sutras
North-Eastern India or Nepal, late 12th century

Book of the Buddha's Names
China, 9th or 10th century

To get back to those containers, however. I was fascinated to learn how a palm leaf would be prepared into a writing surface as a single long, narrow "page", and how these pages were compiled, unbound, in a box, rather like a pack of cards. We did speculate how such, um, loose-leaf pages could be kept in their proper order, or whether, in fact, they needed to be. With the development of paper this curious medium evolved into the concertina-book format, which nonetheless retained for quite a while the traditional long, narrow size and shape of the palm-leaf page: a classic example of a skeuomorph. There were even palm-leaf-page sized wooden plaques, pierced so that they could be laced together like a doctrinal Venetian blind. Other formats on show included various types of scroll and wall-hanging and, of course, eventually the classic, edge-bound codex, or "book" as we generally know it. Among the later examples of books I was intrigued to see a modern Japanese eight-volume series of manga (graphic novels) by Osamu Tezuka, telling the Buddha's life-story. Indeed, at the risk of coming back in my next life as a fly, or worse, I have to say I was struck by the many connections between Buddhism and a Japanese pop-culture phenomenon like Pokémon, with its obsession with iterative transformational states, inventories of properties and powers, and so on. But perhaps, as seen from the outside, western popular culture is equally permeated by its Christian heritage.

Naturally, all these mysterious but eye-pleasing exhibits turned my thoughts to new possibilities for my own efforts. I was particularly attracted by the various beautiful examples of the accordion-fold book, a.k.a. the orihon in Japanese or, more technically (in Biblish, the language spoken by descriptive-bibliography gurus), a leporello. I did make a few leporellos myself, back in the late 1990s, when I first became interested in the idea of the hand-made "artist's book", but found them unsatisfactory. They're easy enough to make, but very hard to do well, both technically and aesthetically. Frankly, most accordion-books end up looking like school craft projects, a mess of poorly-judged folds and glue smears, and even the better ones tend to have perfunctory content that doesn't really match or make the most of the format. Which is hardly how one would describe, say, the Flower Garland Sutra above. So I've been looking again at this mode of presentation, and in particular at what could be created out of several sheets of A4 paper, or even a single sheet of A3. Which led me to create these two templates:

Template for 84cm x 21cm, 12-panel folded book, from 3 sheets of A4

Template for 70cm x 15cm, 10-panel folded book, from 1 sheet of A3

Which in turn led me to dummy up what one of my triptychs might look like as an orihon-style booklet:

I think something like that would actually look pretty good, similarly folded and partially spread out, and displayed in a deep box-frame to allow its 3D-ness to be apparent. So, if that's the container sorted, then what I now need to do is give the content a bit more attention. The Crow Gospel, maybe? It's a shame Faber are so reluctant to allow use of Ted Hughes' work: illustrated extracts from his long poem-sequence Crow would be ideal. Or might a Crashed Car Sutra be the thing, perhaps, using sections from the Highway Code or an insurance schedule as text?

However, I doubt I'm going to be the only one to have visited this exhibition and come away with such container-stimulated thoughts about content: so be on the lookout for a lot of false prophets and mountebanks peddling their bogus wares in the near future.
For in his bag he had a pillowcase
The which, he said, was Our True Lady’s veil:
He said he had a piece of the very sail
That good Saint Peter had, what time he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus changed his bent.
He had a latten cross set full of stones,
And in a bottle had he some pig’s bones.
But with these relics, when he came upon
Some simple parson, then this paragon
In that one day more money stood to gain
Than the poor dupe in two months could attain.

Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, modern version by J.U. Nicolson
(Description of the Pardoner, General Prologue)


Zouk Delors said...

I love that what, to us lay persons, is 'a book' is in fact, to the initiated, an 'edge-bound codex'.

Also interested to note that the primary medium of publicity for the British Go Association, the national body for the ancient oriental game of Go (distantly related, no doubt, to the Golden Wasp Game) is the 'Tri-fold leaflet'.

Mike C. said...


These "technical" names always remind me of how our headmaster, in morning assembly, would occasionally announce that a "treasury note" had been found in the school grounds. It took me years to realise that this was nothing more than a bank-note, and not some elaborate legal document. I could never figure out who would have such a thing on their person, only to drop it in the playground.


Thomas Rink said...

This reminds me of a particular disc world novel by Terry Pratchett, which featured the worshippers of the god Nuggan. This cult didn't have a holy scripture, but a bucket list of things you shouldn't do, the "Abominations unto Nuggan". Since the god would add new abominations every couple of days, each worshipper kept them in a large ring binder so they could easily be appended!

Joking aside: I believe that the DIN A3 based folding book will be tricky to make. In order to maintain its structure in the unfolded state, this will require heavy paper (> 200 gsm). These papers tend to break when folded against their direction, so they probably have to be grooved along the folds. In addition, each fold will take up space, which could prevent the book from being properly foldable. Summing up, I believe it might be easier to glue the book from cut pages using shirting or spine tape. But of course, it's a matter of experimenting!

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


You may be right, though I think the choice of a too-heavy paper is where a lot of concertinas go wrong (think, for example of a folded map or timetable). But, actually, I realised the simplest approach is to design the thing whole, and send it off to be printed (my choice: The Print Space at theprintspace.co.uk -- excellent service).


Thomas Rink said...

I'm curious as to how this book works out and would certainly appreciate a blog post about it.

Best, Thomas