For my last issue of Alphabet I broke the pattern. Instead of a single 8 x 11 inch magazine, I made four little (3.5 x 5 inch) books that shipped out in a plastic sleeve with four pockets.
I had an annual printing/production budget, and I scrimped on the first two issues that year so I could do something special and go out with a bang. Even still, I was out of pocket $1200 by the end. The plastic sleeves, even bought in bulk, were expensive, and the printing ended up running over budget, so I made up the difference. It was worth it.
That year, we had established a pattern of having the volume and issue number prominently displayed on the cover. How to do this on four little books? Joseph Knight, who was working with me at the time, suggested way to handle it: each little book was labeled with a fraction: 32:3 1/4, and so on. An elegant solution.
Over the course of the four years I spent as editor, I had always wanted to play with the format of the journal. But I always felt constrained by the fact that Alphabet had a history—I knew people kept collections of back issues on their shelves, and I felt a responsibility to keep the continuity, if only for that reason. Still, my last issue in its plastic sleeve didn’t seem to break the mold too seriously—it’s almost exactly the same size as the previous issues I had made. The plastic does slip and slide a little bit, but not so much as to really get in the way.
What I like best about my last issue is that it’s an interesting object in its own right, tactile and playful. That brings me to a final reflection on the role of print in today’s web-based world.
Thirty years ago, when Alphabet began, print was the only viable means a small association like the Friends of Calligraphy had to communicate with its members and with the wider world. A regular bulletin contained all the newsy ephemera that makes a small association flourish—announcements of upcoming classes, workshops, and lectures, thank yous to volunteers, pictures from recent events. A journal was more lasting; it was something to keep, a permanent record.
Obviously, the web has changed all that. I look at my own reading habits, and, like most everyone, I do a lot of reading on the web. The web has taken over almost all of the temporary news-based functions of print. And yet, I still there’s a role for print. An important one.
The web is biased to certain kinds of reading—short, quick, and easily cross-referenced. It’s perfect for the delivery discrete facts. Who is teaching next week’s workshop? Here’s a link to the artist’s website. Can I see a sample of Arabic Thuluth script? A quick image search, and I have perhaps hundreds of examples to choose from.
What the web-based media do not do, of course, is encourage sustained attention. I’ve reached just over 500 words in this post, and I think that’s approaching the upward limit. In web-based media, sustained arguments need to be divided into smaller discrete blocks. (It’s somewhat akin to Jerry Mander’s observation in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television that the medium is in itself so dull that constant cuts and shifts of perspective are needed to maintain the viewer’s attention).
So what is the place of a print publication for a small association that wants to publish serious articles and images? It seems to me that there are two directions one might explore. One is to treat a journal more like a book. Perhaps this means dropping the three-times-a-year schedule, and opting for one larger, more ambitious publication in each year. This is the approach I took with my series Letters From New York. A book format allows for longer articles that encourage sustained reading. Print also requires that choices be made—with limited space, only the best pictures make the cut, in contrast to the web, where one has to troll through endless sets of images to find a few gems.
The other approach is to do what I did with my last issue of Alphabet. Instead of treating a journal as a periodical with a fixed format into which articles flow, treat each issue as a small editioned object. The great virtue of print, besides the ability to sustain a reader’s attention, is its physicality. That’s something to play with and riff on. We are not just brains and eyes staring at screens; we still need to touch, feel, and handle. Had I to do Alphabet again, I might well explore all the different formats print allows.