by Charles Bernstein
For something more than ten years—let's call it a baker's decade—Granary Books has produced about 100 books. Throughout the 1990s, Granary made itself home base for a group of bookmakers, poets and visual artists, brought together to make pages while the sun shines—and by moonlight (and halogen light, too).
At Granary, books are not neutral containers but are invested with a life of their own, conceived as objects first and foremost, entering the world not as the discardable shell of some other story but piping their own tunes on their own instruments. Nothing is taken for granted—the binder is as much a star as the printer or writer. The design is an extension of (not secondary to) the content, just as the content is an extension of the design. For a book, a Granary book, is never about delivering information in the most expeditious form. Piping down the valleys of bibliophilic excess has led to the palace of Clay—Steve Clay, Proprietor and Impresario Extraordinaire.
For one thing (but who's counting?) that means these works are collective productions. Of course, almost all books are collaborative, but in the typical case the lines of authority and creativity are delineated so that the collaborative element becomes fairly routine. Not so at Granary. As Mr. Clay notes in his introduction, Granary books are often initiated by his prompting and come into being as part of a process in which the bookmaking sets the stage for the book. In other words, most of the 100 or so Granary books did not exist as works before being conjured by Mr. Clay. There are notable exceptions, and certainly parts of many of the books have existed independently, but even in these cases the bookmaking process transforms the parts into something other than, something beyond, what was there before. More typically, the collaborators respond to one another's art to produce something that exceeds what any of them would have imagined alone.
At the heart of Granary Books is a series of artists' books, with special emphasis on works by book artists and poets and collaborations between poets and visual artists. The large majority of Granary books fit this category. But Granary has also produced a set of essential scholarly texts about the field of activity of which Granary is a leading exponent. Mr. Clay's ongoing commitment to publishing a comprehensive set of critical writings about the book, each with a startlingly wide historical, philosophical and aesthetic scope, makes Granary unique among artist's book and poetry publishers. Taking formal self-reflection about books as a fundamental part of its project, Granary has arrived at a richly dialectical form of publishing.
Moreover, Granary's production is not only dialectical but also multiform. While many of the books are priced as limited edition works of art, others are priced (and printed) in a range typical of trade and scholarly publishing. The multiple types of books Granary publishes reflect the multiple realities for books at this particular moment in time. The book is not a singular category; each type of book has its potential but also its limit. With Granary, it's the interplay among the types that begins to tell the book's own story.
I have heard, among some of my poet friends, a certain skittishness about publishing books with small print runs and high costs. For many of us involved with poetry, the point is to get the work around in a way that creates the minimum barrier to distribution. Indeed, the free exchange of books remains a primary means of circulation. But perhaps this approach oversells the text at the same time as it undervalues the book. We need some books that are inexpensive and easily available, no doubt. But other books do well to explore alternatives to the standard formats of mass reproduction—to slow things down, to savor the ink, the binding, the paper; to put the art of the book back into the book. To make books as materially and aesthetically and visually rich as a painting or sculpture. Art works such as these not only bring out the magic of books but also return us to the history of books. And perhaps it makes historical sense that Granary's reassertion of the physicality of the book comes just as so many of us are doing more and more reading on screens.
Granary Books insists—in words and deeds—that the currently dominant book formats, including the conventions of standard typography, layout and page dimension, may restrict meaning as much as facilitate its transmission. One copy of something different may be worth 1000 copies of the same.
The cover of a book is like the face of a person—and who can resist judging based on what is first encountered? But a cover is, after all, a lid—it hides what's inside. In this catalog one gets to sample the covers as well as the insides of the corpus of Granary Books. A sample, of course, may give you a taste for more. But, curiously, this particular book, this book of books, provides something that no one of the works depicted possibly can. For the images and texts that follow make a picture not just of discrete works but also of something that cannot be contained by a book, a publisher: a publisher's aesthetic, a publisher's production. One hand marks all of this: this plenitude of wondrous objects has a source.
Preface for When will the book be done? Granary’s books. Granary Books, 2001.