Book Artis(t)

Capturing my library, March 18, 2021

Everyone knows one when they see one — but that animals and letters might have something in common is not something you think about all the time. That books are made of pages, paragraphs, sentences, of words and words from letters: and if we go (all the way) back to hieroglyphs, that these letters are often an animal becoming sound, shortened to the first vowel or consonant of its name, like the A is an aleph, an ox's head that the Romans later flipped on its side, and it remains unclear whether the animal hiding under the letter N was once a snake or a fish.

The story of the Penguin logo is another, apparently an idea by Allen Lane of The Bodley Head, based on the example of the first publishing house to produce mass market paperbacks: the Albatross Books company.

Copying the copier, many publishers followed suit, choosing and designing their logos, naming a series after the least bookish species of animals, so every library now hides a menagerie (a zoo, an Artis) of different birds and bees and bears. As they line up side by side and on top of each other, what the spines of books keep telling us is a soft reminder of the pictographic origin and of the rebus principle underlying the written language we use all the time.

“Every time we issued an expensive publication, I tried to issue an inexpensive publication. And the series which we used as our vehicle was called The Great Bear Pamphlets. It was a very hot August day in 1965 when I was trying to dream up the name of this series, and I went to pour myself a cup of water, from the water cooler in my office, and the water cooler was made by the ‘Great Bear Company’ and it just seemed to me ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be wonderful’ if we could make these pamphlets as refreshing as this water is. So that’s how the series got its name.” (Something Else Press and Since: a lecture by Dick Higgins, January 13, 1981, 00:15:11-00:15:45: