By Lydia Laurenson
Nowadays, everyone knows about the ill fate of the book. Storm-tossed upon a world wide web of troubles, books have rapidly decreased in value, and their temples have been closing one by one. A few, like Adobe Bookshop in the Mission, are putting up a fight (find out more by contributing to Adobe's crowdfunding campaign or attending the upcoming bookstore party February 23). But with the amount of free reading on the Internet and the advent of the dread e-reader, books appear to be Doomed.
Or are they?
"Those electronic things aren't books," Peter Koch told me last Wednesday. We were standing in the light-filled Craneway Pavilion, an old Ford factory with iron-striped windows, whose sprawling space had been colonized by book artisans from all over the world. Koch was overseeing the fourth CODEX International Book Fair; the event started in 2007 and happens every two years. "The book is like a spoon," said Koch. "It's perfect. It doesn't need to be re-invented." Then he pulled out his old-school flip phone to take a call, and freed me to wander the aisles.
As I explored the fair, I was inclined to agree with Koch. I happen to have years of experience with rare books, yet I was dazzled by the variety of shapes and sizes at CODEX. Everything was for sale, but true to the standards of the rare book trade, few exhibitors were so gauche as to put actual price tags upon their wares. Despite all its troubles, the gentility of the book trade is in many ways untouched. Voices were low; conversation flowed as easily in the Romance languages as it did in English.
I learned from CODEX's social media maven Monica LeMaster that Northern California is a "book arts Mecca," and that CODEX is "the most important book arts fair" in the world. It's not only a rare chance to see representatives from European book arts, but also from faraway Australia and underrepresented Mexico. I was entranced by the table for CODEX Mexico, a riot of lush color and and delicate metalwork. There were beautiful locks and filigreed letters upon book covers. There was the classiest flip book I've ever seen: its pages depicted the flight of a fly, it came in a fine case and it included a glass-enclosed wrought-silver bug.
Apparently, collectors flock to CODEX, but many take months or years to decide to buy what they saw there. "This is not a business for the impatient," a French artisan named Matthew Tyson remarked as I examined his wares. One of his books was printed on black tissue paper that had been oh-so-casually crumpled and stuffed into a wicker cornucopia. Another was printed on tiny accordion-folded pieces of paper, arranged in a small box with a glass bottom full of sand.
I wish I could tell you about everything I saw. There was a book in the form of a box of fire, with each leaping flame cut from paper. Michelle Wilson described climate change by cutting each successive level of a melted glacier into the pages of a book, so that the final result showed a hollow three-dimensional lost topography. Kelly M. Houle illuminated Darwin's Origin of the Species, using gorgeous filigree with religious overtones to describe evolution. My traveling companion, an economist, was drawn to a book by Mikhail Karasik depicting uncashable checks the artist received from America while trapped in Russia. The Introduction notes that "A cheque is a greater symbol than a piece of currency. In Russia they are unwanted." Then it asks with an air of mild puzzlement whether "such souvenirs from another world [could] really be converted into money?"
If you missed the fair, do not despair. Not only will CODEX come around again in 2015, but there are local artists you can visit, like Seager Gray Gallery in Mill Valley, which seeks to "bridge the book world and the contemporary art world. There's an aesthetic in this kind of material that you don't get in most art," Seager told me (or maybe it was Gray). "It's more tactile, more intimate."
I visited CODEX 2013 on its final day, in its final hour. One might expect loud acclaim or despair at such a time -- but this is the rare book trade, where silence is golden. 10 minutes before the end of the fair, a wave of soft applause went through the crowd. That was it.
Lydia Laurenson is an arts and culture writer who loves nothing more than Twitter.