A Book to Admire

I’m always fascinated by the range of book pitches people share with me, both in terms of concept and presentation. Since I deal with illustrated books, most folks have the wherewithal not to waste my time with self-help books and memoirs, but it is amazing how many people will contact me with a “great idea for an illustrated coffee table book” without bothering to show me sample illustrations.

But even with good visual samples, there is an important question that needs to be answered: Does this make for an engaging illustrated book or is it better off being published elsewhere perhaps as a magazine article? As I’ve mentioned here, in my mind, a first-rate illustrated book presents a point of entry into an idea or a narrative that merits exploration.

When talking to potential authors about developing a book, I often find myself banging the drum for Who Owns the Water? It’s not because I believe all good illustrated books need to adhere to the sober Lars Muller typographic sensibility, or require 536 pages and a $60 price tag (the price is more than fair). But this book excels in exploring an enormous subject: “water” – from global usage to religious themes and political policy—using stunning photographs, infographics and informative text.

The book opens with these photographic images: children, delighted silhouettes against the tank in which a polar bear floats; raging orange fire, a hose flaring off into the night; obsidian black steed glassy from being washed; two grown men shooting high-power water guns at one another; an attractive female profile, an empty bottle, two glasses, a blurred New York City cab; a clear plastic umbrella spotted with rain, shielding the woman on the phone, obscuring her from view.

With hundreds of images and thousands of words vying for attention, a casual reading of this book can seem overwhelming, but the more time you spend with it, pondering the photographic juxtapositions, understanding the text, staring at a single image for five minutes, the real point of the book comes into focus: “Water is simply not a commodity.” It’s easy to forget this at times, but this book drives that point home, and to that end, it is incredibly successful.

Yes, the book is comprehensive, and its ability to luxuriate in the availability of, and budget for, so much content is its greatest strength. But illustrated books can tell their stories without using so much paper. When I tell people to check out Who Owns the Water?, it’s not because I expect the same kind of book. It’s just that I believe this book expertly fuses all elements of book publishing to show and tell a story, and one can do much worse striving for a similar result, no matter the subject matter.

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