Have you ever imagined a book made out of bamboo? What about metal? Or how about glass? You might not have, but literature luminary Dave Eggers sure has, and he’s even brought one of these fantasies to life.
Eggers’s most recent title, The Eyes and The Impossible, is far from your typical paperback. Eggers has written and designed a book for all ages that comes in a deluxe wood-bound hardcover edition, courtesy of his nonprofit publishing house McSweeney’s. Knopf Books for Young Readers is simultaneously publishing a traditional version for middle-grade readers, making The Eyes & the Impossible the first-ever book to be published in two editions, for two readerships, and from two publishers.
This first-of-its-kind publishing model isn’t the only standout aspect of the book— a real bamboo die-cut cover and gold gilt pages makes the physical wooden edition a thing of beauty unlike any book I’ve ever encountered. As someone enamored by innovative book design and the world of book arts, I jumped at the opportunity to speak with Eggers directly about the book’s design and his creative process to get there. His thoughtful reflections are below.
Where did your idea for publishing a wooden, die-cut book come from?
I began thinking about what this book might look like almost three years ago. I began doing some sketches which I usually start with, and then I was at the US Post Office one day out here in San Francisco, and I came across a greeting card that had been made of bamboo. It was a mass-produced greeting card that was probably $5 or $6. I’d never seen it done on that scale before, but it made sense that laser-cutting technology has gotten to the point of affordability and efficiency. So we sent that card to our printer and said, Hey, can you do something like this? And they said, Well, sure. That became a two-and-a-half year process.
While I was finishing the book and going through editing, we were going back and forth with the printer. I think we had seven different prototypes. First, it was an example of what the bamboo would look like; they made it much thicker than the greeting card I sent, for durability’s sake. Then we did an early die cut and realized they could do that very efficiently and make a really clean cut in the bamboo.
We had a little bit of freedom in terms of timeline, and for any designer, when you have that much time, you can fine tune and troubleshoot every last thing and make sure that there’s no surprises. Usually when you get something back from the printer, there’s at least a few gambles you’ve made. But this is one of these rare occasions that maybe 14 months ago, we had this exact book in our hands. It’s really nice to see it finally making its way into the world. We think it’s the first wooden book!
You just never know how everything will come together. We’ve been in business 25 years, and you always look at a book object with certain reservations or certain things you would change, but this one, I can’t get enough of it.
This book features so many lovely design elements in addition to the bamboo covers, from the gold gilt pages to the red cloth spine to the rounded corners. What informed these choices?
The gilt edges, I’ve always wanted to do, and I don’t know if we’ve done it before. I did some sketches at home of the colors together: the red, gold, and brown. I have a lot of old books that have leather covers and gold foil stamp lettering and red end paper, so I always knew that that combination worked well. The old Heritage Dictionary is always that red leather with gold stamping, so it’s kind of a tried and true palette.
But it was also just what was going to work. We tried a black type on the spine, we tried a green spine, but I liked the boldness of the red against the 17th-century landscape imagery. Back then, all of the frames for those landscapes used to be so elaborate; eight-inch gold frames that nobody uses anymore. In that era, the frame was just as ornate as the landscape within. So there’s a little bit of the book that harkens back to that era of the ornate gilt frame.
What was the collaboration like between you and the book’s illustrator, Shawn Harris?
Shawn did all the artwork on the cover and inside. We’d worked together many times, so I went to him three years ago and said Let’s try to make the most beautiful thing either one of us has ever held, and I think Shawn really did that. We have a totally intuitive way to work together. He’s the most versatile, talented artist I think I know. He can just adapt his style to the needs of that particular project.
I don’t know whose idea it was to use these old Dutch and Flemish paintings to paint the dog into. Originally, I tried to approximate the paintings and do them myself, but I couldn’t get it right. So we ended up using these open-copyright paintings, then he made the dog in each one of them look totally of that period and of that style; it’s remarkable. There’s no way you would be able to tell at first glance that that dog was not original to each one of those pieces of artwork. He managed to make it totally seamless.
Why are you drawn to these unique and non-traditional materials for the books you’re designing and publishing at McSweeney’s?
The materials will do so much work for you if you choose them right. The weight of this wood, and how the grain is totally different on each one of them since it’s real bamboo— you can do so much when you have that kind of tactile quality and you’re moving beyond just paper.
We work as much as possible with real materials. I’ve never been a faux-finish person. Whenever we’ve done anything, it’s always got to be the real material because I think that we really connect with objects. We have a tactile, chemical connection when we feel something that’s real, whether it’s real wood, or well-made paper, or nice leather, or you can feel that foil stamp, or the linen of a nice case wrap. All of that really matters, especially in obvious contrast to all of the digital stuff that we’re surrounded with. We realized how much we miss it. A heavy, well-made object gives us that bone-deep connection. Somehow that feels right.
I didn’t realize how heavy this book would be until we got it back and I was like, this feels like five pounds or something. It feels so good!
The physical book really does affect your reading experience so significantly, and how you engage with the story itself. Even just carrying the book around in your tote bag or having it on your coffee table, it becomes a much more powerful or exciting experience when the book is this beautiful object.
We put so much time into these books when we write them— this, for me, is the culmination of decades of thought about this voice and this character, so you might as well spend a little bit of time on the vessel that it’s contained in. That’s always been our philosophy here at McSweeney’s. These authors are putting everything they have into these books. Books are souls. Each one of them is a soul vessel. It contains everything that the author feels. So that vessel, that container, should elevate, dignify, and exalt the work inside.
Our art director here at McSweeney’s, Sunra Thompson, and I sit here looking through materials and prototypes and try to do something that we haven’t done before, and try to elevate a book through the form that we put it in. It’s also a way to keep it new. We’ve been at it for 25 years; what would be worse than to be lucky enough to work in this business and then just do the same thing over and over again? What a waste of a gift.
Do you think it’s possible for more publishers to innovate when it comes to book forms and materials?
There’s something here called the San Francisco Center for the Book and they celebrate the book arts, and I would say many of the most beautiful books their artists have made as one-offs could be mass-produced in some form if you were to show it to the right printer. Then it’s just a matter of being accepting of a slightly different unit cost. I think so much could be done.
There are beautiful books made every day, but if you have a little bit of flexibility, you could make totally unprecedented book object every time around. A lot of times, it’s just taking inspiration from those one-off artists’ books and saying, Oh, wow, I think we could find a way to adapt this.
Is it hard to find printers and manufacturers who appreciate and understand bringing your visions to fruition?
Our first printer was right outside of Reykjavik. I used to go to Iceland with an idea, and they wanted to experiment just as much as we did. Then we ended up printing at a place called Thomson-Shore outside of Detroit, and I got to know all the people on their press, and just seeing how happy it made everybody in the company to do something different was really invigorating. We realized that the printers take pride in having created something unusual and beautiful. When the designer has fun, the art director has fun, and the printer has fun, ideally that is felt by the reader too.
Your wooden die-cut version of The Eyes & the Impossible is intended for all ages. What is it like writing and designing a book meant for such a vast audience range?
I love the all ages category. I’ve always had mixed feelings about the other categories— I think it can create unnecessary stigma. The books that I remember reading when I was younger didn’t have a designation on the back. They didn’t say this is for this age group or that age group. I don’t remember Charlotte’s Web or The Hobbit or so many other books having that kind of delineation.
I like the idea of books where it doesn’t really matter. I certainly didn’t write this for any one age group, and I would hope that adults could get just as much entertainment out of it as a 12-year-old or a 10-year-old.
The Eyes & The Impossible book form does seem to combine design elements of very different kinds of book categories. The color palette and gold gilt pages feel very classic and academic, but the thick wooden cover, the almost-square shape of the book, and the rounded corners remind me of those puffy cardboard books geared toward toddlers. To me, this all drives home the un-categorizable nature of your book.
We also wanted to make it look a little outside of time. In the way that Shawn has taken these old, 17th-century paintings and put the dog into it, I wanted it to look timeless so that if you were to pick this up and somebody said it was made in 1732, it wouldn’t be totally unrealistic. Maybe some old German company used to make books out of wood or something— it has that old-world look, but then we forgot about wooden books for 300 years, and here they are again.
Are there any other book forms or materials that you’re interested in using next?
More and more, I’m trying to think of ways to make something that’s so apart from design trends, so apart from materials trends, and even lean into the weird. Sunra and I were looking at some prototypes and some materials today that were truly weird— weird slipcases that interact with each other in a way that comes from a strange place. Then you’re not really beholden to any era. You never really know— was this made in 2023 or 1892? I love those sorts of artworks and designs.
Sometimes, we’ll have a prototype for years without knowing what to apply it to. So it’s a little bit of a laboratory, where Sunra will fiddle with something and then three, four years down the road, we realize that it might work with a certain book or a certain issue. The prototypes are a source of unending joy.
It’s our 25th anniversary later this year, so we’re putting out a special issue that’s going to be really weird— we’re using metal. It’ll be our first metal object. I’ve also always wanted to make a glass book. We haven’t been able to get a prototype that’s durable, but we’re still working on it. It’s been 15 years or so, and every so often we’ll go back and try to get somebody to see if it’ll work.
I love going to the bookstore and finding somebody that created something I’ve never seen before, in some format that I didn’t know was quite possible.