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John M. Olin Library, Level 1, Newman Tower of Collections and Exploration

Forms of the Book

What makes a book a book? This is the question raised with the “Forms of the Book” exhibition, which featured texts in a variety of forms dating from 2500 B.C.E. to the early 2000s A.D. This exhibition touched upon how non-traditional forms of the book encourage discussion of the nature of the book itself, the relationship of text and image, and how design contributes to reading and understanding.

A cuneiform tablet from 2500 B.C.E. made from clay fired in a kiln. This small tablet is a receipt for a barley purchase.

The exhibition included early examples of texts written on cuneiform, papyrus, and scrolls. These texts came before pages were folded and bound into the codex form, which contemporary readers recognize as books.

Chōjū Giga, 12th Century. This early Japanese scroll depicts rabbits, monkeys, and frogs engaging in human activities in a humorous narrative.

Early bound books in this exhibition emphasized visual communications and the history of typography, design, and printmaking. The Book of Hours (1400), for example, displays beautiful hand-drawn and colored illustrations.

A page from The Book of Hours (1400). From the Washington University Libraries’ George Meissner Collection.

This exhibition also displayed modern-day artists’ books, which often feature unusual structures or thought-provoking design elements that play with the form of the book with the goal of engaging readers in new and exciting ways.

Julie Chen’s Bon bon mots, 1998. Chen plays with form in these bite-sized books, designed with a box to look like candies.
World Without End. Designed by Julie Chen, 1999.