Secret Lives of Books

Secret Lives of Books: Karl Castro, Book Designer

Exhibition space: Ayala Museum, Makati City, Philippines
Year: 2016


Artist statement

Don’t judge me, I’m not a book.*

Whenever I introduce myself to people as a book designer, they also ask, do you design websites too? I answer no, and while I explain how I’m not well-versed with the mechanics of programming and why it’s essential for me to know how the back end works in order to design the front end, half of me has already drifted off to another place, asking myself, in a digital world, why the hell did I choose print? News reports banner that IT people have the highest salaries in the country, and all over the world publications are folding. Print, they say, is dead.

I say: print is here to stay.

Digital media pushes the boundaries of portability, access, and multisensory experience. It does not invalidate print; digital merely forces us to reevaluate what information we access on which platform. Astute print publishers invest in digital strategies while online “influencers” mark their success by coming out in print. A book is a book is a book; it remains the gold standard in the circulation of ideas and experiences.

Reading a book is as much interfacing with ideas as it is with the book as an object. The sheer beauty of paper, the nuances of ink, a substantial spine and sturdy binding; book design has the power (or duty) to arrest the reader even before they read a single line.

The history of knowledge is a history of production. I stand on the shoulders of giants: the unknown craftsmen of the Trajan column and the Laguna copperplate inscription, the Hanunoo poets, Johannes Gutenberg, Tomas Pinpin, Nik Ricio, and so forth. Each production innovation pushed the dissemination of ideas, and enabled the participation of more people. The exigencies of production─and necessarily, design─influence the manufacture, survival and subsequent recodification of knowledge into newer formats.

In a continuously evolving technological landscape, each format is, by virtue of virtuality, bound to obsolescence. Documents of our lives from as recent as the last decade─blogs, websites, social media accounts─have already been irretrievably lost, but books remain. The Noli and Fili are still studied for their pivotal role in our history, the Filipinas Heritage Library is celebrating its 20th anniversary, mainstream presses are publishing teenagers to the delight of their equally young readership, and even fashion label Marc Jacobs has opened a successful string of bookshops.

Books remain, but in some places more than others. Our geopolitics puts us at a disadvantage. Local archives are vulnerable to humidity, insects, and disasters, inasmuch as the production of so-called Filipiniana is at the mercy of an educational system geared not towards scholarship, but to skilled labor. Monopolies of culture and economy prevail, the barely invisible hands which shape knowledge production in our islands. Bookmaking in the Philippines is no walk in the park.

Despite the setbacks, our publishing landscape is among the most vibrant in the region. And our books, as Benedict Anderson observes, are integral to our imagining of the nation. Many times I’ve been this close to giving up on books, balking at harrowing manuscripts or falling sick from stress. But here I am, mounting this exhibit, pulling dusty drafts from storage, cringing at a lot of my old work, and finding relief that years later, some designs still look decent. Books, I concede, are my passion, and Christ knows passion is sustaining love even after thorns, betrayals, giant nails.

The pieces in this exhibit provide a glimpse into local publishing. All these books are on the Philippine experience, published by Filipinos, and designed by me. The process revealed here represents 12 years of trial-and-error, harsh lessons, and hard work.

Does design matter? It does, and it does not. A good book is good regardless of design, and no amount of design can save lousy content. The designer’s role is to assist, facilitate, pave the way, and construct a vessel to represent and deploy the author’s ideas. An effective design can crystallize content, while bad design can ruin the reading experience.

Book design requires discipline. It is the intersection of science, art, design, and culture. It is ideology and imagination, form as content. It demands from the book designer a certain understanding of the text. A book is a threshold far larger than the sum of its ink, paper, and glue, yet these little things matter. One should be able to engineer the physical attributes of the book so that these, too, will tell a story.

Often we’re told, judge not a book by its cover, as we should judge not a person by their appearance. But neither can we deny the power of a face, or the eloquence of clothing─and a book cover acts as both. The magic of every reading journey occurs within the pages, contained between two covers, structured by typography, colored by texture and imagery. Design and production values will always be secondary to a book’s content, but paradoxically they are also always essential to the book, the thing itself.

For better or worse, the design of a book influences how it is perceived, how it is appraised, if it survives the test of time.

Book design is not just solving problems and challenges. It reveals one’s sensibilities. It is how one applies sensitivity and intuition in inflecting character, intertext, insight, conviction. It is how one balances the interests of the material, the author, the publisher, the reader. It’s challenging, difficult, exhausting, frustrating, and many times, agonizing. It is not for everyone, and yet I hope more people─readers, publishers and designers alike─become more interested in creating books. Nothing worth anything comes easy.

Books preserve, and they destroy. They transport us, they locate us.  Each book is an intervention, and a legacy. It is my great honor and pride to say that I help make them. ∎

*apologies to Melanie Marquez

Installation views

Related links

Artist talk on YouTube
Filipinas Heritage Library official site


Presented by the Filipinas Heritage Library
Co-presented by CGK form-a-print, CGKCreatives, and Silverlens
Supported by Ayala Foundation, Dannon Clothing, Gallery Deus, Lifestyle Network, National Book Store, Philippine Studies: Historical & Ethnographic Viewpoints, When in Manila, and Witty Will Save the World, Co.

The films
Director and cinematographer: Jewel Maranan
Sound: Kim Nimrod Cruz, Jonathan Q. Hee, Miguel Hernandez
Editor: Nawruz Paguidopon
Production Manager: Neli Go
Production Associates: Maricor Baytion, Jane Siwa,Karl Castro
Production assistant: Al Nikko John M.N.
Transcribers: Beverly Brul, Bryanna Brul, Marinelle Castro