Math Book Reimagined
January 30, 2017 Innovation Impact
"Flatland" book image by James Han
When Chris Lauritzen at YouTube in October 2014 to start a book design and publishing studio called Epilogue, he expected to have a working version of his first title — a reissue of Edwin A. Abbott’s cult classic "Flatland" — ready by the holidays. So much for expectations: The launch party was held in April 2016.
Not that Lauritzen was slacking off in the intervening year and a half. Independently publishing a print book these days, especially one conceived as a beautiful art object, takes a serious, long-term commitment. Lauritzen didn’t just have to design
"Flatland" — to conceptualize it, typeset it, illustrate it and prototype it. He also had to crowdfund it and then look all over the country (plus Canada) for those few remaining specialty shops that would suit his various printing, binding and shipping needs. All of which raises the obvious question: Why? Who would want a meticulously crafted print edition of a 130-year-old public-domain text in 2016? Especially when print is, if not dead, then certainly struggling?
Lauritzen’s answer is to question the question: He believes it’s a glorious, singular time for the print medium.
SMALL BOOK, BIG IMPACT
At one time, everything was printed on paper: ads, fliers, brochures, pamphlets, notes. Or, as Lauritzen characterizes that stuff: “Junk. Ephemeral noise.” But over the years, much of that material has gone digital, clearing the printed world of clutter.
“By choosing to do something in print, you’re saying this thing is worth a damn,” Lauritzen said. “Print is starting to become its own quality filter.”
Lauritzen knew he wanted to apply that filter to something in the public domain, a vast collection of works that anyone can use, print and distribute without permission. But he
wasn’t aware of "Flatland" until a friend suggested he check it out.
Written in 1884 by the English scholar Edwin A. Abbott, "Flatland"
is a small book about a big subject: multiple dimensions. The narrator, a square
named (fittingly) A. Square, lives on a flat 2-D plane, but he’s forced to consider what the 3-D world of Spaceland might look like when a sphere from there pays him a visit.
Ian Stewart, an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Warwick in England who published an annotated version of "Flatland" in 2002, considers Abbott’s book one of the earliest works of popular science. “There’s really nothing
else like it,” Stewart said. “It was completely original and unusual.”
The book wasn’t just about having fun in multiple dimensions, though. Abbott used geometry to challenge Victorian norms about the role of women in society — math as a tool for social progress. Some didn’t get it; many did. The first edition sold out quickly, and it has been in print ever since, a favorite among a wide range of readers who wonder about their place in the world.
Lauritzen was an immediate convert — it was exactly what he was looking for. Given its largely two-dimensional setting, he felt it would play nicely with his skill set as a graphic designer. But more than that, "Flatland" had a following, not huge but passionate, that was rather unhappy with the editions of the book currently available.
NOT JUST FOR SHOW
Because works in the public domain can be accessed for free, there’s not much financial incentive for a publisher to put out nice editions. "Flatland" is no exception. It exists in a variety of terrible formats, from websites and PDFs to cheesy print runs that feel more like pamphlets than books. “It’s really unsatisfying,” Lauritzen said.
So, when he launched a Kickstarter in April 2015, that was his selling point: the chance for a beloved classic to get the makeover it deserved. The goal was $24,000; he raised well over three times that ($81,777, to be exact). Then the real challenge — making
the book — began. Even though Lauritzen intended the reissue to be something of a collector’s item, he didn’t want a finished product that was destined for a coffee table,
untouched and unread.
“It shouldn’t be a fetishized object,” he said. “The sooner you throw it on the ground, the better.”
To that end, he chose to make it softcover, with thick paper and extra-wide margins for writing in. The floating spine means you can bend the pages back as much as
you want and the binding won’t crack. Lauritzen also appended a visual guide, full of exquisite black-and-white illustrations that illuminate various concepts in the text. He’s
now working on a supplementary online library of shapes — “an education/ art experience for students of geometry,” he said. Finally, to add heft, he designed an elegant gray slipcase, stamped with a silver tesseract.
This wasn’t a solo production, of course. At last year’s launch party, held in a small shop in San Francisco, Lauritzen thanked all of the people who helped him along the way — friends, family, the workers in Vancouver and Phoenix and Oakland who printed and bound and shipped the books. Of the 2,000 copies Lauritzen printed, roughly half were sent to Kickstarter backers, and the remainder are now available for $65 each, a price Lauritzen hopes will decrease in subsequent print runs.
You can tell Lauritzen is proud of the result. He flips through it lovingly — though he’s not afraid to bend a corner or mark up a page. The whole point is to get people to read it.
“Time was spent writing this thing, time was spent designing this thing, time was spent producing it, time was spent getting it into your hands,” he said. “That’s contagious. That’s something you can sense. It gives you permission to take time with it, to sit down and really delve in.”
Jason Kehe is a writer for The Henry Ford Magazine. This story originally ran in the March-May 2017 issue of the magazine
19th century, 1880s, 21st century, 2010s, The Henry Ford Magazine, design, by Jason Kehe, books