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Tiny, but full of possibilities

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

SHOES, igloos, spoons, the MOON; little books spring up this time of year like MUSHROOMS. The antidote to the expensive holiday coffee table book, these are volumes in which ART is usually more important than TEXT. Such books are heavily designed, a lot of BANG for the BUCK. Uniqueness makes them an appealing gift. They owe their convoluted ancestry (whimsy is hard to trace) to the CHAPBOOK, Mother of the manifesto; Mouthpiece for unpublished poets, somewhere between a leaflet and an archive. Never (shudder) perfect-bound, and preferably hand-set. The chapbook writer (chapped hands, chapped lips) would beg the local bookstore to display his book.

Zines grew out of chapbooks. Now, they have become so iconic in certain corners of the culture that some commercial presses have started to publish books, especially around holiday time, that look hand-designed and produced.

These books are small, unassuming. The Odder, the Better. Design departments around the country have seen a resurgence of interest among students in doing work like this. Think of it as the independent film of the publishing world. Skylight Books in Los Feliz carries a wide array of chapbooks and zines, some locally made and some national, that cost between $2 and $5. The chapbooks tend to be poetry, the zines art-based or political. “The main criteria,” says Skylight’s Emily Pullen, “is that they are all handmade and produced by people, not machines.”

Should you get the bug, “How to Make Books: Fold, Cut & Stitch Your Way to a One-of-a-Kind Book” by Esther K. Smith, with illustrations by Lindsay Stadig and photos by David Michael Zimmerman (Potter Craft: 128 pp., $25), offers a stylish and inspiring introduction to the process. One of my favorites is “How to Build an Igloo and Other Snow Shelters” by Norbert E. Yankielun, illustrated by Amelia Bauer (W.W. Norton: 148 pp., $15.95).

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Nothing Moments Publishing, which bills itself as “a collaborative project in art, literature, and design,” has produced a series of beautifully designed little books, featuring original work by writers including Aimee Bender, Jim Krusoe, Christopher Sorrentino and Lynne Tillman, typeset in the Netherlands and printed in Canada.

Boston Review Books puts out its own series of small, simply designed books on big topics, such as Stephen M. Meyer’s “The End of the Wild” (100 pp., $14.95), which deals with the ramifications of increasing industrialization and climate change.

Alphabet City blurs the line entirely between book and journal, chapbook and zine. An annual periodical -- or is it a series of hardcover anthologies? -- it means to “challenge us to rethink ideas central to our lives. In each volume writers and artists address a single theme from many perspectives, revealing its processes and possibilities.” The latest Alphabet City is a pocket-sized book gathering color photos, graphics and short bits of text around the theme of “Food” (350 pp., $15.95).

Speaking of pocket-sized hardcovers, Rodale Press’ “Rock of Ages” series of books about favorite albums is small and handmade-looking. The most recent titles are “The Beatles’ Second Album” by Dave Marsh (160 pp., $16.95) and “Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends” by Pete Fornatale (160 pp., $16.95). Abrams, one of our largest art publishers, has put out “Border Film Project” by Rudy Adler, Victoria Criado and Brett Huneycutt (176 pp., $22.95), a paper-covered book of photos taken with disposable cameras by undocumented migrants crossing the border and by the volunteers who try to stop them. The lack of text and simple layout is extremely eloquent. And New Directions has published Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Poetry as Insurgent Art” (90 pp., $12.95), a manifesto no bigger than your palm.

In this way, all sorts of presses have begun to imitate the rebellious, unique, handmade flavor of the chapbook. When the business of art (and publishing) gets too big, artists and writers find some other ways to get their words and images out. Now, that’s something to celebrate.

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susan.reynolds@latimes.com


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