I am experiencing a book that is the publishing equivalent of Cinerama. It's called Never for Want of Powder: The Confederate Powder Works in Augusta, Georgia.
The New York Times once reported on Cinerama's effect on an audience, saying it was "as though most of them were seeing motion pictures for the first time." And I am looking at what a Civil War book can be.
When Cinerama re-engineered filming and showing technologies, movies had to be written, directed, and produced in a new way to accomodate the heightened potential. This book presents a similar effect - content organized around an extremely demanding technical and presentation ethos. Or perhaps, the content came first and then the technical decisions. Let me explain.
The format of the book, a hardback, is set at 11"x14.5" and the paper is a fine glossy stock.
It contains 14 chapters, each either a scholarly essay or an outright monograph on the subject of the powder works, its principal figures, its production system, or its architecture. Additionally, there are three appendices.
There are 46 figures, 74 color plates, 11 tables, 19 pages of notes and five pages of bibliography on this obscure subject - all told, 344 pages.
The nearest equivalent experience is in an expensive art book. But it would be a slight to call Never an art or coffee-table book. In the case of those types of tomes, (a) the pictures are the thing, (b) the ambition is to have the best collection and/or rendering of the images, and (c) the text tends to be subordinate to picture delivery.
In Never, the plates (architectural and engineering drawings) are done well but subordinated to the text; the sub-mission implied by their inclusion is to save them as a complete record and make them accessible to future researchers, beautiful as they may be.
The coffee table book says to us, "You won't see a compendium like this again for a few years, at least not at this price or with this level of completeness or with this quality of presentation." Never says to us, you will not see another study of the Augusta Powder Works again in your lifetime or your childrens' so we did our duty to the utmost."
This is a labor of love issued as a starting point for future work and an act of pre-emption against anyone considering cobbling together a few gray pages and a grubby illustration or two in a conventional publishing project. The level of effort, the size, the production values, the conceptual completeness, and the content itself transcend any ordinary ink and paper effort that might be mounted here.
Imagine, to take one instance, getting five authors to work in tandem, each on a complimentary topic relating to the works. The best known of these authors is Ted Savas and I have to wonder, with his publishing expertise, if he is not the one who shepherded the final result. The other authors are C.L. Bragg, M.D.; Charles D. Ross; Gordon A. Blaker; and Stephanie A.T. Jacobe.
There are some small coffee-table aspects to this. This is a big book that lays on a big surface. You walk by it on a weekend, in an idle moment and say, "I think I'll learn how gunpowder is made today." And you sit and read the monograph on that topic and in an hour you know; and you know also how Col. Rains preferred to make it. Perhaps, after the reading, you even clear a small spot in your wokshop, then pop over to the computer to seach the web to order small supplies of sulfur, charcoal, and nitre for some harmless experimenting.
That last bit is more of a Popular Mechanics effect and certainly anyone fascinated by machines, inventions, and how-to can get lost in this. I get lost in the drawings for hours. Perhaps it's the failed architect in me.
Before more metaphors sprout accidentally, let me offer one on purpose. It has to do with John Henry, a steel-driving man.
When I say in this blog that certain publishing projects are impossible anymore I envision something like Never. I consign them to the Internet or some sort of collaborative electronic medium where cost, production, and other issues of scale are tamed. Never is the kind of book proposal that, I think, will wind up on the Web in the future.
And yet here comes the University of South Carolina Press, an art director, and five authors to take on the steam drill. Will they succeed?
This book succeeds on its own terms. It is audacious.