Touching wild animals and other dangers in a library

Do not annoy an elephant. Do not cut yourself being in love. How to avoid these dangers? How to pet an elephant without fear? Come in our library’s Africa department and make a very special sensual experience. This little photo story is about the haptics of books on and from Africa.

cover detail of Michael Poliza (& friends): South Africa, Kempen: teNeues 2010, F 89.262.82

I have chosen some examples from our Africa collection at Frankfurt University Library to demonstrate that

  • to handle a book is more than just grabbing and open it,
  • experiencing the surface feel can be joyful and fulfilling,
  • books are physical objects with much more quality characteristics than one would expect,
  • books can be art.

The following amateurish pictures were done by myself and are biased – they only should make you curious. Haptics cannot be captured in a photograph at all. So do come and enjoy our physical books.

1. Animal skins

Tania Blixen: Jenseits von Afrika, Zürich: Manesse 2010, 89.081.39

The grey embossed paper cover, the large size and the heavy weight of the pictorial book by the well known photographer Michael Poliza (and others like Chris Fallows, Thomas P. Peschak, Mandla Mnyakama) on South Africa fit very well to the cover picture of the book jacket. However, this special paper has also been used in other colours, evoking perhaps the skin of an antelope or more generally the wild life of Africa.

The Swiss edition of Tania/Karen Blixen’s “Out of Africa” by Manesse in 2010 was printed and bound by „GCP Media GmbH, Pößneck”. In the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung a reviewer statet:

Manchen Büchern sollte man unter den Rock gucken, um sie als Gesamtkunstwerk würdigen zu können. Die neue deutsche Ausgabe des Klassikers ‘Jenseits von Afrika’, dessen Autorin bei uns als Tania Blixen bekannt ist, trägt unter dem Schutzumschlag einen Einband mit edler, kakaofarbener Antilopenfell-Anmutung. Und auf dem Deckel steht, in Versalien, nichts als das Wort „Afrika“ – der Name des Kontinents, den just im Erscheinungsjahr ein sportliches Großereignis ins Zentrum der medialen Aufmerksamkeit rückt.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke: Der ganze Erdteil war ihr Handspiegel. Tania Blixens Hauptwerk „Jenseits von Afrika“ in einer nuancierteren Neuübersetzung aus dem Dänischen, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung 12.07.2010, Literatur, Seite 14.

In short she suggests “to gaze under the skirt” of this book to value end experience the book as a masterpiece of art.

The animals and the nature of Africa are the most prominent in public interest and contribute to the romantic stereotype attached to the continent. Another example is the cover of Michael Poliza: Classic Africa, Kempen: teNeues 2010, F 89 346 85, showing a collection of artistic duotone prints.

Simply holding this book, lifting it, looking at it, feeling the cover; it is clear this book is special. It is the rare book that begs to be opened. […] The cover is something very special. The material is some kind of synthetic material with an animal fur texture.

Daniel G. Lebryk: Gorgeous, Amazon review on Classic Africa (Hardcover), 17.12.2010.

2. Things fall apart

Chinua Achebe: Things fall apart: illustrated, A Special 50th Anniversary Edition, Ibadan: Bookcraft 2008, F 88.860.82

A beautiful example from Nigeria is a special illustrated edition of the groundbreaking novel “Things fall apart” by Chinua Achebe – in German known under the title “Okonkwo oder Das Alte stürzt”. The buckram cover with blind embossings of the title and the author’s name contrasts to the glued in boards illustration with glossy foil embossing. The cover design was done by Bola Kujore and Bankole Olayebi. While the thread sewing of the binding is of low quality the printing of the illustrations and colours inside the book are of impressive high quality.

3. Three-dimensional book jackets

Embossing and especially foil embossing makes also the touching of dust jackets an experience. While the main purpose might be to support marketing they transport also messages from the book content.

Book jacket details of Louise Dean: The idea of love, London: Fig Tree 2008, 88.578.92.

The romantic and the dangerous aspects of love are expressed visually in an impressive style. The publisher advertises the novel as follows:

When foreign families converge on Provence for a better life, it seems as if sunshine, drinking and partying will create an idyllic little community of like-minded sorts. But compelled to venture far from this Eden to Africa, the lives of two of the couples are changed irrevocably when each begins to doubt themselves, who they are and why they’re there.

Another brilliant example is the dust jacket of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie novel “Half of a yellow sun” (London: Fourth Estate 2006, 13.443.25), where the embossing and colouring fits very well to the fence in the background.

 4. “Crumpled” paper

Somehow contrasting the content (“Kenya. Portrait of a Country – Heritage and Diversity”) and the editors (“The Central Bank of Kenya”) the binding and cover design fits at least to the quality of this coffee-table book. It was published in 2008 by Transafrica Press, Nairobi, HB 25 CGb 6/45, and printed in The Netherlands. The visual impression of the plain cover is that of crumpled paper. This clever design is also worth of fingering.

5. Modernistic metal clip binding

Hauke Olaf Nagel: Trommler in der Nacht. Reportagen aus Mali, Kiel: Ed. Satimbe 2005, F88.149.81

This hard folder seems to come from an archive, decorated with police seals and visa stamps.

The content is a travel account to Mali – with wonderful coloured pictures inside. The binding with the metal clips (“Metallspangenbindung”) works only with thin books.

The limited edition (500) with a ribbon was made by “Schmidt und Weber Konzept-Design”, Kiel, and was printed by A. C. Ehlers, Kiel.

At least 20 EUR per sold book go to a charity working with school children in Dogonland. („Dank auch im Namen der Schulkinder im Dogonland/Mali, denen der Erlös aus dem Verkauf dieses Bildbandes zugute kommt.“, S.59,).

6. Straw huts, straw mats and bast books

Bermann: Zarzura, 1938, S 17/2991.

Another travel account from the Austrian Richard A. Bermann alias Arnold Höllriegel is equally worth to be holded in the hand:

Richard A. Bermann: Zarzura, die Oase der kleinen Vögel. Die Geschichte einer Expedition in die Libysche Wüste, Zürich: Füssli 1938, S 17/2991.

The bast binding was made by local people in Madagascar (not in the region of the travel route):

Der Bast für den Einband wurde durch Eingeborene Madagaskars eigens für dieses Buch mit der Hand gewoben.“

The cover was made by Ernst Buß, the book printed „in Switzerland by Art. Institute Orell Füßli, Zurich” with 77 photographs of Hans Casparius.

7. Suede binding

This full leather binding roughened over time but still gives a cosy feeling. The red type font in art nouveau style on the cover does not fit to the fonts used inside the book, so it seems to be a later binding. The inside cover is made of oiled paper. Finally, the all edges gilt make this book very special:

Max Schoeller: Mitteilungen über meine Reise nach Äquatorial-Ost-Afrika und Uganda 1896 – 1897, Vol. 1, Berlin: Reimer 1901, Sq 17/531.

It was printed by Otto Elsner, Berlin, and the dedication reads:

Seiner Durchlaucht dem Fürsten Christian Kraft zu Hohenlohe-Oehringen Herzog von Ujest in dankbarster Verehrung gewidmet.

The travel account contains also the hunting diary of Schoeller with “Gehörntafeln” (drawings of antlers), e.g. on p. 23:

Februar 8. Erlegt: 1 Zebra, 1 Hyäne. Gefangen: 1 Schakal im Eisen. Angeschossen: 1 Hyäne. Ein krankes Zebra von 2 Hyänen verfolgt und niedergerissen. Schoss Zebra und eine Hyäne. Zweite Hyäne angeschossen.

8. Cotton wool

Kolonial-Wirtschaftliches Komitee, Berlin, Unter den Linden 43

The African colonies were exposed to European economic exploitation. One important commodity  was cotton cultivated on plantations. An interesting account with photographs of the plantations in Togo is

Karl Supf: Deutsche Kolonial-Baumwolle : Berichte über die Entwicklung der Baumwollkultur 1900 – 1908, Berlin: Mittler 1908, S 17/8405 .

The full cloth binding by „W. Kämmerer Buchbinderei Berlin“ might also be cotton. The embossing makes the plant touchable.

The appendix presents real cotton pads and swatches:

Tafel I. Deutsch-koloniale Rohbaumwolle zum Vergleich mit z.B. Amerkanischer und Ägyptischer
Tafel II. Baumwoll-Gespinste aus Togo-Baumwolle
Tafel III-IV. Baumwoll-Gewebe aus Togo-Baumwolle
Tafel V. Baumwoll-Wirkwaren aus Togo-Baumwolle


Now it is up to you to make your own discoveries of soft, thick, sticky, cold, icy, smooth, elegant or astonishing book covers. Books are more than containers of information, books are art objects of beauty and books are sometimes objects of performance art, like carrying an elephant folio or if your partner throws the book in a marital conflict. Many books together, e.g. on a shelf, make you feel good, cosy and perhaps intellectual. The coffee-table books are not only good for entertainment but also as a status symbol. Finally, one can hide a pocket bottle behind a rack full of books or inside specially prepared books.

Now compare all this to an Ebook-reader. Do you pet a Kindle? Do you put many Kindles on a shelf? Do you press tree leaves with your kids by piling all your electronic devices?

Experience the book, tell us of your touchy touching experiences, comment and give us hints on your favorite sensual event in a library.

If you are interested in the book as physical object do read

David Pearson: Books as history. The importance of books beyond their texts, London: The British Library 2011.

It is also a nice christmas present.

South Africa’s human spirit : an oral memoir / of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Corporate, S.l.: SABC 2000, 5 CDs, AVM 12/439

By the way all the pictures of this blog post and some more can be found on flickr. And sometimes not only books have interesting “covers”.

I wish you all a merry christmas and a happy new year

Dr. Hartmut Bergenthum

  • Anne-Marie Kasper for discovering Zarzura and bringing Achebes “Things fall apart” from good old Lagos Island to Germany
  • Hans Eckert for his expertise and some technical terms and the hint to Pearson
  • the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), who allows us to buy all this impressive printed books

About ilissafrica
This is the blog of the internet library sub-saharan Africa (ilissAfrica).

4 Responses to Touching wild animals and other dangers in a library

  1. Eine wunderbare Liebeserklärung an das Buch. In Zeiten virtueller Bibliotheken und Forschungsumgebungen um so wichtiger.

  2. Ute Müller says:

    Niemand, der einmal der Liaison von Geist und Materie, bestehend aus Geruch, Gewicht, Geräusch, Faser, Farbe, Typographie, Staub und Dimension verfallen ist, wird sich je mit einem virtuellen Buch zufrieden geben – und sei es noch so sinn- und zweckvoll in seiner elektronischen Scheinbarkeit.

  3. Pingback: Travel account with bast binding restored « ilissafrica's Blog

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