Wednesday 20 April 2016

The Complete Virginia Woolf - an eBook as a labour of love

Although I’ve changed ebook-readers a few times over the years, one book that has remained ‘constantly’ on my virtual shelf is the Complete Works of Virginia Woolf. It’s a beautiful volume, which seems to have been a real labour of love for the maker. I hesitated when I wrote the word ‘constant’, because as you’ll see the book as evolved a lot over the years.

The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf - book cover. Image source: Mobileread.
The Complete Works is an ebook created by the user Pynch on the ebook site Mobileread. As background Mobileread is an online community where users format and upload books that are in the public domain. In this case Pynch compiled the complete works of Virginia Woolf in one volume and uploaded it in 2012. Since then the volume has undergone 15 revisions (errors have been corrected, formatting conventions smoothed out and huge volumes of new material added).

When we think of books as a labour of love, I suspect ebooks aren’t the first things that spring to mind, perhaps a beautifully bound manuscript might be more apt, or something personalised in some way, or an example of excellent design. Ebooks have more of a cold, utilitarian connotation - they are after all devoid of so many elements we fetishise in paper books (the smell, the touch, the familiarity etc.)

Picture of Dorian Gray Interior
The Picture of Dorian Gray Cover
Book-binder Mark Cockram's beautiful books have been exhibited widely and often use mixed materials, striking end pages and interventions to the edges and interiors, enclosing and reframing an existing novel, to draw out certain plot points or create a certain tactility in the hands. (The images here show Cockram's bold rebinding of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray).

The Complete Virginia Woolf has a cover that breaks from traditional convention (its restrained design and subdued colours compliment the text, without being showy or eye-catching) and uses Vanessa Bell's original woodcut cover designs to mark each individual work that comprises the collection. Instead of being merely a 9,500 page book, the use of Bell's imagery nicely packages the works, differentiating them from one another. Connecting Virginia's writing with the images that her sister conceived to accompany them, gives history to the collection, tying it to its original production.

Mrs. Dalloway section of the Complete Works.
Original Hogarth Press cover design by Vanessa Bell

Graham Rawle is a fascinating artist whose books often layer found imagery to build up a new story or give a certain depth or feeling to an existing one. The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf is a work in constant revision and as such also gains a certain gravity the more texts are added, or the further existing texts are revised or the design improved upon.

Pages from Rawle's Woman's World, 2005

Pages from Rawle's edition of The Wizard of Oz, 2008
Were this edition released by a major publisher we might remark what an achievement to bring such diverse material together, but to say the book is down to the labour of one individual means so much more. Our having evidence of the constant addition and improvement makes this all the more impressive, as it reminds us of the labour involved; with edition after edition we're made aware of the hands of the maker.

Penguin's Great Ideas series (released in 2004 and designed by David Pearson) is a excellent example of simple design and attention to detail that enhances a book, making it a pleasure to read. The designer's thoughtful and pared down aesthetic and attention to detail (such as the use of embossing and mixing type faces) harks back to both the simple Penguin covers of yesteryear and old fashioned printing techniques (such as letterpress).

Penguin Great Ideas Vol. 1 - spines
Penguin Great Ideas Vol. 1 - cover

One of the pleasures of The Complete Works is the crispness of design - typographic conventions are shared across the 30+ volumes that make up the collection and design is unified right across the 9,500 pages. In a world where even the big publishers can't always get formatting consistent (in a hard-back edition of Mrs. Dalloway I own the text is printed differently on alternate pages, making for a jarring experience and the references that accompany the text contain obvious errors), the ease of reading The Complete Works is refreshing.

As with many labours of love, the work has flaws (as each revision of the document testifies) but to say that it has been been created by one person, spurred on by helpful comments and encouragement, makes it all the more personal. Oh, and did I mention that in a bout of productive-procrastination I decided the Complete Letters of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey  needed transcribing? You'll find it in this volume!

Why not pop along to Mobileread and get your copy now? Remember to keep checking back for revisions.


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