By Sofia Maria Paz
E-readers & The Old-fashioned World of Physical Books
Aside from online databases, Amazon’s easily accessible plethora of electronic books is the main resource for text-based material, used by adults and children alike. With the creation of electronic reading devices, specifically Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, paperbound magazines and books have become obsolete, unable to match the immediacy and convince of e-books. However, popular opinion fails to recognize that electronic devices actually obstruct our immersive reading experience. The quintessential book form that executes this essential quality e-books lack are pop-up books. These three dimensional moveable books are the epitome of craftsmanship, innovation, and artistry in the book industry. An art form mechanical machines are incapable of reproducing. To fully appreciate the pop-ups’s value in today’s technological age, one must consider their various creative formats, historical origins, and unique production in designing, constructing, and mass-producing these shelved books.
Unlike origami, which solely consists of a single folded sheet of paper, pop-up engineering combines various cut pieces of folded paper adhered together with glue and string. With the ability to use adhesive materials, pop-ups have evolved into multiple different types. The ones most commonly seen today are two-paged three-dimensional pop-ups called spreads. Traditional pop-up books generally contain only six to eight spreads due to the thickness of the paper necessary to make the pop-ups durable, amounting these books an average total bulk of three inches high with an average weight of two pounds each. The complete antithesis compared to the portable light-weight convenience of reading tablets.
Despite their physical inconveniences, pop-ups offer limitless avenues for creative, recreational, and educational means, just as their technological e-book counterparts do. As we shall come to lean in the essay, the pop-up medium can still hold the same entertainment and educational value as it did originally, and should be granted the literary attention and popular recognition it deserves. With a historical footprint stretching back seven centuries, pop-up books root themselves in a variable past driven by development, experimentation, and adaptation.
The History & Origins of Pop-Ups
Contrary to present mainstream attitudes, pop-up books were initially designed for adults, serving as educational tools for learning and sharing information. The earliest known pop-ups date to the 14th century, found in the illuminated manuscript Chronica Majora created by the Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris. On some of its pages, Paris designed calendars using revolving paper disks to help other monks calculate the approach of religious holy days. These volvelles were also used in documents to make astronomical predictions and decipher secret codes.
Recognizing their didactic value, moveable pop-up elements were later incorporated into medical textbooks. Layers, flaps, and pockets integrated with illustrations and diagrams to accurately depict the different parts of human anatomy. These interactive pages provided the visual tools to offer deeper level of understanding that written text and flat images alone could not match.
It was not until the 19th century when the German illustrator, Lothar Meggendorfer, introduced the pop-ups as an entertainment medium for children. His first pop-up books were transformations, where the reader tugged on tabs to pull down hidden vertical slats that slid over the underlying drawing to create a new scene. Meggendorfer continued engineering pop-ups by designing complex moveables, where a single pull tab would animate multiple features in each illustration, adding humor and visual appeal to his targeted young audience.
Currently, pop-up books have reached the highest degree of craft, imagination, and invention. The elaborated works of the paper engineers Robert Sabuda and Mathew Reinhart are recognized for their whimsical and sophisticated qualities, including Reinhart’s Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy, which also incorporated lights and sound on the page spreads. The New York Times revered Reinhart’s book stating, “ […] calling this sophisticated piece of engineering a “pop-up book” is like calling the Great Wall of China a partition.”
Paper engineers have constantly been pushing the boundaries of three-dimensional structures, each one more intricate than their last. Behind these art books lies a long road of trial and error in the realm where imagination meets the physical limitations in real space, revealing how labor intensive pop-ups are.
Piecing The Pop-Up: Collaborations, Creation, & Reproduction
Just like their historical counterparts, today pop-up books are still assembled by hand from start to finish. Because of their level of labor and complexity, pop-up books are often the product of specialized artists, including writers, illustrators and paper engineers, collaborating by sending material to one another through email and overnight shipping. The artist and author, Chuck Fischer, and Bruce Foster, a paper engineer, are known for their pop-up book collaborations including A Christmas Carol: A Pop-Up Book and Angels: A Pop-Up Book. The key to Fischer and Foster’s success in creating a seamless cohesive books thousands of miles apart, was by following through a regimented sequence of exchanging each other’s images and modules.
When a story is written, designing pop-up books, like almost all forms of artistic media, begins with sketches. It is these drawings forged by the illustrator that serve as the basis for the paper engineer to construct a full scale mockup spread called a white paper dummy. While finalizing on a white dummy, the paper engineer experiments with multiple models to ensure the pop-up’s functionality and durability.
The white dummy’s individual pieces are then transferred onto tracing paper. These tracings are then passed back to the illustrator as guides to outline templates for coloring and painting elements of the original artwork. Usually both the front and back of each paper piece are painted. High resolution scans of the original artwork are then printed, cut, and applied back onto the white paper dummy, to check that the pop-up still functions properly.
Using a specialized software, the individual high resolution scans are grouped and arranged on file layouts called nesting sheets. The purpose of nesting sheets is to maximize the printed surface area of a single sheet, limiting paper waste. The nesting sheet files are then sent to be run through a inkjet printer. There is only handful of print shops that can mass-produce pop-up books, most of which are located in Asia.
Just like the white paper dummy, print shops construct the pop-up books by hand through a series of assembly lines. Each worker is assigned one task in either cutting, folding, or glueing. Even the book’s hardcover is aligned and glued together without mechanical intervention. It takes an average of eighteen months to conceive, design, construct, print, and assembly one pop-up book edition. For this reason, some extremely complicated pop-ups are exceptionally valuable, especially in today’s technology-driven market.
Pop-ups in a Contemporary Context
It is undeniable that the essential essence of a pop-up book contains elements of surprise, targeted to make the reader smile. The “No Way!” factor so to speak. Whether it be unveiling animated three-dimensional characters, discovering secret pullouts or compartments, or seeing spinning elements appear to fly off the page, pop-ups provide a level of personal interaction with the viewer unlike any other art form. For this reason, pop-up books have the potential to exist outside of the world of children’s literature.
Despite their playful format, exhibiting artists are beginning to incorporate the medium into their creative practice. For instance, the printmaker and book artist Carolyn Trant, used the pop-up medium in her illustrated book inspired by Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” Even the artist Kara Walker created “Freedom, A Fable: A Curious Interpretation of the Wit of a Negress in Troubled Times,” a pop-up book of silhouettes where her feminine aesthetic lures in the viewer to then disturb them with a visual narrative recalling stereotypes, violence, and abuse. Though the world of moveable books is small, paper engineering is being adopted for a multitude of artistic expressions.
The paper engineer is an artist, a sculptor, a contractor, an inventor. A contemporary Renaissance man of the literary wold. Nevertheless, in this day and age, society’s perception has become predominantly fixated within the boundaries of computer, tablet, and smart phone screens. Even though no technological means can reproduce a pop-up’s intricacy, the medium still remains under the threat of being diminished to the significance of three dimensional Hallmark greeting cards.
Since the introduction of Amazon’s Kindle in 2007, book retail stores have suffered due to the drastic drop in print book sales. Most notably in 2011 Waldenbooks’ Borders, the nation’s second largest book chain, had to declare bankruptcy and shut all its doors. This drastic demise in the retail book industry is due to the increasing amount of customers enjoying the instant delivery of e-books straight onto their e-readers. The root of the matter is that bound books cannot meet e-readers’ impatient fast-passed demands. Even the time elapsed to turn a page is deprecated for being too slow compared to the immediacy of a finger swipe. Nevertheless, public opinion yields to acknowledge that the greatest downfall of electronic books is also their most appealing aspect.
Fundamentally, e-books do not exist in three dimensional space. They are the mere electronic version of the printed book, who's content is only accessible through e-readers. The pages of pop-up books extend outward, upward, and backward, they can spin, slide, wave, pull, and flap. They interact with us within our personal space, demanding the reader to sit-down and meditate over the elaborate spreads. Ultimately, the question we must ask ourselves is if we wish to limit our reading experience within the boundaries of two by five inch screens that fit in our jeans.
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