doggone it

by Art Chantry (

i have a LOT of books. i’ve been collecting (more like ‘gathering’, really) books of all sorts for decades, now. i’ve also had to move many many times, and i gotta tell you, books are really heavy!

when i moved back east to st.louis (at least ‘east’ from here) we carried almost no household stuff and zero furniture. yet, we still managed to weigh in at 9 tons of crap. it was all books, records and portfolio samples. and this was after having culled out half of it!

if you have a big library, one of the things you have to periodically do is make a purge. you just plain need the room. i’m in the middle of one right now. so, something i like to look for is what is left after i cull the stuff. it’s really fascinating to see what remains behind over time. you end up with a rather finely tuned book collection.

AC:well, this 'train your dog' book above is one that i picked up just because it looked cool. i don't even have a dog. yesterday, i was going to toss it and i began looking at it again and decided to keep it.

obviously, i tend to save books about design. i have almost complete runs of things like the new york art director’s club and graphis magazine annuals. but, only the vintage stuff (older than 1968). the contemporary stuff doesn’t interest me. i get rid of new design and keep the old.

i also keep ‘regional’ annuals and publications about graphic design. these are often the ONLY documentation of the history of graphic design available. it’s the only place (outside of digging up thousands and thousands of magazines and commercial objects) where you can find work by ignored masters. throughout the history of graphic design (aka, ‘commercial art’) , there has been a truism of “if it didn’t happen in new york city, it didn’t happen at all.” these old regional publications are the only way to put the lie that mistaken narrative.

i don’t tend to hold onto art books (books about art). the fine art dialog bores me. it’s much too narrowly defined and masturbatory. it’s a cultural dialog that has reached it’s end. don’t get me wrong, i think the fine art dialog of the last 150 years is possibly the finest, most profound discussion in the history of mankind. it’s just that it’s reached it’s conclusion and the fine art world and the art market hasn’t caught up to that fact yet. the discussion is dead as a door nail. so, most of those books get tossed.

so, it’s fun to see what i DO keep. it seems i have a love of typography. i keep hundreds of type books – especially old type catalogs. it think that stuff is the finest most inspiring design thinking around anywhere. if you bother to go back and study this stuff, you’ll find that the advent of modernism in graphic design is all based on the strict rules of typography. there is no more “constructed’ approach to design thinking than a typographers. it’s got mathematical beauty.

i also seem to collect catalogs. these are volumes full of products for sale by an individual company or distributor of the most arcane stuff. halloween costumes, mortician supplies, gaskets, souvenir postcards, logging and construction equip, occult supplies, etc. etc. it’s a virtual history of the underbelly of american marketing history.


ey show what the advertisers were actually selling to us all those years. it’s astonishing to behold. what endless cheezy crap! and it’s wonderful, as well. this is the actual american culture that we all live by and are endlessly influenced by. it’s where the real action is – what lurks behind the facade of american culture.

but, the one category that i hold onto (and i find it a surprise) seems to be the ‘self-published’ books – vanity press. these are books published by the author or perhaps by a specialty publishing company that is so small it virtually becomes a private printing.

there are even printing companies the world over that specialize if small vanity printing – they contract directly to writers to print books just for them. has even gotten into the vanity press biz and seems to be taking over. so, the vanity press as we now know it may soon be gone. time will tell.

these books fit into categories only vaguely. there are endless poetry and literary efforts. there are crackpot visionaries and religious extremists who print their own books to get their messages out. there are endless ‘how-to’ books and cookbooks. there are small books of local history that i find utterly fascinating. one of my favorites is the occult territories- like the ufo category. the books that exist on the ufo turf are truly so far out and extraordinary that they defy accurate description. you just have to read them (and see them!) to understand what i’m talking about.

the reason i keep these books in my library (and increasingly large amounts because i keep having to downsize) is because of the extraordinary design aspects of them. these are generally books written and designed and illustrated by stark amateurs. these folks have no idea at all how to design a book. yet, they’ve read enough books to instinctively know what they look like. so, they just plain DIY it (do it yourself).

the results can be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. the drawings, the typography, the photos, the layout, even the actually dimensions of these books defy the norm. they make it up as they go along because they don’t know the rules. and it can be brilliant and it can be bizarre. frankly, these are the most inspiring and most entertaining books ever made.

this little example is a lovely item from 1937. it’s a classic ‘how-to’ example, written by will judy and published (of course) by the judy publishing company. this dust jacket (this WONDERFUL dust jacket) is tattered and so simple and dirty. but, just look at it! try to imagine ever designing a book cover like that, eh? try to get away with it. i dare you!

the interior is pristine. most of these vanity press books are tatty and worn on the outside, yet utterly untouched inside. either that or they are worn out – LOVED to death. there is no middle ground, no ‘light wear’ category with these things. people either read them to pieces or they leave them on the shelf for decades.

this little book is chock full of the most wonderfully executed little images and illustrations. either will judy was a trained illustrator or, he was a born drawing talent. either way, it’s lovely and (dare i say?) darn cute.

the pages are full of esoteric ‘design elements’ like borders and titles and spot illustrations and clever little dingbats. again, by the same stylized design hand as the pictures. so, i assume that ‘mr. judy’ (as he was probably professionally known) probably was a graduate of some art school or more likely) a mail order ‘commercial art’ course. he seems to be good enough to do a wonderful job.

the actual techniques he adopts to teach them little doggies? oh, man. i wouldn’t treat a dog like that….

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