Minding the Gutter

[Feature image: Fiona Banner, Anatomy of a Book (2009)]

Gutter of a volume is the channel and combined marginal space formed by the two inner or back margins of facing pages of a volume. Book Arts Web

On the rare occasion that I’ve given the gutter a moment’s thought, it has seemed to me a minor annoyance, one easily tolerated, though, because of the innumerable benefits of the technology that created it, the codex. Again, if I’d thought it over, I probably would have named the gutter among the few unfortunate side effects of the transition in late antiquity from rolling out text to stacking it so that it could be flipped through.

Why an annoyance? Two readerly reasons come to mind quickly. First, it imposes a limit on the annotator. The gutter margins tend or be slimmer than their outer peers (sometimes called the “front margins”), and they often slope precipitously into the shadowy abyss. The effect: to make a band of book-body unavailable for tattooing. Second, the gutter poses risks for those whose reading and eating habits overlap. The gutter, I’ve found, is often just large enough to accept donations from crumbly baked goods and, diabolically, just narrow and tenacious enough to resist their extraction using the utensils normally at hand (e.g., the mechanical pencil). As in so many other circumstances in life, further surgical intervention only makes matters worse.

Book designers, meanwhile, are much more mindful of the gutter, since its dimensions affect both the page’s aesthetics and functionality. Orthodox designers honor the Canons of Page Construction, which offer ratios by which to mete out inner, outer, top, and bottom margins. Generally speaking, disciples set the ratio of inner to outer margins at 1:2. The quest for geometrical sublimity has led to the establishment of multiple models and methods, some of which can be sampled at a leisurely pace in this clip:

Among the gurus of page design, the gutter serves largely as an occasion for WARNINGS. The designer Joel Friedlander, for example, argues that the margin should “show the entire type block area easily, without ‘disappearing’ into the gutter” (here). Similar instruction is doled out to would-be authors and illustrators of children’s books, as seen here:

[The gutter] is an element that needs to be a major consideration when designing images for a book. Avoid placing important elements in or near the gutter. Elements placed too close to the gutter may disappear after the book is bound. Children’s Publishing 101

Wise counsel, of course, especially for those planning double page spreads. Mismeasurement might send a carefully rendered wing or hand (or other valuable appendage) to the abyss to await the companionship of scone shavings.

But then again, maybe it’s not always good advice. Maybe what’s lamented here is actually an opportunity. So, at least, has Richard Byrne argued in This book just ate my dog! (2014):

2016-03-12 06.53.59That’s the first of a series of disappearances (appropriately enough, given the reversal of the standard dog-assailant/book-victim formula), which culminate in a loud eructation from the book’s gut(ter). The plot plays brilliantly with two issues noted above: 1. the design imperative to avoid the gutter and 2. readers’ experiences in which the gutter behaves like a book’s maw.  Elements placed too close to the gutter DO disappearByrne suggests, and that’s where the fun begins.

Byrne is not alone among the children’s book-artists in exploring what can be made of the gutter. In the Danish author-illustrator Koen Van Biesen’s Roger is Reading a Book (2013, English Trans. 2015), the gutter serves as a paper-thin wall between two apartments, which cannot contain the volumes of sound that issue from the verso inhabitant, Emily. It is also, as in this moment, a means for the bookish Roger to (fail to) communicate his exasperation:

2016-03-12 06.55.19

PLOT SPOILER ALERT: The temporary solution to Roger’s plight turns out to be inviting someone else to experience the delights of reading. For a time, verso and recto become mirrors not only of each other but also of the implied reader as each becomes engrossed in a book. (That’s all I’ll say for now: I don’t want to ruin the end[-papers].)

In the “picture + book artist” Suzy Lee’s mostly wordless Shadow (2010), the gutter grounds the “real” world of the verso page, dividing it from the “shadow” world of the recto:

2016-03-12 06.56.11But, as in Roger is Reading, the gutter is a porous border: creatures from the shadows slip into the light, while those of the light to venture into the shadows. Later in the book, physical blurring at the horizon–of the verso and recto pages, of particular images–becomes symbolic, a means of rendering the beneficial blurring of identities and communities. At a climatic moment, the book completely disintegrates the boundary line, replacing the two rectangular zones–thereby dissolving the gutter within the storyworld–with a single yellow realm. A dancing circle forms around its center. [Note: In a recent discussion of this book in my Technotexts seminar, students amicably disagreed about how the book should be held, at least initially. Some favored laying the book flat, others the two-plane approach pictured above. We all agreed, though, that when the dancing circle appears the book invites its reader to handle it in a new way–such as holding it up and twirling it to enact the dance.]

These books teach us that in the right hands the gutter is neither a necessary concession to the technology nor a professional hazard (though it may be hazardous to characters).  The gutter has been given significance in these storyworlds–not simply in the sense of being important but also of serving as a signifier. It can, in other words, imaginatively become something else–a mouth, a wall, a shifting ground–and thereby contribute to the book’s larger designs (in these cases, the makers’ narrative purposes). These bookmakers show us that seemingly bootless or merely ornamental elements of the book can be put to use–or, better said, be put in play–in the book’s process of meaning-making.

These books offer preliminary evidence for a claim that perhaps subsequent anatomical studies will make credible:  the genre of the children’s book represents one of the most dynamic spheres in which our culture-wide interrogation of the codex and its associated practices is playing out. Although Kate Hayles doesn’t comment on children’s books in her ground-breaking Writing Machines of 2002 (though readers may recall her brief discussion of the child-oriented text-to-speech exhibit Reading Eye Dog), I have found examples like these books among the most valuable specimens in helping students to understand her concept of the “technotext”: “Literary works that strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves and the material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic they instantiate.”

Now, to round things out, back to the margins. Fifteen years ago, the guild journal Library Hi Tech ran an article bearing the ominous title of “Gutterdämmerung (twilight of the gutter margins): E-Books and Libraries.” The article doesn’t appear to be concerned with gutter margins at all but rather then impending material and existential e-crises for librarians. The phrase does speak a truth, though, about the fact the gutter is not a necessary physical attribute to digital reading technologies (though it may, of course, be simulated). (A double-screened and hinged [yup] e-reader does, I suppose, have an inner margin or sorts, but that space is not open to ebookmakers’ tinkering.) With the disappearance of the physical gutter–and the familiar experiences, professional dicta, and thus cultural resonances associated with it–, we lose the possibility of the kind of meaningful incursions into unexploited terrain that Byrne, Van Biesen, and Lee attempt. That’s the negative way of putting the point. One could also say, positively speaking, that children’s bookmakers–alongside their counterparts in the adult world of artists’ books–are inaugurating the dawn of the gutter margins. And one might argue that these artists are now discovering the gutter’s meaning-bearing potential thanks to the new consciousness of and playfulness with the codex occasioned by a rival’s entrance. To say as much in German one wouldn’t even need a new phrase: dämmerung means, after all, both dusk and dawn.


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3 Thoughts to “Minding the Gutter”

  1. Geoffrey Hagberg

    I’m reading Scott McCloud’s _Understanding Comics_ and stumbled into this– https://brandednoise.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/blog-uc-1.jpg
    –and it clarified for me what I think has been nagging at me while I’ve been trying to consider where or how I’ve seen gutters used creatively or meaningfully.

    McCloud’s identifying the gutter–what might be dismissed as the margins of or negative space framing the panels–as the place where the reader is required to participate in translating time and space and the progression of themes, plot, and characters between those panels. The gutter is space left empty for the reader to fill with the meaning that comes between two static images.

    Of course, the gutter of comics and the gutter of standard book design technically are referring to separate concepts, but I think the comparison yields some broader ways of looking at gutters and margins in general.

    On a very basic level, the block of text on a typical page (in a printed novel, for example) is not unlike a single panel of a comic. Yes, it is significantly more abstracted, forsaking accuracy of visual representation for accuracy of conceptual representation (McCloud also talks about that spectrum). Yes, it is significantly more information-dense, the time and space represented in a visual panel may only be a single moment compared to whatever expansive realms or ages are conveyed in the span of a few paragraphs, sentences, or even phrases. But the page of text still can be (should be?) taken as a single piece of communication within a larger whole. With that in mind, the gutters between pages and margins around pages serve not just to compositionally aid the reader navigating the type but also to necessarily invite (require) the reader to participate in bridging the pages, closing the gaps, stepping across the gutter to start the next page.

    Maybe I’m making way too much of something simple and obvious, but perhaps the innovation you’re rightly seeing so much of in children’s books and illustrative design is just one kind of attention being given to the gutter. The other kind, perhaps more subtle or maybe just more unconscious now that it’s so established, is an attention given simply to how much space the gutter gives to the reader. That kind of attention uses the geometry and the composition around a page of text in much the same way as the comic artist uses their negative space around panels.

    I’m looking at two of my favorite books right now (favorite as physical books and as written stories, for the record)–the hardcover Barnes & Nobles Classics collection of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Illustrated Man, and Golden Apples of the Sun; and Putnam’s publication of Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Runes of the Earth, also hardcover. The Bradbury collection has even, one-inch margins around each page (between blocks of text, a total gutter of two inches if laid flat). The Donaldson novel has (by my guess) closer to a half-inch gutter with three-quarters on the flanks of each page and an inch top and bottom. At the risk of really over-analyzing the design here and committing way too zealously to my point, I think the one-inch margins and total of two inches between each block of text in the Bradbury collection force the reader to be more attentive to each block of text on its own… it slows you down, that larger gap, you’re not seeing the other page in your peripheral and you’re not trying to jump ahead to it. Halving that space in the Donaldson novel drastically changes that experience, drawing the reader through the novel at a quicker pace, the next page demanding attention as soon as the first is finished.

    The point here being that the space given to the gutter, even if not used for depictive innovation or uniquely overhauling the space of the page, is definitely capable of opening more or less room for the reader to invest in what lies between pages, between blocks of text. I’m given space to sit with Bradbury’s words, whereas I’m ushered quickly through to the next section of Donaldson’s narrative. As an extreme example, look at the printing of poetry, where a poem can often be given a whole page to itself, centered and small with a relatively enormous amount of space surrounding the text, dividing one poem from the next, with, I think, the clear intention of giving the reader an abundant opportunity to consider the time and space and themes within the poem (again, also the block of text or the image), and offering the chance to translate those internally, define a progression underneath the ink and paper, between poems, pages, and panels.

    1. Sheldon Campbell

      Having read your fascinating comment (and recently being forced by Dr. Gibson to read Chris Ware) I’ve been on the lookout for gutters everywhere, for better or for worse. I notice that something like McCloud’s gutter transitions happen in the medium of film. McCloud mentions that filmmakers use “Closure” to create effects–to harness the power of viewers’s imaginations. But I noticed recently that when a film cuts from one shot to another or one scene to another, a lot of stuff is skipped over in the transition which we fill in with our imaginations.

      As a case study, look at this clip from Inception:

      First of all, notice how during Ariadne’s maze-designing test (around the 30 second mark), the two minutes of drawing happen in under 2 seconds of film time. She looks down at the notepad, then it cuts immediately to her final marks of drawing, and it all feels very natural.

      Secondly, around the 1:30 mark, it cuts from a shot of the warehouse to a shot of Ariadne and Leonardo (forgot what his character’s named) sitting at a cafe talking. Leonardo describes what McCloud names closure, and then points out that in dreams you always become aware in the middle and don’t question how you got there. Then (this is pretty cool) he asks her to remember how they got there to that cafe, and she can’t recall, realizing that she is dreaming. In that moment, the movie is pointing out that it’s doing what Leonardo is describing–it jumped straight into a scene without explaining how they got there, and we don’t bother to question it.

      In both these examples, tons of time, space, and action are filled in by our imaginations during transitions. Or are they filled in? Are they just assumed, instead?

      As I write this I’m realizing that the analogy (comics to film) is not all that strong. To begin with, the gutters in text and comics are spatial, while in film, the transitions aren’t. It’s hard to think of them as temporal either, because there’s rarely any space (or any gutter-like thing) between one shot and the next. So they seem to be related only because both are kinds of transitions.

      And also, while comic gutters hold all of the time and motion, film transitions hold boring stuff like 2 minutes of drawing, or a long walk from a university to a cafe.

      I’m wondering: Do you think that McCloud is right when he says (p.69) that comics rely much more than film on the audience’s imagination?

  2. Sheldon Campbell

    Today in church I discovered another great use for the gutter. When you have a book resting on your lap and need to put your pen down, the gutter holds it nicely.


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