[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):
That’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 disappear, Byrne 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:
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:
But, 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.