A new documentary explores the remarkable resilience of the book

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ONE IS MADE entirely of lead; another dances when opened. A third includes images of Mount Fuji fashioned from foam sponges, and a children’s book weaves together pictures and strands of text from classic tales. All pose the same fascinating question: what, in a digital age, are physical books still for?

Some answers emerge in “The Book Makers”, an enchanting new documentary that probes the form and function of the codex, that hunk of paper between two boards that has evolved over millennia into the ideal reading device. The film is not just a dazzling introduction to the art of the book. It is also a passionate tribute to this extraordinary invention that renders the intangible—ideas, thoughts, feelings—tangible.

James Kennard, who conceived and directed the film, is a Californian who learned the film-making trade from his father, David Kennard, a director of legendary documentaries on Joseph Campbell and Carl Sagan, among many others. After working as cameraman on a trilogy about the world’s wine regions, the younger Mr Kennard has now struck out on his own. Books made by hand immediately appealed as a lively art to explore, filled with clanking machines and luscious visuals. By happy chance he was able to follow one book artist, Mark Sarigianis, from the start of a monumental printing of Charles Bukowski’s novel “Ham on Rye” to its completion 626 days later.

“The Book Makers” travels across the world to meet other leading book artists, including Peter Koch, a fine printer and book-maker in Berkeley, California, Russell Maret in Brooklyn, Christian Robinson, a children’s book illustrator in Sacramento, and Veronika Schäpers in Germany’s Black Forest. The camera lovingly dwells on the extraordinary artistry involved in making books by hand, from typecasting to printing to painstaking painting, cutting, sewing and writing. Alongside these works of art, more ordinary physical books also make an appearance in shops and classrooms. And in what may be the ultimate fate of most printed books, they shimmer as digital ghosts at San Francisco’s Internet Archive, an online library of more than 20m scanned volumes, housed in a former church. Each time a book is accessed the banks of servers—arrayed like organ pipes in the naves—blink.

The documentary argues that digital technology, paradoxically, has liberated the physical book from its original function of conveying information. Gone is the obligation to impart lists of facts and quickly outdated data; freed from the “burden of doing so many tasks that digital information does better”, the book in the 21st century is “being totally reborn and reinvented”, says Abby Smith Rumsey, a historian. The physical book today can glory in its ability to communicate using all five senses.

Take Mr Koch’s “Liber Ignis”, a 13-kilogram hulk that describes and illustrates the toxic legacy of mining in Montana. It is a book made of lead, which is poisonous, and its pages describe the poisoning of the Earth. Julie Chen, who teaches at Mills College in Oakland, California, demonstrates several of her complex pop-up books, noting that “a book has to contain that whole theatrical experience without anyone there to direct it”. As artistic objects, these books are designed to embody the subjects they convey, evoking an emotional and aesthetic response.

In the midst of a pandemic, when so many spend their days in front of a screen, the humble book has proven a godsend, as bookshop sales show. Beyond such fabulous works of art, any book “is finite, which means it’s manageable and digestible,” says Sam Winston, an artist based in London. “If you’re living in an age where hyper-stimulation is very apparent, books are one of the ways you can get back into a different sensory plane.” Just looking at and touching such works—at fine-book shows or the world’s leading artist book fair, Codex, which closes the documentary’s tour—can revive the spirit. Failing that, this film is an excellent substitute.

“The Book Makers” is showing on the WORLD channel, PBS stations across America and streaming at PBS.org