On the Small & the Contrary

by Lisa Pearson

While I was in Prague, before the Velvet Revolution, I read one of the samizdat copies of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It was an unbound, mimeographed typewritten manuscript, no different in its physical form than a thick stack of Communist-era restaurant menus listing the various permutations of pork, beef, and knedliky (concrete slabs of potato dumpling). With nothing to signal that it was a published, much less revered work of literature, Kundera’s book existed in the most utilitarian and urgent of forms. Someone had taken great risks to retype the entire work—not from the Czech original but from a smuggled English translation.

So, here was a book that did not look like a book and furthermore was cloaked in a foreign language. Its status was not a book to be placed as a treasured object on the bookshelf; rather, it was a collection of pages, printed in soft, purple type, meant to read, to be truly consumed and devoured, and then to be given away. While this particular work of beauty and nuance by an exiled writer was far more subversive than any blatantly political tract, the physical form of the book, the fact of its translation, and the necessity of its dissemination also profoundly affected both the act of reading and one’s role as reader: Kundera’s words challenged a whole gamut of accepted truths. Holding on to it was not a only dangerous act—a punishable offense if you were caught by the authorities—but also a selfish one. By passing it on, you shared the risk as well as gave a gift: each reader became a publisher, albeit very much through the looking glass.

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Siglio is not a political publishing house, but it is committed to various kinds of subversions. This samizdat copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being serves as something of a totem for Siglio: as an act of resistance to the literal, the authoritarian and the facile, as the result of undeterred ambition to share a work of art that might otherwise remain unseen and unread, and as a testament to the “book” as refuge, dissent, beacon and nexus. The subversion—in the works Siglio publishes and in the ways it publishes them—begins by looking askew at the accepted paradigms, locating their absurdities and constraints, and then imagining other possibilities. Thus, the invisible is rendered visible, unexpected connections are revealed, categories dissolved, and a space is opened for contradiction, heterodoxy, ambiguity, as well as—and most importantly—for play and wonder.

Siglio publishes uncommon books that live at the intersection of art and literature. These are hybrid, interdisciplinary works that are often unwieldy, expansive, uncategorizable and inimitable. In them the relationship between word and image neither illustrates nor explains, thus they challenge the reader to engage in multiple, diverse, and perhaps unfamiliar modes of reading in which the act of looking is inextricably intertwined. They are not necessarily the books that larger publishing houses have rejected; rather, they are the books those publishing houses may never imagine. Together, they are (and will be) a rigorously eclectic and dynamic constellation of works that—rather than stake out a specific territorial subject or aesthetic stance, rather than serve an argument or fit a particular trim size—they are connected by their way of seeing the world through the looking glass.

How does one possibly get books like these into the world? We collaborate with artists and writers to realize their vision on the field of the page and in the shape of the book. It is designed as the place of primary experience—rather than as documentation of the work or its assessement. Therefore, we eschew the book as a transparent delivery device and embrace it as a very particular physical object that embodies the work and shapes the reader’s direct engagement with it. We cultivate and locate audiences for each book rather than selecting and tailoring a book for an intended demographic. That means, we trust the immense appeal of a beautiful and unusual book and never underestimate the curiosity, intelligence and daring of the reading public—or the knowledge and passion of booksellers and reviewers. And we take nothing for granted: every stage of the process—from editorial to production, from marketing to distribution—is highly individualized because every book deserves its own particular path into the world, into the hands of readers. Perhaps we can only do this because Siglio is so small, or perhaps Siglio is so small because this is how we publish books.

Small press and independent publishing is crucial in a pluralistic, democratic society—it is a stalwart against the expanding homogeneity of the marketplace and the hegemony of the most dominant voices. There is a long history of contrarian and visionary publishing that, given human nature and a means of dissemination, virtually no circumstance will abate. So it’s not a question of whether such publishing endeavors inflect the culture at-large: yes, of course, they do, and yes, of course, they don’t. We do not have power to wield, rather our influence percolates unpredictably here and there, and thus is neither easily measured nor controlled. Perhaps the question is an existential one: how do we see the world differently through the lens of our engagement with it—through the books we publish and by extension through the artists and writers whose works we champion, and the conversations and relationships those books generate?

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Lisa Pearson is the founder and publisher of Siglio Press in Los Angeles which published its first title The Nancy Book by Joe Brainard in 2008 and almost forty titles since then. Siglio books can be found at outstanding independent, museum and contemporary art center bookshops across the country, and they are distributed to the trade by DAP/Artbook.com. This essay was originally published in a slightly different version for the “Micro-Press Issue” of American Book Review, August 2010.