SMALL PRESS

March 2022

IN THE FUTURE, there will be no writing; we will communicate solely like bees through TikTok dances. In the interim, during the slow/fast glide toward the desuetude of the written word, attention spans dwindle, readers seem to cathect increasingly onto texts the length of a caption, and people like myself pen mournful eulogies that may reasonably be labeled “tl;dr.”

The new subscription-based press Isolarii is experimenting with a cunning strategy for attracting readers to medium-length reading: It makes books with pages the size of the display on a second-generation iPhone SE. The design is a canny one, reflecting the recognition that not only are we now accustomed to reading at that those dimensions, we might prefer it, and that we’ve grown attached to the haptic sensuousness of something you can cradle in the palm of your hand. Tipping the scales at about three ounces each, these books are small but not smol; there’s nothing cutesy about them. And all around, they feel good. The interior pages are thick and grainy; the jackets that wrap their soft covers have appeared, in Isolarii’s first season, in uncoated paper, vellum, and a tacky, glossy stock. The press has succeeded at imbuing the book form with the psychophysical qualities of a mala, a rosary, kombolói, a smartphone—objects that you pick up and feel almost anxious letting go of.





None of this design cleverness would make a difference, of course, if the books were bad. They are not. Isolarii’s six volumes thus far have been varied, ambitious, and of strikingly high quality. Launching in the annus horribilis of 2020—a lousy year for everything except being alone and quiet, perhaps reading—it debuted with a publication by the artist duo Cooking Sections to accompany their exhibition “Salmon: A Red Herring” at London’s Tate Modern that November. The book, about the vitiation of both the color and the fish and the obliteration of the boundary between the natural and the artificial, proved an auspicious selection: Ten months later, Cooking Sections were nominated for the Turner Prize.

 
Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020). Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020). Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020). Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020). Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020). Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020).

Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020).

Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020).

Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020).

Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020).

Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020).

Spread from Cooking Sections’ Salmon: A Red Herring (Isolarii, 2020).

Over the next fifteen months—as the pandemic forced delays in production—came the bilingual compendium F Letter: New Russian Feminist Poetry; Purple Perilla, a collection of realist-fabulist contemporary short fiction by Can Xue, an author from Xishuangbanna, in China’s Yunnan Province, near the borders with Myanmar and Laos; Street Cop, a textual-visual collaboration between Robert Coover and the newly bannable Art Spiegelman; and Modern Animal, a collection of Gogol-inflected (and war-haunted) tales and photos of animal-human affinities by Ukrainian writer and artist Yevgenia Belorusets. Most recently, in what feels like a signature achievement, Isolarii published The Archipelago Conversations, a collection of dialogues with Édouard Glissant compiled by Hans Ulrich Obrist from 1999 through the Martinican postcolonialist theorist’s death in 2011.





Glissant’s appearance is no coincidence; the press’s founders, Sebastian Clark and India Ennenga, sought out his work because the venture was partly inspired by his writing, in particular his notion of “archipelagic thinking,” which emphasizes exchange over essentialism, celerity over stolidity. “Continents weigh us down,” Glissant declares in one of the book’s conversations. “Archipelagos are able to diffract, they create diversity and expansiveness, they are spaces of relation that recognize all the infinite details of the real.” The Glissantian ethos is melded with that of the press’s namesake, an outmoded genre of Italian Renaissance geographical literature known as the isolario, or “island book.” Isolarii eccentrically combined cartography and travel literature, taking nonmariner readers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to faraway lands. The overtones the original isolarii thereby possessed, of mercantile colonialism and nascent globalization, are here swapped out for Glissant’s notion of “tout-monde,” the “One-World” where exchange takes place absent relations of subordination and dominance. Thus Isolarii publishes books that are deliberately international and just as concertedly idiosyncratic.

The idea for a small small press emerged when Ennenga sent a pocket-size edition of René Daumal’s classic metaphysical investigation Mount Analogue (1952) to Clark while he was researching labor-rights issues on smartphone production lines in China. In 2018, the pair came across an isolario in the archive of the Morgan Library and Museum in New York. From there, it was a matter of putting the material aspects in place. For design, the two chose to work with Office Ben Ganz, whose principal is the art director of the smart architecture magazine Pin-Up, and Chase Booker. The result is straightforward but engaging, with serif type essentially the same size as any paperback’s and a spindly, glitchy display font designed by Ganz. The volumes also possess custom flourishes tailored to their contents. The deftest example thus far is the gradation of the paper stock in Salmon: A Red Herring; the shade of the pages lightens as they move from beginning to end, paralleling what has occurred to the fish itself as it has been converted first to a farm animal and then to an aquacultural product that requires artificial coloring to simulate its original appearance. The gradient is based on the SalmoFan, a product used to select the hue preferred by consumers in different markets.





Isolarii’s bimonthly-subscription feature is, like the books’ size, counterintuitive but timely. (For commitment-phobes, some titles are available individually online.) The pace of the press locates it somewhere between magazines and books: It has neither the former’s desiccating attachment to the moment nor the latter’s gesturing toward continental permanence. The subscription model also requires something in small supply these days—trust. Signing up means extending yourself to engage with someone else’s taste for an indeterminate period. In this respect, Isolarii more resembles a Substack or Patreon-enabled podcast that connects a single sensibility in all its facets with a commissioning audience, while at the same time delivering a high degree of finish. Like Glissant, Isolarii is on the side of the optimists. Though its creators are very much in the background, the publisher offers a direct link to another consciousness and its vagaries through the medium that, regardless of any innovations in the metaverse, still feels the most intimate: the written word. 

Domenick Ammirati is a writer and editor based in New York.