Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom
Friendly Planet, 2003
216 pp., $817.12
by Laurance Wieder
The Biggest Book in the World
Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Himalayan Kingdom collects color photographs culled from 40,000 pictures taken over four trips to the Asian enclave by a group of MIT students under the tutelage of director of special projects Michael Hawley, plus several Bhutanese friends of the expedition. Those images, printed in giant format on one side of five-by-100-foot rolls of archival paper, make up the contents of the world's largest book. Cover closed, the six-inch-thick volume measures five by three-and-a-half feet; it weighs about 130 pounds, and is printed and bound on-demand in a limited edition of 500 copies available only through Amazon.com. The book costs $10,000, takes 1-2 months for delivery, and qualifies for Super Saver Shipping. It comes with an aluminum easel for easier viewing and turning of pages, and a charitable-donation tax deduction.
It's hard to assess this object in any but physical terms. For one thing, I'm not sure what it really is. Is it an album of bound posters? A photographic catalogue? A high-end printed slide show of "our class trip to the Himalayas?" A 21st-century art scroll? The digital equivalent of a monastic manuscript copy? Mechanical reproduction pushed to the borders of handicraft? Or hoopla? Or what?
Undeniably, the work is expensive and rare. To find my way into its presence took a little over two months. After failing to synchronize a visit to the bindery in Charlestown, Massachusetts, and being thwarted in my efforts to view the copy on display at the National Geographic Society's headquarters in Washington, D.C., I finally caught up with Number 14 of 500, one week after it was transferred from National Geographic to a permanent home at the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress.
My appointment to look at Bhutan also gave the Prints and Photography Division staff their first opportunity to go through the book. They pushed several library tables together against an outside wall of the reading room to make a raised ...