What is the biggest book in the world?
Answered by Michael Hawley
  • Michael Hawley

    Michael Hawley

  1. Michael Hawley Director of Special Projects and Founder of MIT's GO Expeditions Program


    Well, that was an innovative idea; it was kind of an accident. On the face of it that is a giant book. It's 7 by 7 feet. We sold a little more than a hundred copies and raised some money for charity. When we first made it, I mentioned it to Jeff Bezos at Amazon. I said, "You know, I really think you can be the world's largest bookseller," and he said, "I already am." I said, "No, no, literally the world's largest book -- seller." Jeff was very generous in helping support our charity and not taking any royalties on the sales of these huge books.

    For where it came from, it was kind of a mix of things. We were doing expeditionary-oriented research out of MIT and taking a lot of interesting technologies into a lot of interesting environments. For several years, we did a really crappy job of photographing our work and it finally, really burned my bacon when we had a few thousand photographs we'd taken at Mt. Everest, all shot on film, slide film, and the laboratory mislabeled the slides and a graduate student tripped and dumped the whole tray on the floor and you couldn't tell where the picture was taken, because one mountain looks like the next. I said godammit, we have to fix this, we have to put a GPS on every camera that we take on the field. We should know, every picture should know, from now on exactly where on Earth it was taken and when.

    You can imagine this now rolling forward where from now on we'll have this mass global image archive that will be like a gigantic time-lapse collage of our world. It started just because a graduate student dumped the trays on the floor. We launched an expedition to Bhutan to work with kids in Bhutan and play around with cameras. It was just about at the time when digital photography was beginning to happen. We used a mix of film cameras and digital cameras. After the smoke had cleared, we'd shot 80,000 photographs across the Himalayas, all of them GPS coded. I think it's still the world's largest single archive of images of Bhutan, and we were fishing for a way to use that imagery to be of benefit to the kids in the schools.

    About the same time as that was going on I found it very difficult to raise money to produce books and sell books. This was long before the book market really began to change. But even then it was hard to get someone to pitch in to support a little coffee table book. One day a friend of mine, Rich DeMillo, who was the chief technology officer at HP, sent me this gigantic wooden box. I mean, it was an eight foot long wooden crate and blocked the door to my office. I thought, what the? It's like the HP version of junk mail. They just dumped this crap on MIT.

    So we took out the crowbar and opened it up and it was the biggest inkjet printer they'd made. I thought, what the hell am I going to do with this? I remember one day printing out a gigantic two dollar bill and a dog and pony show came walking through, bunch of suits and ties, from the Federal Reserve in Washington. One of them said, that's my signature on that bill and I've got a big problem with that. I said, yeah, if we could just make it a little smaller we'd be in business. I haven't talked to Robert Rubin since then.

    But fooling around with these large format inkjet printers was kind of fun. We began printing our beautiful Himalayan photographs this way and we popped out a bunch of 5 by 7s, which are 5 by 7 feet and there was something that felt very different. I think we were among the first people to use large format inkjet printing for fine art photography. We then had the problem of, how do you display it? There wasn't enough wall space in our lab or at MIT to hang these prints and it costs $10,000 to frame a five by seven foot print with a big piece of glass. So one of my creative graduate students, Leonardo Bonanni, said, "Well, why don't we just bind it together and do a great big book?" And I thought, bingo.

    And so we did. It was very charming. We came up with an idea of folding the book like an Asian accordion book but also gathering the folds with little tabs into a Western-style binding, and that allows it to stand upright in an easel. And the thing we noticed is, unlike some snobby SoHo gallery, where people show up dressed in black with little glasses of Champagne, and it's like a Woody Allen caricature of a photo gallery opening, with this it's just a book and people walk up to it. At first their eyes open wide and their jaw hits the floor because they've never seen a book that big. And then they turn a page and they start smiling, because the last time you saw a book that was that big you were about that tall and books were that big relative to you. It triggers something very deep about the way that turning a page in a book kind of opens a window on a different part of your imagination. There was a lot that led to this funny project, but it turned out to be a very wonderful project and great for the graduate students. And it brought together so many pieces at a fascinating moment in the evolutionary history of photography.

    More answers from Michael Hawley »

Still Curious?
  • How is a book different from storytelling in other media?

    Answered by William Joyce

  • How has technology changed the work librarians do?

    Answered by Sarah Thomas

  • Are people allowed to check out books at the Bodleian Library?

    Answered by Sarah Thomas


What are you curious about?