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Surprise Subscription #23

We all know that you can’t judge a book by its cover. A book’s design, though, is an entirely different matter. Everything that goes into the physical creation of a book reflects its contents to a certain degree: romance novels are printed on trashy paper with even trashier imagery for good reason; and it is by no means arbitrary that gilded pages are found in Bibles or that lush paper and fine ink are used for the exhibition catalogues one finds at museums like the Louvre. The medium is the message, or at least a key part of it.

This is certainly the case with isolarii–our November Surprise Subscription pick.


In order to “re-enchant the world and establish the commonality of all life on Earth”, isolarii has revived the literary tradition of the miniature book. Dating back to the start of the Renaissance, these “island books” physically embodied the high humanist ideals of that era, binding singular stories, poems, and paintings together within a beautiful object one could transport with the simplest of ease.



The power of this concept–namely, “to represent a world of many worlds, not a globe”–needs little explaining in a landscape that is as vast and culturally fractured as our own is today; and whether they contain Russian feminist poetry, conversations with iconic Caribbean philosophers, or avant-garde Chinese fiction, these delightful publications are sure to enrich your imagination while also providing a unique and comforting reading experience. 



It must be said, though, that this Surprise Subscription pick comes with a warning: once you have one of these little islands, the temptation to have others may be strong. After all, isolarii has set out to create an archipelago, and you may end up claiming this archipelago for yourself!

But until then, sit back and enjoy our short but insightful interview with Sebastian Clark, editor and co-founder of isolarii:



First things first: what is isolarii?

isolarii are very small books by the world’s most daring intellectual and artistic figures.

All works that speak to our times and turn reality on its head—and that, as they are released month to month, solely via subscription, provide orientation in a deteriorating world. In doing so, our aim is to redefine literature—that is to say the ways we tell ourselves stories that let us make sense of what is around us.




How did the concept of isolarii arise? What prompted you to approach it as a
publishing project?

I was working at a smartphone factory—which was as depressing as you might imagine—and wanted to create a media system that produced an antithetical reality to that of the iPhone. To not just think differently, as Jobs put it, but make differently.Book publishing—which has failed to innovate, reimagine how it produces value, and remains largely dejected—felt a good starting point. Embracing books does not mean we’re Luddites—we want to hybridise book publishing with the slickest digital interfaces and technologies.


The design of isolarii are pretty unusual. How did you arrive at this very
specific format?

To do what I just mentioned, we needed to create a new format. We wanted to release books globally and directly, at once, for our readers to read in sync. This necessitated the small size. Sometimes if you screw with scale and produce something very small you can often do it in a much bigger way. And I think that’s true of these books—they’re tiny but hugely ambitious.

It is worth saying that the ‘digital new media’ model of the 2010s—contiguous with the iPhone—led all outlets to overproduce content solely to the ends of generating advertising revenue. It undermined their quality—as well as their brand power. Our size means we’re never trying to fill a lumping great container and can make sure everything we release is actually meaningful, actually does something. Like, how can staff writers produce articles at the rate that they do and not have it not be self-eradicating?


How do you choose your projects? Who or what is the ideal isolarii contributor?

Contemporary, and soon to be, legends, who continue to challenge what is expected of them and produce work that is conceptually ambitious.


You have plenty of other things going on like the isolarii summer mixes. What’s
next for isolarii?

At the end of the day, we want to have fun, deliver the best possible work, and continue to imagine surprising new formats.

Across our first six books, and then our more experimental seventh with the Ukrainian government, we explored, preliminarily, most of the things that we wanted to do: exhibition-making, digital reportage, political organising, adapting IP, and music. The aim, now, is to consolidate these strands into a single ‘product’ that doesn’t compromise what we’ve done well—publishing the most adventurous literature out there.


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