Michael Hawley of the MIT Media Lab made publishing history Monday with the release of the largest book ever published, as certified by Guinness World Records.
"Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom" weighs more than 130 pounds and when open stands at five by seven feet--nearly as big as a Ping-Pong table. The book features more than 100 pages of spectacular images of a country often referred to as the last Shangri-la, and showcases a variety of new digital, photographic and printing techniques.
Hawley, a technology pioneer at the Media Lab and founder of research programs including "Toys of Tomorrow" and "Things that Think," fell in love with Bhutan while leading several MIT field expeditions there. Nestled between Nepal, Tibet and India, Bhutan is home to one of the most diverse and unspoiled natural and cultural ecologies on Earth.
The book grew out of a desire to use scientific field expeditions to drive better photography. "Every field team, from MIT geologists to the local Boy Scout troop, feels an obligation to collect and share the best possible record of their work," said Hawley. "But photography can be a real annoyance on expeditions."
With seed funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the MIT/Microsoft iCampus initiative, Hawley led four expeditions to Bhutan over four years. Teams of MIT and Bhutanese students, officials and staff flew by helicopter, rode mountain ponies, trekked with packhorses and yaks, and journeyed by caravan on far-flung roads and foot trails across the Bhutanese Himalayas. They had help from the Royal Government of Bhutan and from Chhundu Travel and Tours.
Hawley's teams were equipped with the latest digital and film photo gear to capture a collective portrait of this remote paradise. Images were GPS coded, captioned and stored on pocket disk drives.
As the team explored their archive of images, Hawley hit upon the idea of showcasing the work in a giant book. "We thought we could allow readers to literally 'step into' this beautiful corner of the world--one which so few people will be blessed to visit," he said. More importantly, he saw the book as a unique way for young Bhutanese to share the values that make their community life special.
The completed book was unveiled at the Explorers Club in New York. It will also be shown at invitation-only events at National Geographic in Washington, Seattle's Asian Art Museum, the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco, and the Harry Winston Salon in Ginza, Tokyo.
A limited edition of 500 copies is being produced, but the book is not being sold in an ordinary sense. It will be offered exclusively to patrons who make a contribution of at least $10,000 to Friendly Planet, a nonprofit educational charity. Proceeds will benefit Bhutanese schools, scholars and educational programs. Each copy of the book will be built expressly for the recipient. Amazon.com is the exclusive online outlet for the book and FedEx will provide free shipping to patrons.
"We pushed technology hard, and for a higher purpose, and the images give a taste of an inspiring way of life in a truly special part of the world," Hawley said. "All of us feel fortunate to have had the chance to work on this, and the fact that the funds raised will help young students gain an education makes us awfully happy."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 17, 2003.