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Heavy reading

The largest book in the world starts new chapter of fund-raising for impoverished schools around the globe

From cars to aircraft to skyscrapers, someone has to make the largest of any manmade thing, and now someone has made the largest book in the world, right here in Boston.

 

Not longest -- largest. Guinness World Records has certified that "Bhutan," a photographic journey across that Himalayan country, is the world's largest published book. It measures 5-by-7 feet when opened, and many of its dazzling photographs are full-page. The book is also among the priciest. Each hand-bound copy costs $10,000.

"Bhutan" is to be formally announced and presented today at the Explorer's Club in New York. It was developed at the MIT Media Lab and produced at Acme Bookbinding of Charlestown, a family firm that took a leap of faith on what may be the most unusual book project since Gutenburg.

"Bhutan" is the brainchild of Michael Hawley, director of special projects at MIT who was a faculty member at the famed Media Lab for 10 years. He first went to Bhutan, a kingdom of 16,000 square miles in the Himalayas, between China and India, after a 1998 scientific expedition to Mount Everest. He never forgot the country's dazzling beauty and charming people.

In 2001, he became involved in American Assistance to Cambodia, a project to build schools in that impoverished southeast Asian country, and as he cast about for innovative ways to raise money for the program, he hit on the idea of doing a huge, limited-edition photography book. The plan is to try it first in Bhutan, a much smaller country, and if it works, to replicate it in Cambodia and perhaps in a Middle Eastern country.

With seed money from MIT, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and other sources, Hawley set up a nonprofit company, Friendly Planet, to develop projects to raise funds for educational projects in Third World countries. "Bhutan" is its most challenging and chancy project. (Friendly Planet, www.friendlyplanet.org, is also producing a limited-edition, conventional-sized photography book, "Growing Up in Cambodia," to raise money for schools there.) Over the past two years, Hawley and other MIT photographers, assisted by several Bhutanese people, traveled across the mountainous country taking 40,000 photographs, using state-of-the-art digital and film cameras.

Because the idea was to raise money for Bhutan's 350 schools, Hawley and his team found two Bhutanese kids -- Choki Lhamo and Gyelsey Loday, both now 14 -- and focused much of their photographic attention on their lives. Friendly Planet has flown them to the United States for today's launch. They will also appear inWashington, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Tokyo.

Hawley's career research in images and media, and the mandate of the Media Lab, he says, "is to propel creative technologies. But when you meet such wonderful people in the process, you hope to leave something beautiful behind. Was there a way to repackage the technology to show what it is like to be there [in Bhutan] and raise a little money for the schools?" He hit upon the giant book as one possible way.

The enormous and stunningly beautiful pages are emerging from four printers, lent by HP and set up at Acme. Hawley and Acme designers came up with a way to bind the book, fan-folding the pages by hand and attaching them with a special stitching process. It takes two people most of a day to bind one book. It has 112 pages and weighs more than 100 pounds. Hawley says the paper and inks will last for 100 years. To frame the journey, the endpapers show a map of Bhutan designed by illustrator David Macaulay.

"Bhutan" is not exactly for sale.

A $10,000 contribution to Friendly Planet gets you a copy, so there's a tax deduction. How much money could this project raise? "With four printers going, that's two books a day," says Hawley, who last week was feverishly working on the hand-folding and binding with an assistant, Justin Philips. "If we do 30 a month, we might do 300 to 400 a year. In my wildest dreams, maybe 500 a year" -- that is, $5 million for the Bhutanese schools.

The project depended on an unusual partnership between Hawley and Acme, owned by the Parisi family. Hawley needed a binder, and his visionary way of finding one was to look in the Yellow Pages.

He was lucky. Acme president Paul Parisi says he was attracted to Hawley's imagination and enthusiasm and his commitment to education.

"It's a labor of love," Parisi says. "I have four kids, and I'm involved in literacy and education, and the purpose of this book is to raise money for schools. It's the best cause ever. It's fun to do something that's `not possible' to do. If you look at it as a business decision, you can't justify the costs. If the owner of the business were evaluating me for doing this as a business decision, he'd say, `You flunked that one.' "

Hawley says he already has orders for 20 books. Individual buyers would need a sizable library to display it, but presumably one who can pony up $10,000 does not live in a bungalow. As for security, it seems to be a lesser risk than a painting or a precious jewel. A thief could roll up a canvas or drop a necklace into a purse, but it would be a neat trick to stash this book under one's shirt.

David Mehegan can be reached at mehegan@globe.com.

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