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Ann Sheldon reads up on Glastonbury publishers Wooden Books


A small, Glastonbury-based publisher scooped first prize for Best Book Series at the New York Book Show in 2008. For those who haven’t been introduced, Wooden Books is a collection of beautifully crafted pocket-sized oracles that publisher John Martineau describes as “a mathemagical ancient wisdom series”.

In the curious world of Wooden Books, Nature Spirits rub shoulders with Platonic and Archimedean Solids and there is room for The Alchemist’s Kitchen alongside The Hedgerow Cookery Book. Their pocket-sized publications cover an impressive range of scientific and arcane subjects, including Evolution, Earth Grids, Sacred Geometry and even a Compact Guide to the Cosmos.

The design of each book gives them an atmosphere of ancient libraries and lost knowledge regained. The covers are on sepia white with dark brown bordering and reflective embossed foiled titles, with pages produced on creamy recycled parchment-like paper. Inside they’re hand illustrated, often using old engravings.

illustration from Harmonograph

The spark for publisher John Martineau was a childhood fascination he’d always harboured for a mysterious Victorian device his grandfather kept in the house, called a harmonograph. This simple scientific instrument could draw pictures created by musical harmonies: it was a popular party piece during the late 19th century. The intricate designs produced by musical vibrations ignited John’s passion for knowledge. Harmonograph: a Visual Guide to the Mathematics of Music is now a Wooden Books title, written by John’s grandfather, Anthony Ashton. “It was his retiring joy to see it published and sell well,” says John.

An underlying theme in Wooden Books is the patterns and symmetry in nature, exploring everything from seashells to Stonehenge, from earth grids to symmetry. For example LI: Dynamic Form in Nature illustrates the Chinese way of classifying patterns found at vastly different scales in nature, such as how the design of a meandering river mirrors the twists and folds of the human brain.

John left Bristol University 19 years ago with a degree in philosophy and started work “drawing pictures of explosions” for early computer games such as Sky High Stuntman. John had grown up in a scientific family yet he was also into crop circles and stone circles and he decided to produce books on this type of subject, to, as he put it, “deliver eureka moments in small books”.

When he completed an MA in Architecture and Geometry at The Prince’s Foundation in 1996, he felt further inspired and decided to produce a series of pocket guides to geometry, music, cosmology, and mathematics. In ancient Greece these topics were collectively known as the Liberal Arts and were only taught to free men. Ironically, the things John has explored with Wooden Books’ (such as guides to ley lines, the history of stone circles, dowsing, sacred geometry, mind power and the like) have been dismissed in the last few centuries as pseudo-science and New Age nonsense.

illustration in Evolution

John’s first title was Mazes and Labyrinths, a self-penned book with simple illustrations. For the first five years Wooden Books barely covered their costs but two things changed their fortunes. Their best selling title Useful Mathematical and Physical Formula (by local author Mark Tweed) was published around the same time as another popular science book, Longitude, by David Sobel, which became a surprise best seller. Longitude is part history, part scientific exploration and traces the quest to determine longitude (the lines of measurement around a planet running between west and east such as the equator). Longitude’s editor, George Gibson, was looking for the “next big thing” at Walker Books, a subsidiary of Bloomsbury, which specialises in educational material, and signed up the straight scientific titles from Wooden Books for the US market. This now accounts for half of their total sales.

John also changed the design of the books to the current cover designs, transformed the series into desirable artefacts: handy-sized guides that make good gifts. They now sell a steady 40,000 copies a year in the UK and have been translated into Spanish, Turkish, Greek, Taiwanese and Korean.

Illustration in Stanton Drew & It's Ancient Stone Circles

Some of the titles do better then others but the more unusual subjects are not lost. “One in five books that we publish I just do for the love of it,” says John. “The guide to Stanton Drew has sold about five copies in the local pub! We sell thousands of books on Stonehenge & Avebury at the Stonehenge Visitor Centre but they won’t take any on Stanton Drew because they say they’ve never heard of it!” he laughs.

John moved from Wales to Glastonbury to be in “the headquarters of alternative thinking in the UK. Half of my new authors in the past two years are local.” Gordon Strong who wrote the Stanton Drew book, Matt Tweed the illustrator, Steven Saunders who wrote Mind Tricks and Paul Johnson who wrote Little People of the British Isles are all Glastonbury-based.

“There’s a whimsical thread running through Wooden Books,” says John. “I know lots of people who perceive the world in radically different ways. In Glastonbury I can find authors who will enter into that spirit. What we are doing is reminding our readers that there’s a bunch of educated hippies out there – and they’re marginalised – certainly in the sciences. There are also extraordinary gaps in published information.

“We’ve just produced a book on Ancient British Rock Art. If you go into most British libraries or galleries you’ll struggle to find it but you’ll probably find one quite easily on, say, aboriginal art. We published a book on Ancient Celtic Coin Art and we know it won’t sell well but a third of all Celtic art is to be found on these small coins so it’s important to put that knowledge out there.”

Wooden Books also publish titles such as Mind Tricks, Poisonous Plants, Irish Round Towers, Celtic Coins, The Human Body, Ancient English Cathedrals, Sacred Springs and many more and are mostly available in independent bookshops or online.

John Martineau is about to make publishing history by taking the radical step of publishing the entire contents of the series online, free of charge from this March. All the books will be available in read-only format for both the curious browser and those who genuinely can’t afford to buy. He doesn't see this as being an issue that will affect sales.
“I have so much confidence in these little books and they are only a fiver. I
really believe in the internet as an advertising resource.” 01458 837837


3 little extracts from 3 little wooden books

Mind Tricks Ancient And Modern
“Languages, like national myths or religions, are... boxes that people grow up in, affecting the way their world is perceived. Learning a new language is a great mind-expanding trick, and bilingual children are known to have higher IQs”.


Evolution: A Little History of a Great Idea
“Studies of mitochondrial DNA have revealed that 99% of Europeans are descended from just seven women (known as clan mothers) living at different sites in Europe at different times during the last Ice Age.”
“Epigenetics reveals that emotions, fears, addictions
and other triggers and hormonal surges (that course
as a chemical cocktail through your arteries) can all be passed on to your children... Additionally, you can effect the expression of your DNA simply by thinking about things!”

Glastonbury: Isle of Avalon
“...Jesus is said to have lived or worked briefly at Priddy, a village seven miles from Glastonbury...”
“...The very first church in Britain – a circular hut made of wattles like those of the ancient lake villages – was built here in Glastonbury where the present day ruins of the abbey stand”.


first published in The Spark issue 56 - spring 2009

details correct at time of going to press - please do your own checking



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