Judith Dupré’s books investigate history through the lens of an individual building type, whether skyscrapers, bridges, churches or monuments. She seeks to captivate the imagination of the general reader, in hopes of illuminating the relationship between the arts, the built environment and one’s quality of life. Dupré also conceives of the books’ major design conventions and unique bindings. Expressing the multiple dimensions of time and history within the limits of the printed page is a persistent subtext.
An image is just as likely to inspire an essay as something that is read or heard. She is “one of the few historians who use photographs, drawings, prints, and paintings as original evidence in themselves rather than as mere illustrations of a textually delivered argument,” noted Bernard F. Reilly, president of the Center for Research Libraries.
Snapshot: A book’s excellence relates to a fundamental physicality—the book’s hand, how it feels when one holds it, the sensual intake of its paper, scent, color, the way the type inhabits the page and dances fast then slow with the white spaces. The best of them seem to breathe, are living things. A good book inspires a covetous desire to own the aesthetic and ideas it espouses, making you think about the subject matter, and about the book itself. It inspires love.
Skyscrapers (1996, 2008) has an oversized, 18-inch-high format to accommodate photographs of supertalls. Its multilayered design, which invites many ways of reading the text and imagery, presaged what would eventually become the experience of viewing Internet pages. The book was an international publishing phenomenon—“Breathtaking. Magnificent. Unique.”—and remains the bestselling book in the world on the subject. It was followed by Bridges (1997), a playful 3-feet wide when opened, which the Christian Science Monitor described as “an astonishing union of technology and art.” The New York Times said, “Dupré captivates the eye, mind and imagination.”
The episodic essay structure imposed on Churches (2001), a New York Times bestseller, recalls the daylong segments of a pilgrimage, suggesting the restlessness of a soul seeking grace. Larry B. Stammer of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Churches “goes beyond the required historical, architectural and engineering details to proffer insights into the transcendent.” O, the Oprah Magazine hailed it as “magisterial, meticulously researched, and handsomely illustrated.”
Snapshot: When I was a child, my father read to my brothers, sisters and me every night. I have happy memories of us piled on a big bed, elbowing aside pillows and siblings for the best spot closest to Dad. Yet, years later, when I read classic children’s books to my own boys, I couldn’t remember having heard any of them before. When I asked my father what he read to us, he said, “Every night, I read from the encyclopedia.” Aha! Suddenly my love of facts and equal passion for photography made perfect sense.
Monuments (2007) evokes the nature of memory and remembrance by blurring the boundaries between narrative nonfiction and personal memoir. Readers themselves can choose how to engage the photographs, essays and marginalia. “This book, a monument in itself, is a work of art and an invitation to think about just how and what we do remember and why consciousness about this process is so important,” said art historian Robin Jensen. American Arts Quarterly praised the book as “generous in its commitment to the multiple communities that collectively make up the United States.” The New Criterion called Dupré “a scholar with a novelist’s eye for detail and a journalist’s easy style.”
Her most recent book, Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art and Life (2010) examines the fluid, paradoxical identities of the Virgin Mary—as a historical character, cultural impetus, and beloved figure that is supplicated by those with scant knowledge of her theological or historical import. It seeks to tell an old story in a new way. The narrative is a hybrid, partaking of history, doctrinal analysis, visual narrative, and spiritual memoir in order to begin to describe how Mary is actually experienced today. The New York Times called it “intriguing . . . eccentric . . . [Dupré] writes with lyricism and insight.” National Book Award winner and historian Carlos Eire described it as “a rare gem: elegantly written, beautifully illustrated, theologically and historically sound, ecumenically minded, and a potential delight to all, even those who think they have no interest in the Virgin Mary.”