As more and more people read their books off screens, there’s been a rise in the number of books that not only celebrate ink printed on paper but fetishize the medium, even if it has nothing to do with reading the books in question. What should we make of this development?
Status is a thread that runs through the history of storing scrolls, manuscripts, and codex books. Books on display have always said something about their owners. In 1930, at the behest of publishers, Edward L. Bernays, the original “spin doctor,” responsible for, among many things, advocating women to smoke cigarettes in the same of equal rights, launched a campaign to popularize bookshelves. He worked to make sure architects, interior designers, and media outlets synthesized an industry-wide message that book-lined shelves indicated material abundance and social status. Of course, such an approach to selling books made clear that it really didn’t make a difference whether or not all of those books have been read, and so the commercial idea of book as object was established. (Artists books certainly inhabited this space much earlier than 1930 but in a more rarefied manner.)
In 2009, Yale University Press started its “Unpacking My Library” series with Unpacking My Library: Architects and Their Books, which was followed in 2011 by Writers and Their Books. Both installments tour readers through the private libraries of notable architects (Stan Allen, Peter Eisenman, etc.) and authors (Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, etc.), suggesting that examinations of bookshelves say quite a bit about individual, and cultural, 21st century relationships to printed books. In 2011, My Ideal Bookshelf documented the bookshelves of over 100 cultural figures, from Michael Chabon to Thurston Moore and Alice Waters. All three of these books include explanations from the owners of the collections, probing influences and quirks. The series relies on photographs of libraries and close-ups on shelves; Jane Mount’s paintings of spine-out books illustrate My Ideal Bookshelf. While books are the ostensible subjects of these collections, they really are more about the owners of the books. By speaking about specific books, their owners — all of them talented, some of them visionary — bestow an added cultural significance on the books, like a celebrity endorsement. So the question becomes: Is objectifying a book really the best way to praise the book?
Art Made from Books is one answer to this question. As book artist Brian Dettmer writes in the book’s preface: “The book is no longer the king of the information ecosystem.” He cites this shift as the reason why more and more artists today, as Art Made from Books proves, are using old books to make original artworks. Dettmer is optimistic about what the future holds, making an example of how painting changed in light of mechanical reproduction: “[I]nstead of suffocating painting, printing and photography freed painting from its pedestrian responsibilities and allowed it to evolve into newer, more modern directions. . . . By altering the book, we can explore the meanings of the material and the ideas of the book as a symbol for knowledge.” This is an interesting point and one that is supported by the artists featured in this survey.
What do you do with old phonebooks, other than use them as doorstops and unsafe booster seats? With his disturbingly detailed phonebook portraits Alex Queral “carves a face into the object of so many faceless names.” Jeremy May repurposes pages by turning them into jewelry; Guy Laramee laments the book’s traditional role in society by crafting mountainous sculptures of erosion and decay out of old books, making photographs that look like natural landscapes. The intricacy of the delicately layered tableaux cut into books by the likes of Su Blackwell and James Allen are stunning.
There is no shortage of inspiration and innovation on display in Art Made from Books, though there is a lack of history. For those only curious about contemporary artists altering books, you will not be disappointed, especially with the photographs that reveal the astounding nooks and crannies of these projects. But should you not know about the history of using books to make art objects, look elsewhere as this anthology doesn’t pay much attention to the past. In her introduction, Alyson Kuhn’s passing mention of Tom Phillips’s A Humument makes it seem like that book was the first result of such alterations. But it is important to recognize projects like Dieter Roth’s “Literaturwurst”; between 1961 and 1974 he cut up books and magazines, mixed the shreds with spices and gelatin, and stuffed it all into sausage casing. As amazing as A Humument is, it is not the first book of its kind and it certainly isn’t the most radical.
The Purple Book very much embraces history. Pentagram’s Angus Hyland, the book’s designer, describes it as “a vision of beauty imbued with mortality and on the point of decay, a vision at one with the dominant aesthetic of the Decadent Movement.” Cut from the same cloth as The Yellow Book, a magazine for which Aubrey Beardsley served as its first art editor, The Purple Book – oversized, lavishly illustrated, seductive with black edges – prods and tickles sensuality as evoked by contemporary artists responding to the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, Christina Rossetti, and Georges Bataille. Angharad Lewis connects the book’s contemporary artwork to William Blake, Hokusai, Arthur Rackham, and Max Ernst, among others. At times coy, at other times unabashed, indulging fantasy and the subconscious, The Purple Book is a testament to the printed book – an impressive object full of enticing content. It is what should be expected of all books, in Lewis’s words: “a tactile and intimate object, a place of private reverie, of concentrated attention, and as an unparalleled vehicle for the transportation of the imagination.”
I couldn’t help but think of these words when considering Sorted Books, another recent book-as-object release. It relies on nothing more than the titles printed on spines, and in some cases front covers, and results in clever, concise, at times silly, poetic combinations of words. Nina Katchadourian came up with the idea back in the early 1990s. She’s kept it up, however, because it is a central component to her larger artistic practice. In her words: “I show up with almost nothing, make an investment of time, commit my full attention, and leave with a number of images. It forces me to be productive within a situation that is bounded.” The books, without even being read, serve as “a vehicle for the transportation of the imagination” – in fact the execution of “Sorted Books” meets all of Lewis’s criteria for a book’s greatest qualities.
In the big picture, the book publishing industry still doesn’t really know what to do with itself. But people continue to read and books remain relevant. The manifestation of that relevance can take many different shapes, as documented in all of these books about books. Hopefully, some of these qualities will help guide publishers to help determine how to produce the projects they choose to champion, no matter the format.
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