Books as Art

Books as art

Abelardo Morell at the Art Institute, 2013

Abelardo Morell at the Art Institute, 2013

When I was in college, I could never bring myself to write in the margins of my books, even in pencil. This wasn't because I thought I'd get a better re-sell value at the end of the semester, but because I felt my markings would somehow sully the author's words or even the book itself. Here's the bit where I wax poetically about what it means to hold a physical book in your hands and flip through pages of rough or smooth, thick or thin paper, to smell the scent of the used bookstore where you found this treasure, and to see nothing but the straight lines of the author's words carefully chosen and arranged on the page for your appreciation. With that mindset, defacing a book seemed almost immoral. But a few years ago I saw an Abelardo Morell exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago where he used books to portray parts of the Alice in Wonderland story. The use of the books added an intensity and depth to the pieces of the story that were being showcased, and for years afterwards those images would pop up in my head from time to time.

Many years before this, my dad's bookstore in Prague hired Kaspen, an ad agency, to come up with a campaign highlighting the special qualities of both Anagram Bookshop and reading. The "words create worlds" images perfectly embody what it means to feel like you're existing in the pages of the book you're reading. Check out this page for some close-up shots of the incredible photoshoot.

Jonathan Safran Foer and Tom Phillips have both taken 'book sculpture' a step further, using existing words to create new worlds. In 2010, Foer published Tree of Codes, a book he 'wrote' by removing words from The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (the only printer Foer's publisher could find to produce such a book was in Belgium). A decade before Foer was even born, Phillips decided to alter a secondhand book he bought for threepence using paint and collage to bring forth a new story; he's been adding to and amending A Humument ever since. Last year, an artist friend of mine took me to Flowers gallery in Chelsea that had A Humument and the original book side by side. Physically carving out a story from an existing story takes editing to a whole new level! 

A Human Document by W. H. Mallock, top. A page from A Humument, right.

A Human Document by W. H. Mallock, top.

A page from A Humument, right.

Though he's not trying to create new novels from existing ones, Brian Dettmer does use books the way other artists use clay or metal; he shapes books into new art forms, a process that he compares to DJing. His TED talk explains how he makes some of his pieces using weights and pullies and he argues that the book is not the best medium for linear information, which is why dictionaries and reference books are being taken over by their digital counterparts.

Places like The Last Bookstore in LA and the Brooklyn Public Library, and even the little alcove of used books at Killerton in Devon, use books as a form of decoration. And we've all seen those chairs that double as bookshelves (an unbelievably convenient place to keep that To Be Read pile).

Brooklyn Public Library, 2016

Brooklyn Public Library, 2016

Christmas decorations at Killerton in England, 2015

Christmas decorations at Killerton in England, 2015

The Last Bookstore archway

The Last Bookstore archway

Over the years, these exhibits and images have changed my mind about how I view the so-called "destruction" of books. I'm not saying I want to start cutting up my favorite paperbacks anytime soon, but I'm always on the lookout for the ways in which people use books as an art medium. Books can be many things to many people—an artist's tool, an academic's notebook, a writer's muse—and while the original form is still the most valuable and meaningful to me, incorporating book art into our lives can re-define how we approach the use and interpretation of books.


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