Can a book be a work of art? Those involved in designing and producing books, or librarians like me, will likely say yes. An eye-catching book cover or captivating narrative draws as much on creativity as pragmatism. But, for books published in the mainstream for public consumption, conventional design to some degree is necessary for accessibility. Information presented predictably, in a soft or hardcover book, in near 12-point serif font, and a narrative that physically exists, running vertically from beginning to end, is more user-friendly and readily consumed. Book artists, however, have been challenging these familiar publication techniques and forms since the early 1960s.
Accustomed to conventional library collections, I initially found their “artists’ books” to be, at times, delightful or frustrating but endlessly surprising. The Walker’s Artist Book Collection, the legacy of the late librarian, Rosemary Furtak, is a collection of, as she put it, “Books that refuse to behave as books.” They resist convention and even avoid being read. You can see examples of these Misbehaving Books currently on display in the Best Buy Aperture, but tucked away in the library stacks are many more artists’ books that “misbehave.” They may be challenging to read, but their rebelliousness allows us to consider the form of the book and what it is capable of expressing.
Take Hương Ngô’s Reap the Whirlwind. Five volumes of congai novels, stories featuring the lives of Indochinese concubines living under French colonialist rule, make up this artist’s book. Alone, they describe the “logistical, ethical, and political aspects” of the concubine system in traditional hardcover bindings. Ngô departs from the conventional book form by blacking out the text on every single page with heat-sensitive ink, literally adding layers to the narratives. Reading requires laying your hands on the book. And, if your hands are cold like mine, pressing, rubbing, smudging, and smearing so that your fingerprints are visible on the text. Ngô writes that readers are implicated in the process. As I write this, no other library staff has attempted a reading. It is certainly work to read this piece, but through the process of revealing the text, I’m reminded of the position of these women and the degree of agency (or lack thereof) they had over their lives as concubines. I grapple with both the text on each page and the content underneath.
Angela Lorenz’s Maxims By the Yard requires a similar degree of work to read. Even less of a traditional book in form, Maxims is a spool of ribbon with sayings to live by woven into the fabric. To read, one must make slow, methodical rotations of the spool as each saying woven into the fabric is unraveled. I haven’t yet read to the end; because I tend to pause and contemplate each maxim, I’ve only made it a couple feet in. Unlike a book I could easily flip through to the end, this must be read in sequence. And, since it takes time to reach each maxim, I cherish each one more. Lorenz’s work tends to have a humorous twist, and Maxims is no different, but here her verbal expression elicits serious moments with the content. In turning the book page to ribbon, twisted around a spool, the reader is uniquely engaged with this text.
Julie Chen’s Life Time certainly tests common notions on the book. Housed in a small blue box, this tunnel book consists of eight circular pages held together on both sides by accordion-folded strips of paper. Each page has a hole cut out of the center, which gets successively smaller. The last page has no hole but rather the figure of a man diving headfirst into a sea of aqua, wavy lines. These pages cannot be carelessly flipped, as one would with a conventional volume. The book must be extended and the pages angled to see the text. Peering into the extended book, the reader can see only a glimpse of the diver, and the all-caps text bordering each page: My life is passing right before my eyes / Could it be that I have been / Caught beneath the current / Of my daily routine and / am drowning slowly / day by day? It is a struggle to read each stanza while looking directly down the barrel of this book object. It’s frustrating to not be able to read the text immediately, line by line on a single page, or cradle the book open in both hands. But moving and angling the pages every which way, the book feels like a spyglass through which I can see the text. Although the book’s form requires this interaction, the process of reading is an exploration. One line at a time, it allows the message to creep up slowly—fittingly for the subject of one’s mortality.
The unexpectedness of the artist book’s form can be challenging and frustrating, but the challenge makes room for a different reading. Rather than avoiding being read, they avoid being read conventionally. Not simply frustrating, they invite different readings. By taking on the book form, these artists use the ever familiar book—an item found in nearly everyone’s home today—and make it unfamiliar. Whether on hand-crafted or Xeroxed printer paper, the practice of reading is disrupted, and the reader interacts with the book in a new way. The act of doing so is a part of the experience, part of how the artist communicates with reader. While it is not as standard as horizontal text or sequential narratives, for this librarian, where books are able to elicit such responses is where art begins.