Saturday, January 28, 2012

Art Books and Book Arts

I caught the Graphics Show at the Walker on the afternoon of its last day. Plenty of color posters, digital gimmicks, magazine layouts, and branding displays. As we entered I caught sight of the big display of books in a gallery to the left and whisked past the introductory bulletin board with nary a glance.

Why? Because I like books—precious, hand-made books and those with eccentric, avant-garde designs. But the books under the Plexiglas at the Walker reconfirmed my long-held belief that many such productions are fascinating to ogle but very difficult to read. When a book becomes a mere vehicle for lavish design, or beyond that, a piece of sculpture, I begin to lose interest.

You may argue that there’s no need for us to chose between “books” and “book arts.” As the saying goes, “It takes all kinds (of books) to make a world.”

True enough. And I have books scattered all around the house that seem precious to me, at least in part, because they’re so exquisitely crafted. I recently pulled off the shelf a fine copy of The Book of Tea by Okahura Kakuzo, for example, with heavily textured paper, encased in one of those sturdy boxes.

Opening it at random, I read:
“…But when we consider how small after all the cup of human enjoyment is, how soon overflowed with tears, how easily drained to the dregs in our quenchless thirst for infinity, we shall not blame ourselves for making so much of the tea-cup. Mankind has done worse…”
Then again, the squared format, quaint illustrations, and scattered type-setting of the anthology The Cubist Poets in Paris is entirely appropriate to the subject. And what about this tiny cased edition, 2 inches square, of Findings by Ursula K. Le Guin that I hold in my hand. It was published by Don Olsen at Ox Head Press in 1992 in the Minnesota Miniatures Series. You could hold the press on which it was printed in the palm of your hand.

All good stuff. But at the point where “design” or “innovation” begins to obscure the literary import, I become queasy. Such creations often exhibit the same delectable textures that make a fine-press book so, well….fine. But I’m not sure whether I ought to read them or put them on exhibit above the piano. (It seldom becomes an issue, because most such examples of “book arts” are out of my price range.)

It strikes me that this issue of cross-purposes extends even to blank books. I’ve bought a few hand-made blank books in my time, but have difficulty writing anything in them. Nothing that’s going on in my head at any given time seems worthy. Eventually I take the plunge.

I’m looking now at a fine little book I bought in a little shop called Il Tourchio in the Altarno in Florence. Opening it at random, I read:
Dec 4, 1992
Poulenc and wine. Just having finished Judge Dee and the Chinese Lake Murders. And I don’t like this pen.
Music by the moods. What would you be reading if you were listening to Ravel’s Scheherazade? There’s an essay by Cocteau that I wish I had but do not have. Don’t know the name of.”
Do I prove my point?

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