Books On Books Collection – Ursula Hochuli-Gamma

26 farbige Buchstaben

26 Colored Letters

26 farbige Buchstaben (1986) / “26 Colored Letters
Ursula Hochuli-Gamma
Afterword Rolf Kühni
Sewn paperbound. H240 x W152 mm. 36 unnumbered pages. Acquired from VGS Verlagsgenossenschaft, 7 June 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Poor letter Z, even when it is giving Zen-like advice, it is relegated to the end of the queue.

Y is for ypsilon: The Ypsilon makes little sense. According to Bayern it is right in the middle.
Z is for Ziel: The destination is not as important as the journey, so we should start from the beginning.

A is for Alphabet; The alphabet belongs to those who write and to those who read.
B is for Buchstaben: All letters fix words in the past, but they also bring them back again.

Cognate words like “Alphabet” provide a clue that this gem of design and letter art is an abecedary, but since all nouns are capitalized in German, it is not that much of a clue. In the English edition of this abecedary (necessary for non-German speakers to appreciate Rolf Kühni’s afterword), these sayings are left in German to preserve the words to which the letters refer– as in B for Buchstaben (“letters”) and Z for Ziel (“destination”). Some are aphorisms (containing a grain of truth) like A, B and E. Some fall more toward religious or political dicta like F. Some play letter jokes as with Y, which is named Ypsilon in German and has been belabored in English as well for its superfluitie. The translations here are non-official and entirely amateurish, but the alternative translation for the letter E might withstand professional and alphabetic scrutiny.

E is for Einfache: The simple left much behind before it became simple. (Easy left much behind before it became easy.)
F is for Frage: The question of “peace or freedom” will sound strange to those who have no bread.

Although this is not letterpress work (typeset on a Compugraphic, printed by Typotron AG with photoliths from Litho-Service AG, both in St Gallen, Switzerland), its artwork foreshadows how the artist would use the wooden letters that her husband, Jost Hochuli, well-known book designer/typographer, rescued from a St. Gallen printer in 1993. A peek at her Metamorphose (2014) and Zeichen, Ziffern, Lettern (2015) shows how she would go on to use them for collage, painting and inspiration.

Double-page spreads from Metamorphose and Zeichen, Ziffern, Lettern (“Characters, Numbers, Letters”).

Further Reading

Given the scarcity of writing online about her work and the absence of any of her works in the British Library, Ursula Hochuli-Gamma seems under-appreciated. Her exhibitions have tended to be local to St. Gallen, but her books can be acquired from Verlagsgenossenschaft St. Gallen and some booksellers.

Books On Books Collection – Suse MacDonald

Alphabatics (1986)

Alphabatics (1986)
Suse MacDonald
Paper on board, casebound sewn. H236 x 285 mm, 56 pages. Acquired from Book Depository, 10 September 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

While Suse MacDonald’s Alphabatics can find its ancestor in Bruno Munari’s ABC Con Fantasia (1960), it also finds some clever descendants in Nicolas McDowall’s A Bodoni Charade (1995), David Pelletier’s The Graphic Alphabet (1996) and Anne Bertier’s Construis-moi une lettre (2008).

As the letters are put through their acrobatic paces in three to four steps on the verso page to become the image on the right, the book gently pushes the left-to-right reading direction. Mahmoud Tammam has created animals composed of their names in Arabic script. It would be interesting to see a right-to-left Arabic version (Alefbatics?) of Alphabatics.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Anne Bertier“. (in progress). Books On Books Collection.

Nicolas McDowall“. (in progress). Books On Books Collection.

Bruno Munari“. 19 August 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Dave Pelletier“. 10 August 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Books On Books Collection – David Pelletier

The Graphic Alphabet (1996)

The Graphic Alphabet (1996)
David Pelletier
Paper on board, embossed with the letter A, casebound, sewn and glued. H255 x W250 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 24 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

David Pelletier’s 1996 Caldecott Honor Book follows in the footsteps (the tumbles?) of Suse MacDonald’s Alphabatics (1986) another Caldecott Honor Book. The difference between them is a fine one depending in part on the reader’s age — or the collector’s eye. Both push the reader’s visual imagination. Both provide the words to be associated with the letter and image. MacDonald has shapes and images that turn into letters, where Pelletier has letters than turn into images (A), images whose shapes hint at letters and enact words (B and Y), letters found in images (W and X) and letters made from shapes on the page and the enacted word (Z). In a sense, Pelletier keeps the reader jumping more than does MacDonald. He crisscrosses several of the subgenres of alphabet books: wordplay and visual puns, hidden letters, conceptualism and abstraction.

One can see an affinity with Claire Van Vliet’s Tumbling Blocks for Pris and Bruce (1996) and Scott McCarney’s AlphaBooks (1981-2015), which underscores the cross-currents of alphabet books and artists’ books.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Robert Cottingham“. 30 November 2021. Books On Books Collection. Found letters.

Stephen Johnson“. 30 November 2021. Books On Books Collection. Found letters.

Scott McCarney” 26 February 2020. Books On Books Collection. Artist’s books.

Claire Van Vliet“. 3 July 2022. Books On Books Collection. Artist’s book.

Books On Books Collection – Anne Bertier

Dessine-moi une lettre (2004)

Dessine-moi une lettre (2004)
Anne Bertier
Casebound, sewn. H258 x W258 mm, 56 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 17 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Anne Bertier’s three alphabet books cross sub-genres of the ABCs with distinctive style and educational challenge. While the answers to the visual puzzles are offered at the end of the first and last books, considerable pleasure is missed by giving up too quickly. For the English speaker learning French, there’s the added pleasure of cementing a familiar word with Bertier’s images and discovering a new word that will also stick because of them.

Rêve-moi une lettre (2005)

Rêve-moi une lettre (2005)
Anne Bertier
Casebound, sewn. H135 x W132 mm, 52 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 30 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Here is the French version of the alliterative alphabet. Its opening with Alice suggests an underlying literary motif, but more likely at play is the association of the book’s title (“dream me a letter”) with Alice’s dreaming of Wonderland.

Construis-moi une lettre (2008)

Construis-moi une lettre (2008)
Anne Bertier
Casebound, sewn. H135 x W256 mm, 56 pages. Acquired from Amazon, 17 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

The English alphabet’s “go to” for the letter A does not work for the French pomme, but from the similarity between the image here and that in Dessine-moi un lettre, there seems to be one, too, for the French alphabet. With the cognate word in French and English, the letter B is too easy. But C is for ?

With the overlap between design, art and children’s education, Bertier’s numerous large-scale exhibitions in China, Italy, Japan, Korea as well as France come as no surprise. Think of Dik Bruna, Eleonora Cumer, Katsumi Komagata or Bruno Munari.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Eleonora Cumer”. 6 September 2019. Books On Books Collection.

Katsumi Komagata“. 22 March 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Bruno Munari“. 19 August 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Books On Books Collection – Martín Gubbins

Alfabeto (2017)

Alfabeto (2017)
Martín Gubbins
Hardback. 180 x 180 mm. 60 pages. Acquired from Naranja Publicaciones, 28 July 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Each letter of the Spanish alphabet is printed in sans serif across a full page to create a grid-like or plaid-like pattern. All letters are printed once in black on white paper and twice in white on black paper; with sheets facing one another. For the English-speaking reader, that’s a bonus of two pages for the ñ.

Held at normal reading length, the double-page spreads do have a plaid effect, but inspected closely, the effect becomes that of wire mesh from which the letters leap out the less tightly woven spots.

Unsurprisingly the plaids are as distinct from, and similar to, one another as letter shapes are. Sometimes, as with the letter b, an illusion of three dimensionality takes hold.

The most surprising — though they should not be — are the letters i and l. With no crossbar, bowl or curve, they cannot create a plaid pattern. Rather, their black on white, white on black patterns look like barcodes.

Gubbins One of the founding members of the Foro de Escritores (www.fde.cl) Chilean version of Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum in London, and noted figure in the avant-garde poetry scene in Latin America. Gubbins has collaborated with the American poet and artist John M. Bennett, in whose honor

Some visual artists call this kind of work a “tapuscript“. Some throw it together under the heading of language art or concrete or visual poetry. Karl Kempton prefers the term “visual text art” over any other. Conceding the term to cover the broad genre, works like Alfabeto that cover the entire alphabet in sequence — or even play with its sequence — might deserve the sub generic term “visual alphabet art”. Kempton himself, Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich, Raffaella della Olga, Sharon Werner & Sharon Forss — as well as many of the artists in Victoria Bean and Chris McCabe’s anthology and those in Philip Davenport’s — surely provide a sufficient number of examples.

Further Reading

Bean, Victoria, and Chris McCabe. 2016. The new concrete: visual poetry in the 21st century. London: Hayward Publishing.

Davenport, Philip. 2013. The dark would: anthology of language art. Manchester-Berlin: Apple Pie Editions.

Kempton, Karl. 2018. A History of Visual Text Art. Manchester-Berlin: Apple Pie Editions. Accessed 15 December 2020.

Olga, Raffaella della“. Books On Books Collection. For “tapuscript”.

Books On Books Collection – Anushka Ravishankar & Christiane Pieper

Alphabets are Amazing Animals (2003)

Alphabets are Amazing Animals (2003)
Anushka Ravishankar (text) & Christiane Pieper (illustrations)
Casebound, paper on board. 220 x 220 mm. 56 pages unnumbered. Acquired from Sauliusst, 9 July 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection. With permission of the publisher: Photographs of the book titled Alphabets Are Amazing Animals by Anushka Ravishankar and Christiane Pieper. Copyright © Tara Books Pvt Ltd, Chennai, India. tarabooks.com

Alliterative alphabet books and animal alphabet books both have long and geographically wide traditions. In 1820, the London publisher J. Harris and Son at the corner of St. Paul’s Church-Yard published Peter Piper’s practical principles of plain and perfect pronunciation : to which is added, a collection of moral and entertaining conundrums. In 1840, the Turin publisher Alessandro Fontana published Piccolo alfabeto di storia naturale pei fanciulli.

And likewise — together — alliterative animal alphabet books (and even a few alliterative animal artists’ books) crowd the field, for example, Graeme Base’s Animalia (1986), Kay Vincent’s Animal Alphabet (2015) and Michael Kuch’s An Alliterative Abecedarium of Anthropomorphic Animals (2011).

Making a lasting contribution to those traditions must be as difficult for children’s book artists and authors as blowing big blue bubbles is for baby buffaloes.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Webb, Poul. 2017-“Alphabet Books — Parts 1-8” on Art & Artists. Google has designated this site “A Blog of Note”, well deserved for its historical breadth in examples, clarity of images and insight.

Books On Books Collection – Lyn Davies

A is for Ox (2006)

A is for Ox: A Short History of the Alphabet (2006)
Lyn Davies
Casebound, doublures matching slipcase. Slipcase: H205 x W133 mm. Book: H197 x W128 mm. 128 pages. Acquired from The Old Bakehouse, 13 July 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

There are numerous histories of the alphabet. Some are even titled the same as Lyn Davies’ A is for Ox. Several books take the letter-by-letter approach that Davies does in the second half of his book. Only one of them falls in the category of fine press book or artist’s book, and that is Richard J. Hoffman’s miniature production of the bookseller Otto Ege’s text. Benefitting from the advice of Stephen Fischer and the infrastructure of The Folio Society, Davies has secured more of a place for A is for Ox than that distinction.

One distinction is the handling of two colors across the design of the book. Davies knows book design. The burnt umber or terra cotta color is used to great effect. Chapter subtitles, section heads and running heads stand out but do not overbear. In the second half of the book, the color turns each letter of the alphabet in its section into a subdued illuminated letter. Another distinction follows on from this: the handling of images in the first half of the book. By printing in black and white the full inscriptions on stone, clay and pottery depicted in photographs, Davies enhances the experience of those images, and somehow the tinting of the images makes it easier to match the markings with the print.

Despite its brevity, A is for Ox conveys just as much as many lengthier works. Somehow with Davies in ten pages it is easier to “peg” waw as the antecedent sound for the letters F, U, V, W and Y than it is in the lengthier works. In its “A is for …” organization of its second half, the book injects some lightness without descending into silliness, leaving the latter to the children’s books and some of the comedy-prone trade books.

The Ottakar’s 2004 and Folio Society 2006 editions are out of print, which is a shame for ordering in bulk for short courses on the history of the alphabet and writing. Fortunately both are available at more-than-reasonable prices on the used book market.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Clodd, Edward. 1913. The Story of the Alphabet. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1913. Superseded by several later works, but is freely available online with line illustrations and some black and white photos.

Diringer, David, and Reinhold Regensburger. 1968. The alphabet: a key to the history of mankind. London: Hutchinson. A standard, beginning to be challenged by late 20th and early 21st century archaeological findings and palaeographical studies.

Drucker, Johanna. 1999. The alphabetic labyrinth: the letters in history and imagination. New York, N.Y.: Thames and Hudson.

Ege, Otto. 1921/1998. The Story of the Alphabet, Its Evolution and Development… Embellished Typographically with Printer’s Flowers Arranged by Richard J. Hoffman. Van Nuys, CA: Richard J. Hoffman. A miniature. The type ornaments chosen by Hoffman are arranged chronologically by designer (Garamond, Granjon, Rogers) and printed in color.

Firmage, Richard A. 2001. The alphabet. London: Bloomsbury.

Fischer, Steven Roger. 2008. A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.

Goldman, David. 1994. A is for ox: the story of the alphabet. New York: Silver Moon Press. Children’s book.

Jackson, Donald. 1997. The story of writing. Monmouth, England: Calligraphy Centre.

Pflughaupt, Laurent. 2008. Letter by letter: an alphabetical miscellany. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Robb, Don, and Anne Smith. 2010. Ox, house, stick: the history of our alphabet. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge. Children’s book.

Robinson, Andrew. 1995. The story of writing. London: Thames and Hudson.

Rosen, Michael. 2014. Alphabetical: how every letter tells a story. London: John Murray.

Sacks, David. 2003. Language visible unraveling the mystery of the alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway Books.

Samoyault, Tiphaine. 1996, 1998 trans. Alphabetical order: how the alphabet began. New York: Viking. Children’s book.

Thompson, Tommy. 1952. The ABC of our alphabet. London: Studio Publications. Not a fine press publication, but its layout, illustrations and use of two colors bear comparison with the Davies book. It too is out of print and unfortunately more rare.

Books On Books Collection – Enid Marx

Marco’s Animal Alphabet (2000)

Marco’s Animal Alphabet (2000)
Enid Marx
Color scheme and pochoir by Peter Allen (École de l’Image, Epinal)
Case bound, leather spine and patterned papers on board, Fabriano doublures, 64 pages. Portfolio edition of 15, of which this is #2. Acquired from Forum Auctions, 16 December 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Marco’s running verse is set in 24pt Scotch types, roman and italic. The rest of the book uses Bodoni, including the variations on the title page. The paper is 200 gsm Fabriano Artistico, 100% cotton fibres and acid-free. The patterned paper of the binding has been reconstructed for this book from a small sample. Enid Marx designed the original, and it was sold through The Little Gallery in London during the 1930s. Enid Marx was keen to have this book published for her great great nieces and nephews. A further 160 copies have been made for sale. Fifteen of these have an additional portfolio of black prints and were bound by Stephen Conway. Printing was completed in September 2000. This is copy number 2. –Colophon.

For the reader not in the know, the introduction by Graham Moss (Incline Press) explains that “Marco” was the nickname assigned to Enid Marx during her studies at the Royal College of Art, but more than that, Moss provides a warm sense of collaborating with Enid Marx (for example, A Bonnet Full of Nursery Rhymes) in life. Although this is a posthumous edition of this alphabet, Moss had the advantage of an earlier false start on it with Marx and of her insights on the idea of applying pochoir to this first formal edition (ultimately provided by Peter Allen).

It is a toss-up for which is the greater pleasure: the lines and shapes in Marco’s linocuts or the design and production by Graham Moss. Which confirms his conclusion that the posthumous collaboration is “a happy and successful one”.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Fisher, Jennie. 14 October 2020. “Enid Marx: A Design Legacy“. Pallant House Gallery. Accessed 1 August 2022.

Marx, Enid, and Douglas Cleverdon. 1985. An ABC of birds & beasts. London: Douglas Cleverdon. (As a collector, Cleverdon was an important bridge between calligraphy and typographic design artists. See also Eric Gill’s A book of alphabets for Douglas Cleverdon drawn by Eric Gill. 1987.)

Marx, Enid. 1997. Some birds and beasts and their feasts: an alphabet of wood engravings made by Enid Marx. Oldham: Incline Press.

Powers, Alan. 18 July 2018. “Why the textile designer Enid Marx matters today“. Crafts Council. First appeared in Crafts magazine. Accessed 1 August 2022.

Books On Books Collection – Patrice Miller

The Eclectic Abecedarium by Edward Gorey (2022)

The Eclectic Abecedarium by Edward Gorey (2022)
Patrice Miller
Flagbook. Closed: H305 x W107 mm. Open: W495 mm. Edition of 5, of which this is #1. Acquired from Aredian Press, 17 July 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Patrice Miller’s flag book uses the text and color illustrations cut from The Edward Gorey House’s poster version of Gorey’s first alphabet book, The Eclectic Abecedarium (1983). Miller has mounted the text to red, blue, or green textured cardstock, which, in turn, is affixed to a red lotka-backed accordion. Black background yuzen paper with dots of bright blue, red, and green cover the boards. 

Although commissioned, this flag book makes up part of a larger undertaking by Miller: “The Edward Gorey Binding Project”. Miller writes:

Fascinated with the works of Edward Gorey since high school, my binding efforts led me to embark on the challenge of rebinding (or binding) all 100+ titles authored by him, with the occasional distraction of books featuring his illustrations only. A selection of the books have been displayed at the Edward Gorey House, Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts.

So far the project has yielded fan, star, accordion/stub, tufted red cotton velvet with covered buttons, flat-back, ribbon band, Green Thai alligator-pattern textured paper and goat skin, black lokta overlaid with ogura lace paper, calfskin and blue and green feathers from the binder’s parrot Django, silk-screened Indian cotton rag paper, sheer paper imbedded with irregular black yarn circles overlays, and vintage gold brocade bookcloth bindings. Another four to five years should see the job done!

Aredian Press works have received Distinguished Book Awards from the Miniature Book Society.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Edward Gorey“. 26 July 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Books On Books Collection – Edward Gorey

Thoughtful Alphabets (2012)

Thoughtful Alphabets: The Just Dessert / the Deadly Blotter (2012)
Edward Gorey
H136 x W136 mm, 118 pages. Acquired from Revaluation Books, 1 August 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

No serious collection of alphabet books or alphabet-related artists’ books can be complete without some representative of Edward Gorey’s work. This volume brings together Thoughtful Alphabets XI and XVII, two detective stories in which the plots must be deduced from pithy alphabetized directions or alphabetized descriptions underlying static black-and-white cartoon tableaus.

Just one representative — even two for one — seems hardly adequate though. Surely another is needed to qualify this collection as serious. If not a fine first edition of The Eclectic Abecedarium, the first Gorey alphabet, perhaps a variant in homage? To judge for yourself, click

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Patrice Miller“. 26 July 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Books On Books Collection – Alastair Noble

In Memoriam+ (2021)

In Memoriam+ (2021)
Alastair Noble
Booklet thread-bound to HMP boards, cover with cutout. H210 x W205 mm, 12 pages. Edition of 22, of which this is #4. Acquired from the artist, 25 April 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

This work pays tribute to Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose Little Sparta, a garden across seven acres in Scotland, that expresses an artistic vision through typography, sculpture, installations and nature. Noble writes about the origins of his tribute:

I first visited Little Sparta twenty years ago and then again last year in July out of lockdown. Thereafter, coincidentally I found a brick buried in my garden with the work “Temple” embossed on it. Consequently this became the catalyst for a little homage in form of small installation in my garden that used the brick as a foundation to an arch made from white marble fragments that suggests the Portara for Apollo’s
Temple Naxos. This installation became the stimulus for this small artist’s book completed during lockdown in my studio in Liverpool, UK.
— Entry in Book Arts Newsletter, No. 138 March – mid-April 2021, p. 43.

Noble has expanded and intensified his small garden homage into a slender and rich work of book art. The sculpted structure of it — how the cover, pages, images and text work with each other — rhymes with Finlay’s art, Greek mythology and Nature. Noble’s choice of the portal to Apollo’s Temple to link the found brick and arch of marble fragments to Little Sparta and Finlay’s art finds one of its echoes in the cover’s cutout and the marble-white textured board behind it. Another echo lies in the words “metamorphosis” and “metaphoric” laid out to form an arch on the page below. And just as sonic echoes overlap one another, the words and image themselves echo across the double-page spread with the laurel leaf emblem of Daphne’s transformation to escape the pursuit of the lyre-bearing sun god and mythic patron of poets laureate.

Other overlapping echoes arise from the Greek and English word pairs on the double-page spread below. The presence of the Greek words obviously chime with Apollo’s Temple, but the presence of the English chimes more deeply with the word “metamorphic”. What is a translation if not a metamorphosis? And the rhyming of “lyre” and “liar” chimes even more deeply with “metaphoric”. What is a metaphor if not like a lyre and liar at the same time that tells us Daphne’s death is her translation into life as a tree?

Noble’s use of “meta” for his arch’s lintel also echoes Finlay’s aphoristic concrete poetry, a good example of which is The Errata of Ovid.

The Errata of Ovid (1983/4)
Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gary Hincks
Miniature portfolio. H76 x W80 mm.
Offset printed in red and black, eight loose cards enclosed in a flap folder. Typeset in Bruce Old Style(?); illustrations by Gary Hincks; card stock unknown.
Acquired from Woburn Books, 31 October 2019.
Photos: Books On Books Collection

Beyond the tribute of image/word-play, Noble’s artist’s book strikes a performative echo with the history of Finlay and Hincks’ artists’ book. A few years after the publication of The Errata of Ovid, Finlay drew up ”Six Proposals for the Improvement of Stockwood Park Nurseries in the Borough of Luton”, which included a caprice with a wall and plaques. The wall in Stockwood Park stands today, presenting the text of The Errata of Ovid engraved in eight stone plaques (minus the colophon but with the addition of “For ‘Adonis’ read ’Anemone’”). So Noble’s artist’s book followed his garden installation whereas Finlay’s garden installation followed his artist’s book. If only for perfection of that echo, one might wish Finlay’s installation be transported to Little Sparta and let Luton be satisfied with its airport!

Thresholds (2020)

Thresholds: Doors, Gates & Barriers Puno Peru (2020)
Alastair Noble
Perfect bound paperback. H215 x 140 mm, 48 pages. Acquired from the artist, 11 May 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Like In Memoriam+, this work has its roots in location and a portal metaphor. While also employing juxtaposition of text and images as a structural device, it relies on images of a category of sought readymades (doors, gates and barriers) rather than a found object (like the garden brick on which the artist builds his arch) for a structuring device that is simultaneously material and metaphor.

The way Noble uses his sources of text (Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, Martin Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” and Georg Simmel’s Bridge and Door) causes the reader/viewer to contribute to structure and metaphor. The first sentence of Bachelard’s excerpt begins “How many daydreams” and starts at the top of page 2; Heidegger’s beginning “The threshold” starts in the middle of page 26; and Simmel’s beginning “The human being” starts at the bottom of the page 2. Bachelard’s first sentence ends on page 8, Heidegger’s on page 28, and Simmel’s on page 12. Unless one has the mind of a symphonic composer or connoisseur, it is impossible to attend to all three excerpts simultaneously and turn the pages in one sequence. Instead, it is necessary to turn the pages back and forth along three tracks to absorb the excerpts, and the metaphoric effect is to open and close those doors, gates and barriers repeatedly, which is …

… what Noble’s very last page implies.

But finally, over the course of multiple readings/viewings, the linear photographic sequence on the recto pages seems to shift. Each image takes on a different aspect depending on the excerpt being followed. Combined with the back and forth page-turning, this shifting and break in the linear photographic sequence leaves the reader/viewer with the simulation of walking around, up and down and through Puno and its doors, gates and barriers.

Southern X 2006 : Open City, Ritoque Chile (2006)

Southern X 2006 : Open City, Ritoque Chile (2006)
Alastair Noble
Perfect bound paperback, spine taped. H215 x W218 mm, 32 pages. Acquired from Specific Object, 2 May 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Like Thresholds, this work, too, has its roots in location, but more akin to In Memoriam+, it draws on poetry, installation and performance. Open City is a utopian site affiliated with the School of Architecture of the Catholic University of Valparaíso. Accommodations and buildings have arisen by collective collaboration. There is no plan. One of the traditions associated with construction on the site is the reading of excerpts from the book Amereida (1967), a collective epic poem, which the school describes as “a poetic vision of the American continent”.

Reading the text takes us into the permanent question about being American from the recognition of the appearance of America seen as a discovery or gift. From the first page of the poem, the encounter with the unknown opens the possibility to begin to think of the new world as a gift, a gift. Its main sign: the Southern Cross, the light that goes up the horizon and guides in the north. — “Amereida

Inspired by the Amereida during a sabbatical visit to the school and Open City, Noble proposed an installation: Southern X 2006. Given that the Amereida takes the Southern Cross for its main sign and that this sign appears across the night sky in the shape of a kite, Noble’s direction for his installation sculpture was set before he began.

The actual sculpture is but a piece of a larger collective artwork consisting of Manuel F. Sanfuentes Vio’s reading from the Amereida, the students’ procession in the shape of the Southern Cross to the site selected by Noble, the collective construction of the kite, the planting of poles and the placement of the kite on them — and of course this book that photographically documents the performance of the installation and textually presents the read passages of the Amereida.

Foldings (1998)

Ephemera for Foldings (1998) Kathy Bruce and Alastair Noble. Poster and staging sketches.
Photo: Books On Books Collection.

With Foldings, Noble joined forces with Kathy Bruce, his wife. Six masked dancers wear costumes that are in effect human-size folios across which the pages of Un Coup de Dés have been printed front and back in French. As a prerecorded English translation is read by numerous voices corresponding to the changing fonts, the dancers rotate and display the lines being read. A performance was given as part of the exhibition A Painter’s Poet, held at the Leubsborf Art Gallery (Hunter College). This fell under the aegis of the Millennium Mallarmé celebrations in New York, the poster for which can be seen above overlaying the staging sketches for the performance. Later, as part of an installation under the title Navigating the Abyss (Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, New Jersey), the costumes were suspended from the ceiling along with a framed screen mesh reminiscent of Noble’s As if / As If (see above).

Postcard from the performance (1998). Images from the installation Navigating the Abyss © Kathy Bruce and Alastair Noble. Permission to display from the artists.
Photo of staging sketches and poster: Books On Books Collection.

Further Reading

Ian Hamilton Finlay“. 3 November 2019. Books On Books Collection.

Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira l’Appropriation” — An Online Exhibition”. 1 May 2022. Bookmarking Book Art.

Admin. 25 October 2011. “Alastair Noble exhibits Babel/Babble at the SCGP Art Gallery” Simons Center for Geometry and Physics. Accessed 18 June 2021.

Danto, Arthur. December 2020. “Making Choices“. Art Forum. Accessed 18 June 2021.

Howard, Michael. 1 September 2008. “Alastair Noble: Imagination Made Material“. Sculpture Accessed 18 June 2021.

Noble, Alastair. May 2007. “Open City“. Sculpture 26 (4): 20-21. Archived from the original on 31 August 2017. Accessed 29 April 2021.

Pendleton-Jullian, Ann M. 1996. The road that is not a road and the Open City, Ritoque, Chile. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Pérez de Arce, Rodrigo, Fernando Pérez Oyarzun, and Raúl Rispa. 2003. Valparaiso School: open city group. Basel: Switzerland.

Books On Books Collection – Ben Shahn

The Alphabet of Creation (1954)

The Alphabet of Creation: An ancient legend from the Zohar (1954)
Ben Shahn
Hardcover, tan linen boards with red and gold decorations on cover and spine labels. H275 x 170 mm, 48 pages. Edition of 550, of which this is #497. Acquired from Midway Used and Rare Books, 7 August 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Why does the alphabet begin with the letter A? There is the theory that alef‘s association in the Phoenician alphabet with the ox suggests a “needs-based” reason: food first, then shelter (B being beth meaning house). The rationale from the Zohar, however, is more entertaining and suited to the artistry of Ben Shahn.

After all of the other letters have had their say and presented their arguments, the letter A, aleph, remains:

Shahn’s artist’s book provides an example of the affinity of book art with the alphabet. The list of artists’ books and abecedaries under Further Reading offers a variety of other examples, but the reasons for that affinity may be just as mystical or speculative as the answer to the question: Why should the alphabet start with the letter A? Or, for that matter, end with the letter Z?

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. Books On Books Collection.

Davies, Lyn. 2006. A is for ox: a short history of the alphabet. London: Folio Society. Lays out the needs-based theories about the ordering of the alphabet.

Drucker, Johanna. 1995. The alphabetic labyrinth the letters in history and imagination. London: Thames and Hudson. An exploration of extraordinary breadth and depth: the mythical, anthropological, archaeological, art historical, calligraphical, geographical, kabbalistic, linguistic, philosophical, religious and typographical aspects of the alphabetic labyrinth are covered in style and extensively illustrated.

Ferlauto, S., and J. Morin. 2000. The sacred abecedarium. Stevens Point, WI: SailorBOYpress. A more typographical and secular perspective to compare with Shahn’s.

Flanders, Judith. 2020. A Place For Everything: the curious history of alphabetical order. New York: Basic Books. Curious that it does not address this Hebrew parable or the needs-based theories about the origin and ordering of the alphabet; otherwise wide-ranging and informative.

Kushner, Lawrence. 2010. Sefer otiyot = The book of letters = [Sefer otiyot] : a mystical alef-bait. Woodstock, Vt: Jewish Lights Pub. Intended for children but challenging.

Thompson, Tommy. 1952. The ABC of our alphabet. London: Studio Publications. An entertaining use of the margins and overlays on the text page to illustrate the evolution of the alphabet. Deserves a reprint.

Books On Books Collection – Menena Cottin

The Black Book of Colors (2008)

The Black Book of Colors (2008)
Menena Cottin and Rosana Faría
Dustjacketed, casebound. H180 x W290, 24 unnumbered pages. Acquired 17 October 2017.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The visual and tactile are our sensory default with books. With its glossy black pages, the verso pages bearing white type and Braille and the recto pages presenting raised images, The Black Book of Colors demands the enhanced multisensory response that highlights the affinity between book art and children’s books. Menena Cottin’s conceptual books displayed on her site and this addition to the Books On Books Collection present that affinity in several ways.

The sense of the words reversed out on the black does so by evoking synaesthesia:

Thomas says that yellow tastes like mustard, but is as soft as a baby chick’s feathers.

Thomas likes all the colors because he can hear them and smell them and touch and taste them.

Cottin manipulates character and narration, the picturebook genres of color and letter recognition (Braille in this case) and some of the basic elements of the book (spread layout and reverse-out and debossed printing) to break boundaries in ways similar to those employed by book artists. Double-page spreads meld concepts, for instance by turning a rainbow into a gathering of raised images of the synaesthetic objects with which colors have been associated (chick’s feathers, strawberries, leaves).

And when the sun peeks through the falling water, all the colors come out, and that’s a rainbow.

The Black Book uses synaesthesia to go beyond the color recognition genre to introduce more complex concepts: the nature of light and water’s lack of color, taste and smell. This stepping outside the genre is another example of the boundary-breaking that artists’ books often perform.

Thomas thinks that without the sun, water doesn’t amount to much. It has no color, no taste, no smell.

The book ends by asserting its membership in the alphabet book genre, but there is more to it than that. Across from the verso Braille Alphabet, there is no recto set of raised images, a pairing that invites the sighted and unsighted to return to the beginning and re-read with a greater reliance on touch. If the alphabet were absent and the book ended with “Thomas likes all the colors because he can hear them and smell them and touch and taste them” and the final page of raised images, The Black Book of Colors would be simply a book for the literate sighted and unsighted. Clearly it is more than that. In Cottin’s terms, it is a conceptual book.

Other books in the collection that are worth comparing with The Black Book of Colors are

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2016) Carina Hesper

Vladimir Nabokov: AlphaBet in Color (2005) Jean Holabird

Blindness (2020) Masoumeh Mohtadi

Voyelles (2012) Arthur Rimbaud/Le Cadratin

Reading Closed Books (2019) Sam Winston

The Blind Men and the Elephant (2019) Xiao Long Hua

Further Reading

Nikolajeva, Maria, and Carole Scott. 2007. How picturebooks work. New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

Scott, Carole. 2014. “Artists’ books, Altered books, and Picturebooks”. In: B. Kümmerling‐Meibauer, ed., Picturebooks: Representation and Narration. London, New York: Routledge.

Books On Books Collection – Xiao Long Hua

The Blind Men and the Elephant (2019)

The Blind Men and the Elephant (2019)
Xiao Long Hua
Sleeved paperback, exposed sewn spine. Sleeve: 305 x 305 mm. Book: H303 x W305 mm. 52 pages. Edition of 500, of which this is #178. Acquired from Northing, 18 May 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Working with binding designer Zhong Yu and tbook designer Lu Min of the “One and One Half Atelier”, Shanghai-based Xiao Long Hua has found a sympathetic outlet and form for his creative vision. His first work with them is The Blind Men and the Elephant, a variation on the parable in the Buddhist sutra Tittha Sutta. It takes place in the kingdom “Mirari”, ruled by King Mirror.

Selection from One and One Half Atelier. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

As in the more traditional version, the blind men report the elephant to be of different shapes, but in this version, those shapes reflect those of the blind men themselves. Throughout the book, a blueprint grid in the background of the dark blue and light gray page serves to emphasize the geometric shapes of the characters and images and to reflect, with its reductiveness, each blind man’s rigid view of the elephant’s nature. And up to this point of the blind men’s report, the grid has been bounded intermittently by coordinate markers, some numerical, some in letters and some in Chinese characters.

Xiao Long Hua places the different shapes the blind men perceive into the mind of the king, where they become a butterfly and then transform endlessly and kaleidoscopically into other figures represented across a series of pages printed dark blue. This variation on the theme comes from the Miao (Hmong) creation song Butterfly Mother or Mother Butterfly.

The final colorless two pages consist of cut-outs inviting the readers’ hands to create more strange figures along with the king’s mind. This element of touch recurs on the cover, which on closing the reader will find is covered in fingerprints. The cover’s ink is thermochromatic, fading away under the warmth of touch, returning as it cools and waiting for our next blind touch.

Selection from One and One Half Atelier edition. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The publishing house Qianxun Neverend has issued a shorter trade edition of The Blind Men and the Elephant. Although a thermochromatic cover proved to be too expensive, an equally interesting design feature animates the cover’s image of the butterfly transforming into the multiple figures in the king’s mind.

Cover of Qianxun Neverend edition.
© Qianxun Neverend 2022.

Prior to The Blind Men and the Elephant, Xiao Long Hua engaged primarily in illustrations, scroll painting, installation works and sculpture, some of which can be seen on his Tumblr blog. For his latest work with the One and One Half Atelier, The Great Migration, the Atelier’s site announced a multimedia installation. A comment about this work sheds light on The Blind Men and the Elephant as well; he writes, “…I want to paint a magnificent picture of the Great Migration to express those spaces and memories that are fading away, I try to blur the forms between people, animals and objects. “

Other works in the Books On Books Collection to compare with The Blind Men and the Elephant include

The Black Book of Colors (2008) Menena Cottin

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2016) Carina Hesper

Vladimir Nabokov: AlphaBet in Color (2005) Jean Holabird

Blindness (2020) Masoumeh Mohtadi

Voyelles (2012) Arthur Rimbaud/Le Cadratin

Reading Closed Books (2019) Sam Winston

Further Reading

Miao Intangible Cultural Heritage — Embroidery“. Google Arts and Culture. Accessed 18 July 2022.

Zuo Shu. 2022. “After finishing this book, I have a new understanding of ‘picture book‘”. iNews (Culture). Accessed 18 July 2022.

Books On Books Collection – Carina Hesper

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2016)

Like a Pearl in My Hand (2016)
Carina Hesper
Boxed folios. Box: H388 x W278 x D35. Folios: H330 x W220, 32 loose folios. Edition of 250, of which this is #221. Acquired from the artist, 19 December 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

Carina Hesper’s Like a Pearl in my Hand came to the collection after its appearance in the exhibition “The Art of Reading”, 18 November 2017 to 4 March 2018, at the Meermanno Museum in The Hague, Netherlands. It was an exhibition whose curator insisted that none of the works could be under glass. They had to be touchable. Like a Pearl in my Hand is a boxed set of 32 photographic portraits, each coated in black thermochromatic ink. Only by touching the prints can you see the underlying portraits.

Photos: Books On Books Collection. Taken at the Meermanno Museum in 2017.

Each portait is of a child, congenitally blind, whom Carina Hesper met through the Bethnal China orphanage between 2012 and 2016. A folded sheet (8 unnumbered pages) includes two essays and the colophon for the work. In one essay, Bettine Vriesekoop provides background on Hesper’s visit to the orphanage Bethel China as well as social and historical observations about the position of the congenitally blind in China. In the other essay, Hannes Wallrafen, once a photographer, now blind, delivers a perceptive review of what he calls the “book with black pages on my lap”. Explaining his situation, he addresses his task by explaining “how the blind see” by touch, memory and imagination. For his review, he also has the advantage of an app, TapTapSee, which enables him to take photographs before and after touching each folio and listen to an automated description of each. A quick trial will reveal the app’s limitation vis-à-vis Like a Pearl in My Hand and underscore the poignancy of Wallrafen’s concluding comment:

For anyone who does not dare pick up the book or only gently touches the pages, this book remains what it seems at first sight: a collection of black pages.

The best artists’ books engage the reader/viewer in a multisensory experience. Even so, usually sight comes first and touch, second among the senses in the experience. Like a Pearl in My Hand challenges this by making the subject of the unsighted accessible to the sighted only through the warmth of touch.

Other works in the Books On Books Collection to compare with Like a Pearl in My Hand include

The Black Book of Colors (2008) Menena Cottin

Vladimir Nabokov: AlphaBet in Color (2005) Jean Holabird

Blindness (2020) Masoumeh Mohtadi

Voyelles (2012) Arthur Rimbaud/Le Cadratin

Reading Closed Books (2019) Sam Winston

The Blind Men and the Elephant (2019 Xiao Long Hua

Further Reading

The Art of Reading in a ‘Post-Text Future’“. 21 February 2018. Bookmarking Book Art.

Books On Books Collection – Claire Van Vliet

The Gospel of Mary (2006)

The Gospel of Mary (2006)
Claire Van Vliet et al.
Woven binding with Barcham Green Cairo paper, housed in De Wint paper-covered and lined birch trays. Box: H320 x W274 x D42 mm. Book: H292 x W250 x D28 mm, 44 pages, center pulp-painted pop-up. Edition of 150, of which this is #27. Acquired from Thomas Goldwasser Rare Books, 18 June 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Like Woven and Interlocking Book Structures (2002), Tumblr Blocks (1996) and Batterers (1996) below, The Gospel of Mary is an outstanding work of collaboration. Its pulp painting, letterpress, woven binding and layout make this work an important addition to works by Claire Van Vliet in the Books On Books Collection. Van Vliet pulp painted the centerpiece and cover below with Katie MacGregor (Whiting, Maine), who also made the pop-up papers. Andrew Miller-Brown, the Janus Press workshop printer and founder of Plowboy Press, is credited and has signed this copy with Van Vliet. Audrey Holden, who has also signed this copy and worked on Tumbling Blocks, executed the binding. Rosemary Radford Ruether, feminist thelogian, provided the commentary on the text, both of which were typeset with the assistance of Ellen Dorn Levitt, whose collection of book arts projects and teaching materials now resides at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

The four photos below provide views of the binding structure and also the layout in which the commentary embraces the gospel text.

Below, the five-part pulp-painted centerpiece and the silver paper ribbons woven into the double-page spread stand out against the more subtly pulp-painted background. The pop-up echoes the images on the Barcham Green Boxley paper used throughout for the text and commentary (see above).

The size of the work and the way that the printing, paper, pulp painting, layout of text and commentary, pop-up and binding complement one another echo the age of illuminated manuscripts and incunabula. It would make for a rewarding exhibition to juxtapose The Gospel of Mary with several of them.

The entries below were previously published on 8 August 2019 and have been moved here.

Woven and Interlocking Book Structures (2002)

Woven and Interlocking Book Structures (2002)
Claire Van Vliet and Elizabeth Steiner
Four slipcases containing 16 book models are enclosed with the book in a cloth-covered clamshell box. Box: H282 x W226 x D55 mm. Slipcases: H128 x W104 mm. Book: H254 x W192 mm, 144 pages. Edition of 200, of which this is #13, signed by Claire Van Vliet. Acquired from James S. Jaffe Rare Books, 1 February 2015. Photos: Books On Books Collection.

The binding models and papers used for them are:


A — Aunt Sallie’s Lament; Aunt Sallie’s Lament without Flags; Aunt Sallie’s Lament non-adhesive version; Moeraki Boulders; Designating Duet. Papers used include Elephant Hide, Fabriano cover and Miliani Ingres, French’s recycled, Marblesmith, Bristol and Saunders laid.


B — Beauty in Use; Beauty in Use with text leaves; Deep in the Territory; Night Street. Papers used include Elephant Hide, French’s recycled, Bristol, Mohawk Superfine and Fabriano cover.


C — Gioia I; Gioia II; Sing Weaving; Compound Frame. Papers used include Elephant Hide, French’s recycled, Bristol, Mohawk Superfine, Linen Index, Neenah UV Columns and Marblesmith.


D — Bone Songs; A Landscape with Cows in It; Well-Heeled. Papers used include Elephant Hide, Mohawk Superfine, Arches laid, and Fabriano text and Miliani Ingres.

Tumbling Blocks for Pris and Bruce (1996)

Tumbling Blocks for Pris and Bruce (1996)
Claire Van Vliet and Audrey Holden
Paper cube issued in a non-adhesive paper box housed in a clear plastic box. 58 x 58 x 58 mm. Edition of 200, of which this is #134. Acquired from Abecedarian Gallery, 21 July 2019.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Working with offcuts from Praise Basted In: A Friendship Quilt for Aunt Sallie (1995), Van Vliet and Audrey Holden cut pairs of letters of the alphabet and glued them back to back. These constitute the cube-book’s leaves, which are folded and glued to permit the book to open into a variety of shapes. Gently tossed from hand to hand, the book will resume its cube shape. “Pris and Bruce” are the Hubbards, Janus Press patrons.

Batterers (1996)

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Batterers (1996)

Denise Levertov, Kathryn Lipke Vigesaa and Claire Van Vliet

Slipcase: H307 x W387 x D73 mm; Tray: H296 x W380 x D61 mm; Accordion: H270 x W356 x D33 (closed), H270 x W1115 mm (open). Edition of 500, of which this is #5, signed. Acquired from Van Vliet via Vamp & Tramp, 17 July 2020.

What is remarkable about this sculptural book is its fusion of collaborators’ efforts, of art forms, and of text, materials, techniques and structures.

In the late 1980s, Claire Van Vliet and Kathryn Lipke (née Vigesaa) were seeking a collaborative project. After Van Vliet spotted Denise Levertov’s poem “Batterers” in the American Poetry Review (1990:6), they agreed that the poem, which enfolds our abuse of the earth within a metaphor of domestic abuse, was the appropriate text to join somehow with Lipke’s series of structural artworks called Earthskins.

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Earthskins (1988-96)

Kathryn Lipke (Vigesaa)

Installation views of the works created from paper pulp, clay and pigments; some reaching 69 feet in length. Photos: Courtesy of the artist.

When letterpress printers consider the reproduction of a short poem, the broadside is the most common art form adopted. Van Vliet’s adoption of it is anything but common. Instead, she has orchestrated a combination of structures and art forms. From the maroon-printed, brown linen slipcase slides a tray made of tamarack wood to which Lipke’s vacuum-formed panel of clay mixed with paper is fixed. As the black tray is lifted, layers of multi-folded paper attached to a backing appear.

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The top two layers are glued and sewn with multi-stranded red thread to the third and bottom layer, displaying the names of the author, work and Van Vliet’s press. The bottom layer is glued to a backing of three strong card panels tightly glued to two wood runners, sawn or routered into a slight U shape.

As the top layer is unfolded by pulling it apart, left and right, three tabs drop down to reveal Levertov’s poem.

Van Vliet’s combination of structures and forms offers multiple orders in which to read the poem, which pleased Levertov because she liked the poem in both the stanzaic orders of 1-2-3 and 1-3-2 (correspondence with Kathryn Lipke and Claire Van Vliet, 20 July 2020). In a book-like way, the covering tray slides from its slipcover, the cover is removed, and the accordion pages unfold to be read left panel first, right panel second and center panel third, emphasizing the embedded and central metaphor.

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Spread fully open, the structure assumes a single-sheet broadside form, and the “center” stanza moves from third to second in order. But there is a third order of reading, as it were. The broadside form “leans” into the art forms of print, painting and bas-relief sculpture. The text, images and design become a whole experience, an object to be taken in as a whole.

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Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Not only in form does Batterers “lean” into the form of painting: the imagery and colors arise from the technique of pulp painting, a technique defined by the work of Marius Péraudeau in the mid-twentieth century. Pat Gentenaar’s still life Water Dragon in this collection provides another example of the technique.

Top: cover image of Marius Péraudeau: Pulp Paper Paintings (Paris: Ernst Maget, 1991). Photo taken at British Library: Books On Books. Bottom: Water Dragon (n.d.) Pat Gentenaar-Torley. Photo: Books On Books Collection.

In pulp painting, the paper is the painting. Assisted by Katie MacGregor and Bernie Vinzani in their paper studio in Whiting, Maine, Van Vliet poured different colors of paper pulp into prepared forms to create three sheets of paper on which to print and then collage into the image that suggests dual images: that of a volcano and that of a woman reclining on her side or face down. The fusion of shapes, the fusion of color and fiber in pulp painting, and the fusion of clay and pulp in the covering bas-relief (which can also be used as a stand for the broadside) fuse with the poem’s words and metaphor. Once this artwork has been experienced, reading the poem printed in a traditional book can never be the same.

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Further Reading

The First Seven Books of the Rijswijk Paper Biennial“, Books On Books Collection, 10 October 2019.

Auburn, Luke. “Typographer and founder of Janus Press Claire Van Vliet to be presented with Goudy Award Nov. 2“, University News, Rochester Institute of Technology, 25 October 2017.

Craft in America, PBS Series, Claire Van Vliet (N.D.) Includes a short video with Kathleen Walkup (Mills College) 7 October 2009.

Library of Congress, The Janus Press, 19 October 2017.

Sullivan, James D. “A Poem Is a Material Object: Claire Van Vliet’s Artists Books and Denise Levertov’s “Batterers”“, Humanities, 2019, 8, 124; doi:10.3390/h8030124.

University of Wisconsin, Woven and Interlocking Book Structures, 9 November 2018.

Van Vliet, Claire. “Thoughts on Bookmaking by Claire Van Vliet of The Janus Press“, Poet’s House, 10 October 2019.

Books On Books Collection – Edmund de Waal

breath [prospectus](2019)

breath [prospectus](2019)
Edmund de Waal
Papercased sewn booklet. H214 x W152 mm, 16 pages. Acquired from Lady Elena Ochoa Foster, 28 June 2022, “Sensational Books” exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection.

In correspondence with Ivorypress in 2019, I first learned of Edmund de Waal’s artist’s book inspired by the later works of Paul Celan. With the help of Ivorypress, de Waal created breath as an artwork consisting of the artist’s book (in a limited edition of six), a series of vitrines, shelves and diptychs conceived as open books, and a reading room. His aim was to pay homage to the Romanian poet Paul Celan, in whose last books “there is more white page than word”, as de Waal puts it. The only way to have seen the book then would have been to fly to Madrid.

In a major surprise, a copy of the edition appeared at the formal opening of the exhibition “Sensational Books” at the Weston Library, part of the Bodleian Libraries (Oxford, 28 June 2022). Heightening the surprise was Edmund de Waal’s delivering a talk about the work to open the exhibition. And capping the surprise was Lady Elena Ochoa Foster’s kind gift of this eponymous booklet describing breath. Perhaps the surprise of a long anticipation’s being met, or de Waal’s impassioned talk, or the kindness of the gift created a susceptibility to the raw emotion on, in and beneath the whiteness of this work. But no, it is objectively there. De Waal’s booklet, photos from the exhibition and the Ivorypress videos further below help to understand from where the power of breath comes.

One of the booklet’s inserts is a square of white paper (perhaps the G.F. Smith Colorplan Ice White, one of the four different papers used in the artist’s book). Opposite the insert, de Waal writes, “Your mind moves over the whiteness of the page and you try and sound what this whiteness means, its silence a place of redaction, or of held breath, or of exhalation.” The close-up of the insert turned shows the paper’s degree of translucence that de Waal uses to great effect in his artist’s book as can be seen in the videos. The close-up also gives a view of the bite of the letterpress in the raised impression from the page before and the ink-filled depth on the facing page. This kind of material contrast recurs — bite and breath, white and black, lighter and heavier papers, rougher and smoother — in the larger work in so many ways.

These visual, tactile and conceptual workings realize in small what the artist’s book accomplishes on a larger almost monumental scale. The artist’s book measures 453 x 673 x 43 mm and runs to 104 pages and is housed in a wooden box that converts to a lectern and provides storage for the translucent ceramic works on which Celan’s words are inscribed.

Another source of the larger work’s power is the porcelain slip that de Waal has brushed over parts of Celan’s poems to create a white surface on which he rewrites Celan’s words. Porcelain is de Waal’s tool. When asked what he does, he often puns in reply, “I throw pots”. The presence of porcelain slip in a work of such size, materiality and grounding in Celan’s poetry of coming to grips with the Shoah conjures a more somber pun on creativity and destruction. It establishes a paradoxical, metaphorical union of fragility, breakage and exhalation with strength, restoration and inhalation.

Showcased at “Sensational Books” exhibition, Weston Library, Oxford University. Photo: Books On Books, 8 July 2022.

Showcased at “Sensational Books” exhibition, Weston Library, Oxford University. Photo: Books On Books, 8 July 2022.

Just as the book, ceramics and lectern constitute another layer to the installation work, there are layers in the artist’s book itself, some of them hidden. The use of porcelain slip to cover Celan’s words has already been mentioned. Another layer lies in the binding, executed by Shepherds, Sangorski & Sutcliff. As was done in the early days of bookbinding, scraps of previously published material line the spine. For this purpose, De Waal collected scraps of medieval manuscripts previously used for binding. Binding within binding, centuries within centuries. By tucking away underneath the paper binding’s flap the only colored image in the booklet, an image that even looks like a scrap of illuminated manuscript, de Waal alludes to this practice.

While the scraps embedded in breath‘s binding are not materially perceptible, knowledge of it enriches the reader/viewer’s perception. Enriched perception enriches the work. As de Waal writes in the booklet and as we hear in the videos, “All books are palimpsests. As we read and reread, we re-create texts”. As readers/viewer responding to breath, each of us brings a layer to the palimpsest.

My response brings to the palimpsest another layering artist who celebrates Celan in works of book art: Anselm Kiefer. The juxtaposition provokes an intake of breath as it brings to mind Shulamith (1990) in homage to Celan’s “Todesfugue” (“Death Fugue”) or The Secret Life of Plants (2008) shown with a sound installation of Celan’s poetry and also sponsored by Ivorypress. So different from the whiteness of breath and its materiality of porcelain, wood, gold and paper, Shulamith is 64 pages made of lead, hair and ashes (1010 x 630 x 110 mm), and The Secret Life of Plants is 18 pages made of oil on lead over cardboard (1900 x 1400 x 200 mm). Both are dark and foreboding works. The artists themselves, too, differ in their roots. As told in The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), de Waal’s family, the Viennese Ephrussis, were persecuted by the Nazis. Kiefer’s father was a soldier in the Wehrmacht, which we know from Kiefer’s infamous early works incorporating photos of him in his father’s uniform and giving the Nazi salute. Where de Waal evokes breath and whiteness, Kiefer evokes death and leadenness. Yet both fuse materiality and visual representation with text (whether explicit, implicit or hidden) to stand with Celan’s agony and creative spirit and achieve an originality, an independence that is nevertheless dependent on history.

Further Reading


Werner Pfeiffer and Anselm Kiefer“. 16 January 2015. Bookmarking Book Art.

Brandon, Claire. Ed. 2021. Looking forward: Ivorypress at twenty-five. Madrid: Ivorypress.

Bravo, Joana. n.d. “breath — a project by Edmund de Waal for Ivorypress“. Accessed 29 June 2022.

De Waal, Edmund. 2016. The white road: a journey into an obsession. London: Vintage.

De Waal, Edmund. 2010. The hare with amber eyes: a hidden inheritance. New York: Picador.

De Waal, Edmund. 2021 “Breath“, In Paul Celan Today: A Companion, edited by Michael Eskin, Karen Leeder and Marko Pajević. Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 319-324.

Gopnik, Adam. 2013. Edmund De Waal: atemwende. New York: Gagosian Gallery.

Granero, Natalia, and Gunnar B. Kvaran. 2019. Anselm Kiefer: livres et xylographies: [catalogue de l’exposition, Montricher Fondation Jan Michalski pour l’écriture et la littérature du 8 février au 12 mai 2019 ; Oslo Astrup Fearnley Museet du 30 mai au 15 septembre 2019].

Minssieux-Chamonard, Marie, and Anselm Kiefer. 2015. Anselm Kiefer: l’alchimie du livre. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Books On Books Collection – Abra Ancliffe

Personal Libraries Library (Winter 2009-10 to Spring/Summer 2021)

Imagine belonging to a library composed of selected personal libraries and housed on another continent. Imagine that the librarian who selects those personal libraries and hunts down copies of the works (preferably the same editions) needed to recreate completely those libraries also constantly harvests the libraries for connections among them and delivers them to you in the form of ephemera. It exists. I have a library card for it.

Personal Libraries Library (2009 to present)
Abra Ancliffe
Various forms. Acquired from the artist, 11 April 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Since 2009, Abra Ancliffe, its artist/librarian, has been replicating the personal libraries of

Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), Massachusetts astronomer, educator, suffragist and librarian
Robert Smithson (1938-1973), New Jersey-born land artist, sculptor and art theorist
Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), Argentinian writer of fiction, poetry and essays
Italo Calvino (1923-1985), Cuban-Italian writer of fiction, poetry and essays
Anne B. Spencer (1882-1975), Virginia-based member of the Harlem Renaissance circle, poet, civil rights activist, teacher and librarian

Each personal library has a catalogue derived from our librarian’s research and consultation with foundations associated with each of the owners. Each library has its wish list of works needed to complete the holdings; and a Reference Library Catalogue for background on each of the owners has been added. But why these particular personal libraries? Was there a rule?

The library itself has rules (courtesy of our librarian’s fellow artist Larissa Hammond):

1 The Library is a coordinate geometry that is initiated within and between the booksets.
2 The books within each set may not be disassociated and circulate as a singularity.
3 Each individual book is zero dimensional unless activated by its faction.
4 Reference materials are considered an empty set and may not be removed from the Library.

Given such rules, it is no surprise that our librarian has included Borges. The fabulist of “The Library of Babel” once held the job of first assistant in a Buenos Aires municipal library and reportedly remarked “if I were asked to name the chief event in my life, I should say my father’s library” and “I always imagined Paradise to be some kind of a library”. Also, given such rules and the inclusion of Borges, could the Cuban-Italian Italo Calvino, a member of the Oulipo movement, be far behind?

Maria Mitchell’s personal library was the seed or germinating star of the PLL in the winter of 2009-2010 (see the item in the upper right corner of the photo above). Flowers and constellations are two themes that our librarian finds as links among the personal libraries.

Another link between the libraries are the books common to more than one library. For instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays appears in Maria Mitchell’s and Robert Smithson’s libraries. Perhaps there is a sort of transcendentalism driving the library! How appropriate that the first book from Mitchell’s library acquired and the first in the PLL was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays.

By virtue of these collage-like connections that our librarian draws in the periodic issues of ephemera, a book published at a later date may seem to belong equally to an earlier owner. Perhaps, as in the collages into which the ephemera can fall, “one book may hide another” to paraphrase Kenneth Koch. The issues of ephemera arrive like challenges to Robert Smithson’s notion of site and non-site works of art. They are works that depend and do not depend on their site. They arrive so similar and so different, regular enough but sporadic enough, that they are like “Miss Mitchell’s comet” — non-periodic (until it appears again).

PLL Ephemeral Issues.
Left to right and top to bottom: Winter 2009/2010; Summer 2010; Winter 2011; Summer 20012; Winter 2012; Summer 2013; Winter 2013; Summer 2014; Winter 2015; Summer 2016; Winter 2016; Summer 2017; Fall/Winter 2017; Spring/Summer 2018; Fall/Winter 2018; Spring/Summer 2019; Fall/Winter 2019; Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 2020; Spring/Summer 2019.

The ephemera themselves represent “collaborations” among the personal libraries — courtesy of our librarian’s reading of the Library’s “coordinate geometry”, of course. For the Spring/Summer 2021 issue, the first piece of ephemera listed on the blue manifest (its Bibliography) is “Paper to be Placed in a Window” (see the upper left-hand corner of the photo immediately above). Glossy black on both sides, the single folded sheet displays an astronomical photo with holes of different size punched to let light light up the constellation. According to the manifest or Bibliography, the work connects the constellation Aguila (Eagle) “in and around the Milky Way south of Cygnus” with J.B. Sedgwick’s Introducing Astronomy from Smithson’s library with Laurence Sterne’s The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman from Calvino’s. The connection with Sedgwick is obvious. The connection with Sterne’s novel may be obvious to readers familiar with its “black page”, or will be to readers here who proceed to the entry for the next of Abra Ancliffe’s works in the Books On Books Collection.

The Secret Astronomy of Tristram Shandy (2015)

The Secret Astronomy of Tristram Shandy (2015)
Abra Ancliffe
Paperback. H175 x W273 mm, unpaginated. Edition of 100. Acquired from the artist, 11 April 2022.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

It is no surprise that Ancliffe’s work of book-art-cum-academic-treatise is part of the Laurence Sterne Trust Foundation’s permanent collection. Like Shandy Hall’s own The Black Page Catalogue (2010), The Secret Astronomy extrapolates and celebrates page 73 with the same whimsy and seriousness that the 73 writers and artists invited to make their own Black Page exercised. In its own self-publishing status, it also underscores like Simon Morris’s manifesto Do or DIY (2012) the same status of Sterne’s work as a forerunner to the self-published, self-referential works of book art of the mid- to late 20th century. It is Ancliffe’s elevation of the self-reflexive academic treatise to art status that secures The Secret Astronomy its position in the Books On Books Collection.

L-R: Shandy Hall, The Black Page Catalogue (2010); Simon Morris, Do or DIY (2012).

The rectangle of black appearing on page 173 in the first edition of Sterne’s novel faces the brief announcement of Parson Yorick’s death on page 172: “Alas, poor Yorick”. Taking off on the concept of academe’s variorum edition, Ancliffe has reproduced the black pages from more than one hundred editions of Sterne’s novel. What is a singularity in the novel becomes a contemplation of a regularity that reveals a material irregularity since the 1759 edition. Densities of ink have varied, oxidation occurred, spots from lint and fingerprints accumulated — even show-throughs from the next chapter’s text — so that the eye begins to read the accumulated pages for astronomical images — Tristram’s and Sterne’s secret astronomy. (The temptation to Grangerize this work by slipping into it Ancliffe’s ephemera “Paper to be Placed in a Window” is strong.) Ancliffe urges forward her case for the discovery of a secret astronomy with a series of appendices, one of which draws attention to Sterne’s use of the asterisk in the novel and proposes one of its hidden kabbalistic meanings in an equation: if star = *, and Sterne = star, then Sterne = *. There is even the dutiful source appendix listing all of the editions from which black pages have been gathered.

Pages 169-70 of the first edition of Tristram Shandy account for another famous singular, regular irregularity — the marbled page, which Tristram calls “the motly emblem of my work”. Ancliffe’s black, brown and gray marbled spine and inside covers make for an apt, ironic and artistic stroke — a reminder of the element of chance that is so characteristic of Sterne’s narrative project, of The Secret Astronomy and of the ephemera arising from the Personal Libraries Library.

From Shandy Hall’s Emblem of My Work blog, accessed 18 September 2019.

Further Reading

Shandy Hall“. 1 January 2021. Books On Books Collection.

Jorge Luis Borges“, last edited on 8 May 2022. Wikipedia. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Italo Calvino“, last edited 20 April 2022. Wikipedia. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Maria Mitchell“, last edited 8 March 2022. Wikipedia. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Robert Smithson“, last edited 14 May 2022. Wikipedia. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Anne B. Spencer“, last edited 25 April 2022. Wikipedia. Accessed 15 May 2022.

Books On Books Collection – Ken Botnick

“How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?” So begins the description for a workshop run by Ken Botnick in 2017. His two works in the Books On Books Collection answer those questions with a resounding “This is how“.

Table of Contents (2020)

Table of Contents (2021)
Ken Botnick
Slipcased, boards with exposed sewn binding. Slipcase: H270 x W170 mm; Book: H265 xW185 mm, 56 pages.
Edition of 20, of which this is #5. Acquired from the artist, 3 May 2022.
Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Table of Contents has no table of contents. Instead the whole book is a meditation on a table of contents — that of James J. Gibson’s The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). On the inside cover, Botnick characterizes Table of Contents as a “book-length visual/textual poem” and identifies the cento as its model. Cento is short for the Latin centonibus (“patchwork”) and describes the technique of appropriating others’ lines of verse to compose an original “collage” poem. Rather than lines from poems, though, Botnick has appropriated text from Gibson’s table of contents and figure labels.

Here is Gibson’s complete table of contents:

Gibson, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, pp. ix-xiv. Internet Archive.

Here is Botnick’s selection of text:

Table of Contents
Compression waves from a vibratory event
How are associations between events detected?
The stationary information for seeing one thing through another
Radiation from a luminous source
The physical reality of speech
The diffusion of volatile substances
The development of selective attention
The superfluous appeal to memory
The consequences of inadequate information
The consequences of rigidity
The special consequences of light
Transmitted light and transparent surfaces
The structuring of light by means other than reflection
The structuring of light by alphabetic writing
The stable and unbounded character of the phenomenal visual world
The perception of chemical values in the sea
The inspired air
The beginning of a theory

But that is not how Botnick’s cento is presented. In calling it a “visual/textual poem”, Botnick is too modest. It is much more than visual/textual: it is visual, textual, auditory and haptic — and is so from the start, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.

First of all, the slipcase is more of a “slipsleeve” from which the spine protrudes for fingers and eyes to feel the exposed binding threads, the pattern of knots and the ridges of the gathered signatures. This is the sewn boards structure, credited to Gary Frost, more on that later. The spine and fore edge offer bright colors that contrast with the deeply black sleeve that displays three slanting parallel cutouts in the cloth, exposing the board it covers. The pattern those cutouts make will become a recurrent visual and tactile theme as the pages turn.

As the tightly fitting sleeve pulls away from the board-stiff book, they make a “shirring” sound together. As the front cover turns, the title page bows upward showing nine impressed parallel lines beneath the words “Table of Contents”, and when that page turns, it crackles and makes a shuffling sound as its edge drags across the following bright blue page.

Through that bright blue translucence, the pattern from the slipsleeve reappears but rearranged and multiplied into a zigzag spectrum of colors. The physical turning of the translucent page “exposes” that zigzag spectrum and the second line of text in this poem: “Compression waves from a vibratory event”. Gibson’s text refers to the perception of sound or physical vibrations, and Botnick poetically overlays this with his selection of papers and introduction of zigzag waves of color. The zigzag pattern and its rounded elements, which on some pages are scattered, elongated, cross-hatched or sharp-edged, contribute a recurrent visual syncopated rhythm through the book. Toward the end, the zigzag moves into a more consistently vertical and angular, almost helical, appearance.

First leaf turned, second leaf turning, third leaf revealed.

Zigzag pattern scattered. Zigzag pattern become helical.

To deliver other visual and haptic effects, Botnick prints his translucent papers sometimes only on their reverse sides, sometimes on both, sometimes to the point of opacity as with the first leaf and other times to the point of transforming the colors about to appear on the next sheet beneath as with the second and third leaves. Of course, this changes the feel of the sheet from one side to the other. Botnick also uses six different paper types (including one with a watermark designed for this edition and made at Dieu Donné Paper). The variety in printing and papers introduces additional tactile and visual rhythms: slick and matte, smooth and rough, dark and light, etc. Again, proceeding by contrasts and complements, provoking multi-sensory activity and responses.

Visual effects achieved by printing on both sides of translucent paper layered over fine print paper.

Visual effects achieved by printing translucent paper to near opacity on one side, spot printing on the other side and layering that sheet over a translucent paper printed on one side.

Variation of paper types.

The sewn boards structure, executed by Emdash studio member Robin Siddall, offers the most effective means of achieving the sensory effects intended with the variety of papers, ink colors and printing techniques, as well as delivering a lay-flat binding. Each four-page signature consists of two separate sheets glued to the inner edges of a narrow folded card (the board) sewn and linked to the boards of the signatures before and after. The card used for those hinges is a Japanese washi called Moriki, known for its folding strength and colors, but how particularly apt those multiple hinges and colors are for this patchwork poem.

Detail of an open signature exposing the thread sewn through the board and showing the leaves glued to the edges of the board.

Gibson defines the haptic system as that “by which animals and men are literally in touch with the environment” (p.97). On the penultimate double-page spread, Botnick reveals the environment that touched his “book-length visual/textual poem” into existence: one of pandemic, isolation, violent exposure of institutionalized racism, the “Big Lie” and insurrection. Set in the now familiar zigzag pattern, the revelatory text annotates the lines of appropriated text and the prints, connecting both with the environment and the meditation on perception. Botnick’s book is certainly a distinctive interweaving way of thinking about these threads.

It is telling that Table of Contents ends with black and gray, the colors that dominate the other work in the collection: Diderot Project (2015), which presents this pronouncement from Odilon Redon:

Even without the prismatic range of colors in Table of Contents, Botnick’s Diderot Project (2015) may outstrip the former in the number of ways in which Botnick makes not only the page but also the codex itself “become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas”.

Diderot Project (2015)

Diderot Project (2015)
Ken Botnick
H290 x W194 mm, 150 pages. Edition of 70, of which this is #32. Acquired from the artist,
Photos: Courtesy of the artist; Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of the artist.

Clearly, like Table of Contents, this work is a “book-length visual/textual poem”, so it offers some insights on the book artist’s favorite rhymes, rhythms, metaphors, techniques and themes. First and foremost is his taking a literary work as his muse. With Table of Contents, it is James J. Gibson’s psychology book; in this case, it is Denis Diderot’s multi-volume Encyclopédie (Encyclopedia), a decades-long project with Jean le Rond d’Alembert and 138 other contributors. Nodding to the multiple volumes of the Encyclopedia, the artist refers to the sections of his work as Volumes 1, 2 and 3, although they are bound as one binding. The three volumes’ titles follow the Encyclopedia‘s overarching categories in its “System of Human Knowledge”: Memory, Reason, and Imagination. Digitally captured images from the Encyclopedia‘s plate volumes abound.

Table of Contents

Diderot Project, however, is not a condensed version or description of the Encyclopedia. Like literary works of ekphrasis whose words meditate on a visual object, Diderot Project is book art that meditates — inversely — on a literary work. The cover to Diderot Project does not show its name where the title is expected, rather it shows the name of its object of meditation. And it displays that name in a distinctive monumental way.

The front cover’s silver slab serif italic letters in all caps on textured, triple-dyed flax paper and the back cover’s diagram in the same palette strike chords that reverberate throughout the work. The chords are both obvious and subtle. Immediately, with a pattern of silver-gray compasses and directional stars, the doublures repeat the cover’s black and silver notes but on a less textured paper. Curiously the fly leaves of the doublures are not really fly leaves because they are pasted at their fore edges to separate leaves of black paper: a subtle hint to look beneath the surface, inquire into the mechanics. (An irresistible side note on the mechanics of the binding: the binder Daniel E. Kelm, in tipping the black fly leaf to the outer printed one, extends the fly leaf further into the book as a tipped-on hinge inserted through the first two signatures. The detailed image below on the right shows the hinging edge of the fly leaf between the signatures.)

L-R: Inside back cover, doublure with compass and directional star motif; Inside front cover, doublure leaf anchored to fly leaf; Binding detailed view of hinging edge of fly leaf extending between signatures.

Following that almost-Chinese fold of a flyleaf, the half-title drops any pretense of hinting. Turning the half-title with its 3×4 grid of black, brown, tan and gray squares on translucent paper reveals that the squares have been created by printing in silver, copper, light brown tint and no ink on the reverse. Underneath the half-title leaf lies another black page with the recurring silver-gray image of four buckets linked by their handles. The pattern of buckets is parallel to the interlinked image of compass and directional star on the doublures. It is another subtle hint: this time, to look at patterns for their similarities and differences arising from the mechanics of effects, to consider the commonality of tools whether at the low or high end of culture.

L-R: Half-title on translucent paper; inked reverse of half-title and the interlinking buckets.

If this reaction to the prelims seems a stretch, then the following run of folios surely validates it. Not only does the text articulate the parity of craft and tools (métier) with art and science, the watermark hand gestures to it, then the watermark hand joins its mirror image “to tie” the knot of the binding thread, and then the second watermark hand joins its printed mirror image at the same point. These six pages enact parallels of similarities and differences.

The layering of translucent paper printed on one or both sides, which also occurs in Table of Contents, is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques. He has even delivered a lecture at the Getty Research Institute entitled “Transparency as Metaphor“. Botnick’s use of it in the sequence below invites the reader/viewer to meditate with him on “the nature of craft, tools, memory, and imagination, while provoking questions about authorship in artists’ books”.

Running across the four pages of the two leaves of UV Ultra Clearfold, the enlarged present, past and future letters call on perception, memory and imagination to decipher the name: Diderot, emerged and submerged. However large his name is cast, though, is Diderot the author? By bracketing these transparencies with an image of a manufactory or workshop and a crowd of listeners and observers with pens poised, Botnick evokes the other 139 contributors to the Encyclopedia and his own host of collaborators, including Kelm (binding), Paul Wong (papermaking) and, importantly the Emdash studio (Catherine Johnson, Ben Kiel, Karen Werner and, in New Delhi, Ira Raja).

Tools, the workplace and studio lie at the heart of the Diderot Project‘s second volume, which boasts the following complex foldout which in itself validates Roland Barthes’ statement from his essay on the Encyclopedia‘s plates: “The object is the world’s human signature”.

Sensation, perception and the natural world lie at the heart of the third volume, and here is another of Botnick’s favorite techniques: typographic distinction. The right-side up text on the verso page is set in Walbaum, as is every instance of Diderot’s text. The upside down text on the verso and all the text on the recto are set in Trade Gothic, as is the case for more contemporary authors (Michel Foucault and Walter Benjamin, respectively, in these instances). Note how Foucault’s upside down text reflects the action in the image of the camera obscura, and picks up the theme of perceptual flipping initiated with the watermark hand in Volume 1 and Diderot’s enlarged name across the translucent pages in Volume 2.

Both Table of Contents and Diderot Project reward revisiting for this kind of close reading, close looking, close fingering and close listening. Close comparison and contrast as well because together they answer “How does a book reflect a distinct way of thinking about a subject? How does the page become a dynamic landscape of visual and conceptual ideas?”

Further Reading

Notes on ‘Inverse Ekphrasis’ as a way into book art“. 17 June 2022. Bookmarking Book Art.

Artist Books: From Idea to Form – Workshop by Ken Botnick“. 18 March 2017. Lawrence Art Center, Lawrence, Kansas. Accessed 2 June 2019.

Botnick, Ken. 23 April 2015. Transcription of talk given as the annual Enid Mark Lecture. Smith College.

Botnick, Ken. 1 October 2015. “Diderot Project: Making the Book to Discover my Subject“. Boston Athenaeum. Video. Accessed 1 June 2019.

Diderot, D., & Alembert, J. L. R. 1967. Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences des arts et des métiers. Stuttgart- Bad Cannstatt: Friedrich Fromann.

Frost, Gary. 2012. Adventures in Book Preservation. Coralville, IA: Iowa Book Works. See “Sewn Board Bookbinding More than a Thousand Years Later”.

Gibson, James J. 1966. The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gibson, James Jerome. 1950. The Perception of the Visual World. [With illustrations]. Riverside Press: Cambridge, Mass.

Bookmarking Book Art – Notes on “Inverse Ekphrasis” as a way into book art

On inverse ekphrasis and its role in artists’ books and book art.

When a work of art inspires poetry or prose, we call the literary result ekphrastic:  “the verbal representation of visual representation”.  Keats, Auden and Jarrell use words to “recreate”, re-present, evoke or respond to works of art — an antique urn, a painting by Brueghel, or Donatello’s sculpture of David. But book artists often work in the other direction.  They use the letters, words, the physical elements of the book or even the shape of books, the functions of the book or even the processes of bookmaking to create works of art. A kind of inverse ekphrasis.

The phrase inverse ekphrasis first occurred in comments on artwork by Kate Buckley and Ros Rixon. It originated and sharpened from reading Murray Krieger (1992), W.J.T. Mitchell (1994), Jay David Bolter (1996) and Marian Macken (2018). Explaining ekphrasis and the tensions between text and image in Picture Theory, Mitchell writes:

A verbal representation cannot represent — that is, make present — its object in the same way a visual representation can.

Mitchell calls this a commonsense perception. It insists on an impossibility for verbal representation and a possibility for visual representation. But let’s play a game. Invert and modify it:

visual representation does not represent — that is, make present — its object in the same way a verbal representation does.

Likewise the altered assertion seems a commonsense perception, but it does not insist; it is a simpler, more limited observation. It has to be. A visual work can reproduce a readable version of The Great Gatsby’s entire text. This poster does just that. The image illustrates the book, but the poster is not an illustrated book, the illustration is the text of the book. The visual representation makes the story present, but in a temporally and spatially different way. Instead of leaning over a codex to read the words and look through them to Nick and Gatsby’s world, we stand and look at their arrangement into an emblem of that world, we begin to read the words. Tiring or being called away, we turn from it. Passing by, we stop, and our eyes jump to another part of the image and, seeing a familiar or intriguing word or sentence, begin to read again. It may be “great book” art, but is it great “book art”? Whatever one’s judgment, it is a form of inverse ekphrasis, which is one means that some works of book art adopt to make present their inspiring object, which in part achieves their own objecthood.

Exploring the relationship of the book and, in particular, the artist’s book to architecture, Marian Macken (2018) also makes observations that, restated, shed light on inverse ekphrasis but, just as important, shed light on book art in general. She writes:

… matter is not just material presence, it is the site of techniques, which may be understood as the complex relation between architecture’s material presence and the immaterial. Thus the exhibition of architecture becomes the display of technique. With this description of the display of architecture and the notion of translation in mind, artists’ books provide an immediate vehicle for the exhibition of architecture: central to the concept of technique is the re-making of the representation. p. 126.

Now let’s play the restatement game:

Matter is not just the material presence of the book in artists’ books, it is the site of techniques, which may be understood as the complex relation between the book’s material presence and the immaterial. The alphabet, type, typography, the substrate (clay, stone, skin, paper, screen, etc.), page (in the manifestation chosen by the structuring technique) and the binding or apparent absence of binding (again, in the manifestation chosen by the structuring technique): each and together are the site of techniques that the artist/author can choose in pursuit of an idea, concept, thought, emotion or sensation intended.

With that statement, we move beyond inverse ekphrasis (“the re-making of a representation” or the making of re-presentation). A work of book art hardly requires an external literary work to occasion it, but in the collection’s many instances occasioned by verbal works of art, they riff more often than not on those elements mentioned above. The riffing is a performance that takes place on the site of techniques; it is the exploration of the complex relation between the book’s material presence and the immaterial.

The page is one of the most frequent elements subject to riffing. The choice of codex, palm leaf, leporello, scrolling paper, scrolling screen (others?) as a book’s structuring technique offers the opportunity to choose or redefine the “page”. Even within the space of a codex page, the diptych of a double-page spread, foldouts, pop-ups, or even within a continuously (horizontal or vertical) scrolling screen, the artist chooses techniques of demarcating, delineating, delimiting to deliver the idea, concept, emotion or sensation intended. This includes the metaphorical use to which the most experimental of book artists and authors have put the space in between letters, words, lines of text, images and pages. Think of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard and the artists’ books in homage to it.

The binding or apparent absence of binding is another frequent element subject to invention. The choice of structure (codex, etc.) offers an opportunity to choose or invent techniques of holding or bringing together or dispersing what is demarcated, delineated, delimited in the attempt to deliver the idea, concept, emotion or sensation intended. Think of the innovations and rediscoveries of Cor Aerssens, Gary Frost, Daniel Kelm, Hedi Kyle, Claire Van Vliet and other book artists. And what of the “apparent absence of binding”? Its inclusion allows for some of the more conceptual and most experimental works of book art — those that pose simple challenges to the idea of binding, those that pose more complex concepts of unboundedness. Think of Marc Saporta’s Composition No. 1 (2011), Doug Beube’s Red Infinity #4 (2017) or Amaranth Borsuk’s Between Page and Screen (2012).

Ulises Carrión’s 1975 manifesto assertion — The book is a space-time sequence — is apropos here. The book artist India Johnson (2019) explains its appropriateness by playing the same game of restatement and, in doing so, also captures Macken’s notion of “the site of techniques”:

… the more I read of Carrión, the more I’m persuaded that he is right: that his definition of the book, as both space and sequence, may be the most adequate one that we have.

That’s why I don’t describe the sculptures I’ve made in response to The New Art of Making Books as ‘expanding’ the idea of the book. They may, however, expand the idea of bookbinding.

In mulling over bookbinding in the expanded field, I have ultimately found myself back where I began: but not as a translator–this time, as an author. I am currently re-writing The New Art of Making Books, in collaboration with the translator and poet Andrea Bel.Arruti. As Ulises Carrión himself proclaimed, “plagiarism is the point of departure for creative activity in the new art.” By inverting all of Carrión’s claims, we’re generating a new manifesto, The Old Art of Making Books

“Books, contrary to popular opinion, are not for reading. They are for making. 

Making books is a sequence of processes, unfolding into space, whose making happens in time. 

The making is a space-time sequence.” 

And so inverse ekphrasis via this inverse manifesto becomes a way into book art.

Some examples of inverse ekphrasis from the Books On Books Collection:

Un Coup de Dés N’Abolira l’Appropriation” (2022). Includes links to various artists’ books’ responses to Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem.

Abra Ancliffe,  The Secret Astronomy of Tristram Shandy (2015). Laurence Sterne novel.

Harriet Bart, The Yellow Wallpaper (2018). Charlotte Perkins Gillman novella.

Ken Botnick, Diderot Project (2015). Denis Diderot encyclopedia.

Ken Botnick, Table of Contents (2021). James J. Gibson monograph

Béatrice Coron, Machines (2017), and Barbara Tetenbaum, Machines (1986). Michael Donaghy poem

Guy Laramée, A Caverna (2012). José Saramago novel.

Jacqueline Rush Lee, The First Cut (2015). Ovid poem.

Helen Malone and Jack Oudyn,  The Future of an Illusion (2017). Sigmund Freud treatise and Jim Crace novel.

Shirley Sharoff, Impermanence subtile / Subtle Impermanence (2013). Ian Monk poem.

Buzz Spector, North Sea (for M.B.) (1990). Marcel Broodthaers artist’s book.

Barbara Tetenbaum, Mining My Ántonia; Excerpts, Drawings, and a Map (2012). Willa Cather novel.

Tetenbaum, both writer and book artist, spent a month in a gallery listening to a recording of Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia, and the result was an “artist’s book” or “bookwork” called Mining My Ántonia; Excerpts, Drawings, and a Map.  Put aside — difficult as it may be — the pleasure of craft and art so plainly suffusing the print, paper and binding of this work, what is the work’s relation to the material of which it is made?  Is it like a “movie of the book”?  Or some sort of literary/artistic criticism?   Are we enjoying Tetenbaum’s “making the novel her own” (as in the pun on mining), or is the work inspiring us to go back to Cather’s novel with renewed interest?  Or both? To what degree can we appreciate Tetenbaum’s book art without having read My Ántonia?To make Tetenbaum’s work our own — to mine it — must we go to the site from which the artist quarried her material?  How do we think about the “material” of which Mining My Ántonia is made? How does that contribute to our appreciation of the work itself? And to our thinking about book art?

Further Reading

Bartsch, S., & Elsner, J. 1 January 2007. Special issue on ekphrasis. Classical Philology, 102, 1. Chicago, Ill: The University of Chicago Press.

Benjamin, Andrew. 2005. “On display: The exhibition of architecture”. In Abe, Hitoshi. Hitoshi Abe Flicker Tokyo: Toto Shoppan.

Benjamin, Walter. 1955. Illuminations. Harcourt, Brace & World. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “The Task of the Translator”.

Bolter, Jay David. “Ekphrasis, Virtual Reality, and the Future of Writing” in Nunberg, Geoffrey, and Umberto Eco. 1996. The future of the book. Turnhout: Brepols.

Brackett, Donald. 17 March 2020. “Iconosphere : the Ekphrastic Works of Walter Benjamin“. The Ekphrastic Review. Accessed 14 June 2022.

Callaway, C. 2017. Reverse Ekphrasis: The Visual Poetics of Nancy Morejón and Rolando EstévezAfro-Hispanic Review36(2), 50–59.

Carrión, Ulises. 1975. “The New Art of Making Books”. In Lyons, J. 1987. Artists’ books: A critical anthology and sourcebook. Rochester, N.Y: Visual Studies Workshop Press.

Evans, Robin. Translations from Drawing to Building and Other Essays. London: Architectural Association, 1997. Print. AA Documents ; 2. “Principle of reversed directionality”

Fletcher, Robert P. “Digital Ekphrasis and the Uncanny: Toward a Poetics of Augmented Reality”, Electronic Book Review, March 15, 2017. Accessed 13 October 2020.

Abstract: In this essay, Robert P. Fletcher demonstrates how, while putting together digital and print media affordances, augmented print may evoke in readers a sense of the uncanny. Fletcher also explains how works such as Amaranth Borsuk’s Abra (2014), Aaron A. Reed and Jacob Garbe’s Ice-Bound (2016) or Stuart Campbell’s Modern Polaxis (2014) seem to demonstrate the existence of a never-ending return of the “familiar” in electronic literature.

Heffernan, James A. W. 1993,2008. Museum of words: the poetics of ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Johnson, India. 15 November 2019. “Responding to The New Art of Making Books“. College Book Art Association site. Accessed 13 June 2022.

Krieger, Murray, and Joan Krieger. 1992. Ekphrasis: the illusion of the natural sign. Baltimore, Md., [etc.]: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lessing, G. E., & Frothingham, E. (2013). Laocoon: An Essay upon the Limits of Painting and Poetry. Newburyport: Dover Publications.

Lindhé, Cecilia. 1 July 2013. “A Visual Sense is Born in the Fingertips”, Digital Humanities Quarterly, The Literary. Umeå University. Accessed 13 October 2020.

Abstract: In this article, the significance of the rhetorical and modern definitions of ekphrasis will be discussed through the lens of digital literature and art. It attempts to reinscribe the body in ekphrastic practice by adding touch to the abstracted visualism of the eye, and emphasize defining features of the ancient usage: orality, immediacy and tactility. What I call the digital ekphrasis with its emphasis on enargeia, its strong connections with the ancient definition, and on the bodily interaction with the work of art, conveys an aesthetic of tactility; digitalis=finger. By tracing and elucidating a historical trajectory that takes the concept of ekphrasis in the ancient culture as a starting point, the intention is not to reject the theories of the late 1900s, but through a reinterpretation of ekphrasis put forward an example of how digital perspectives on classic concepts could challenge or revise more or less taken-for-granted assumptions in the humanities. In this context ‘the digital’ is not only a phenomenon that could be tied to certain digital objects or used as a digital tool, but as an approach to history, with strong critical potential. The aim is to show that one of the most important features of our digital culture is that it offers new perspectives – not only on current technology – but also on literary, cultural and aesthetic historical practices.

Macken, M. (2018). Binding space: The book as spatial practice. London: Routledge.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. “The Indirect Language”. In Merleau-Ponty, M., & Lefort, C. 199). The prose of the world. Evanston: Northwestern University Press. Touches on gesture, on science and mathematics, compares language and painting.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. 2014. Picture theory: essays on verbal and visual representation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mitchell, W. J. Thomas. 2010. What do pictures want?: the lives and loves of images. Chicago, Ill: Univ. of Chicago Press.

Royston, Anne M. 2019. Material noise: reading theory as artist’s book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Outline for a longer exploration

  • Book art and ekphrasis
    • Background to the concept of ekphrasis
    • Book art as inverse ekphrasis
    • Book art and digital ekphrasis
  • Book art and appropriation
    • Background to appropriation from the avant-garde to the present
    • Book art’s appropriations of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira le Hasard
    • Book art’s appropriations from the other arts (architecture, sculpture, painting, drawing, photography, cinema and poetry)
  • Book art and the “material noise” of its constituent parts
    • Background to “material studies”
    • Typography and the ecstatic alphabet
    • Substrates: from clay and skin, to paper and screen, and back again
  • Book art and its common thread: self-reflectivity
    • Self-reflectivity and inverse ekphrasis
    • Self-reflectivity and appropriation
    • Self-reflectivity and materiality

Books On Books Collection – Barbara Henry

Walt Whitman’s “Faces” (2012)

Walt Whitman’s “Faces”: A Typographic Reading (2012)
Barbara Henry
Case bound in boards in quarter-leather. H270 x W182 mm, 34 pages. Linocuts by Barbara Henry. Edition of 80, of which this is #69. Acquired from the artist, 11 April 2022.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission.

Although Whitman knew some of Victor Hugo’s work (in translation), it is unlikely that he knew of Hugo’s declaration “man in his entirety is in the alphabet … The alphabet is a source”. If he had, and if he had the French text as well, he would have appreciated that that last word in the original is font.

Man and his World in the Alphabet (1991)
Victor Hugo
Design and production by Kenneth Hardacre. Translation by Paul Standard for Hermann Zapf’s Manuale Typographicum (1954).
Photos of the work: Books On Books.

Working in a printing shop, Whitman could hardly overlook the metaphors on offer: the font or fount as source or mine, the typeface for the human face and vice versa. Barbara Henry has harvested from the Leaves of Grass the two short poems — “A Font of Type” and “Leaf of Faces” — that explore those metaphors. Bringing them together alongside an essay by Karen Karbiener (New York University) and one of her own, Henry embeds them in a well-crafted fine press book and embodies “Leaf of Faces” in its own set of typographic fireworks.

First though come the two essays. Karbiener’s sets the familiar biographical stage for Whitman and provides a sympathetic reading of Henry’s “typographic reading” to come. Henry’s is an earnest and plausible justification for her explication of the typographic references in each section of “Leaf of Faces”. Her essay closes with a paragraph explaining that many of the typefaces Whitman would have known are no longer available, that today’s measure of type size (the point) did not exist in Whitman’s day and that in homage she has mostly used 12 point Bulmer, a typeface from “the American Type Founders Company, a conglomerate of most of the type foundries formed in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death”. Also, she has set the type for “Leaf of Faces” by hand in a composing stick as Whitman would have done.

Then on the following pages comes a list of the names by which Whitman and his fellow print workers knew the various sizes of type. Without the list, the reader would miss the parenthetical allusions in “A Font of Type” — “nonpareil, brevier, bourgeois, long primer” — to what today are known as 6pt, 8pt, 9pt and 10pt type sizes. Whitman’s clever choice of names that have connotations beyond his extended metaphor possibly makes the lines comprehensible even without the finer points of the allusion. Or perhaps the reader still needs to be familiar with loose hot metal type and how the slivers of individual letters rest all sorted into their sections of a wooden typecase before they are mined or pulled from their latent slumbers to form words and expressions to be voiced.

Then, after this prefacing short poem, the fireworks begin with Henry’s orange and black linocut of Whitman’s face over the title of the second poem, underlined with green fleurons (like leaves of grass).

In the poem’s first double-page spread, Henry’s postcard-size digital photo of pedestrians and signs on Bleecker Street in 2012 not only illustrates lines of the facing poem, it echoes the postcard-size vintage photo by Marcus Ormsbee of Lower Hudson Street in 1865 used at the start of her essay. Her photo’s startling colors contrast with Ormsbee’s black and white and complement the bold colors and foundry typefaces that follow in her treatment of the poem. A true book artist, Henry is making these features in her book refer to what she is doing in the book — bringing her 21st century eye to eye with Whitman’s 19th century.

These are but three of the six spreads across which Henry transforms Whitman’s “Leaf of Faces” into her typographic spectacle. It and the whole of the book bring to life what Anne M. Royston calls “artistic arguments (my emphasis), a term that indicates theory that pushes back against the expectations of the theory or criticism genre, specifically by employing signification that exceeds the semantics of printed text”.

One last observation: Just as there is no evidence that Whitman knew Victor Hugo’s mystic reference to the alphabet as source, there is also no evidence that he knew the Sufi poets. But Ralph Waldo Emerson did know them. His Complete Works, Volume VIII, has a section entitled “Persian Poetry” and translates a key passage of Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (1177).