Bookmarking the Objectification of the Book

The book as object is not new.  Think of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. Ojéda

What might be remarkable — or book-markable — is whether the surge in objectifying the book through sumptuous illumination, miniaturization or the creation of book art occurs at definitive moments of shifting media.  One-off illuminated manuscripts preceded the invention of moveable type, but was there a definable surge of them in the decades either side of 1450?






The Audubon double elephant folio books appeared in 1820 about the time of Frederick Koenig‘s invention of the steam-driven letterpress.

Are William Morris’s fine editions from Kelmscott Press in 1890 a datum in a surge of book objectification either side of Mergenthaler‘s invention of linotype in 1884?











fedexEither side of September 1999 (the release of the Open eBook Publication Structure 1.0), we have the Miniature Book Society, founded in 1983 and, in 2003,  Michael Hawley’s Bhutan:

A Visual Odyssey across the Last Himalayan Kingdomthe world’s largest book according to Guinness.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article about Neale Albert‘s collection of miniature books.  Is this popular interest in unreadable books and the surge in altered and sculpted books an anxious reflection of another shift in media?

Bookmark – The Implacability of Books

The Merchant Georg Gisze (1532) by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Author of The Things Things Say, Jonathan Lamb has trawled the Internet Archive to link us to 18th and early 19th century examples of the “it-narrative,” stories told from the perspective of a thing such as a watch, a coin or a mouse and generally comic and all-too human in the telling.  And yet, Lamb observes,

…  for a number of reasons this is seldom how [the it-narrative] deserves to be read. Whether it is owing to its origin and terminus in the narratives of slaves, or to its coincidence with the financial revolution and the growing unaccountability of mass human behaviour, or to the growing appetite for print ephemera, or to the end of feudal tenures and the resulting anomalies of personal portable property, or to the irreversible metamorphoses precipitated by the holocaust, ordinary things situated in banal circumstances develop a salience that has nothing to do with symbolism or hidden meaning. They are just there, eying their human adversaries, implacable and meditating affronts.

Lamb might have added another reason: the growth of the Internet, book art or bookwork and prediction of the printed book’s demise.  Until that demise, will our books, just there on their shelves above the lampshade late at night, sit “implacable and meditating affronts”?

Jonathan Lamb, The Implacability of Things at The Public Domain Review | Material World on 9th November 2012 at 11:01 am.

Bookmarking a Book Burning – II

Untitled, Unknown student artist.

Ferris Jabr’s article “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens” in Scientific American (April 11, 2013) revisits the themes raised in Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid mentioned in the previous posting.   Jabr highlights much insightful writing on the neuroscience of reading, on which more in a bit.  He begins, however, with a “haptic” anecdote that will resonate with parents and grandparents of children who are learning to read now or have learned in the last 3-5 years.

In a viral YouTube video from October 2011 a one-year-old girl sweeps her fingers across an iPad’s touchscreen, shuffling groups of icons. In the following scenes she appears to pinch, swipe and prod the pages of paper magazines as though they too were screens. When nothing happens, she pushes against her leg, confirming that her finger works just fine—or so a title card would have us believe.

Earlier the same year, I was lying in bed with an iPad reading Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov.  As the story drew me in and admittedly as the hour grew late, I found myself repeatedly reaching into the upper right-hand corner of the screen with my left forefinger and thumb to pick up and “turn the page.”  I had not developed the habit of “sweeping” or “tapping” to move through the book.  These real-life mirror images of the haptic habits of a young soon-to-be reading brain and an old reading brain bring Wolf’s speculations alive.

Numerous studies cited by Jabr suggest different areas of the brain at work in screen reading vs print reading and connect that to poorer retention and comprehension in screen reading than print reading.   But one of the more recent ones (“Metacognitive regulation of text learning: On screen versus on paper,” by Ackerman and Goldsmith) shows that where readers

studied expository texts of 1000–1200 words in one of the two media and for each text […] provided metacognitive prediction-of-performance judgments with respect to a subsequent multiple-choice test[,] [u]nder fixed study time (Experiment 1), test performance did not differ between the two media, but when study time was self-regulated (Experiment 2) worse performance was observed on screen than on paper. The results suggest that the primary differences between the two study media are not cognitive but rather metacognitive—less accurate prediction of performance and more erratic study-time regulation on screen than on paper.

S0 the reading brain may not be rewiring itself, but print and screen do demand different strategies of reading and study.  Might the “haptic habits” of physically turning the page or recalling three dimensionally the place in the book and on the page where a sentence occurs (or pinching, swiping and prodding) be clues to how we learn to learn what we read?  What we may be seeing in the one-year old are the beginnings of the metacognitive cues that will raise the performance of tomorrow’s screen reading brains, and in Ackerman’s and Goldsmith’s subjects, the familiarity of today’s reading brains with the metacognitive cues so key to studying from print that the students print out the relevant ebook chapter.

As Jabr concludes,   “When it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text, paper and ink may still have the advantage. But text is not the only way to read.”

Which harks back to the conclusion of the previous post and  Jerome Bruner’s  apt observation of Vygotsky’s fondness for Bacon’s epigram, “Nec manus, nisi intellectus, sibi permissus, multum valent” (Neither hand nor intellect left each to itself is worth much)” (247).   Perhaps neither print nor digital left each to itself is sufficient.

Bookmarking Book Art — Thomas Wightman

Derailing My Train of Thought, Thomas Wightman

Update:  TW’s latest work.

If it’s didactic, is it art?    By his own words, Thomas Wightman’s bookworks are intended as a vehicle for a message.

This project was to describe aspects of my final year project theme and primary research made so far as a ‘vehicle’.  …  My major project theme is Addiction, primarily looking at obsessive driven addictions. … The book firstly is closed hiding the addiction from view in the same manner as those who hide these addictions from loved ones and friends. … when the book is opened it reveals the chaotic emotions felt. Panic attacks are … associated with Obsessive Compulsive disorder and I … convey this through the metaphor of a sinking ship in a vortex …. Also the symptoms of a panic attack include loss of breath in the same way as drowning in water. …  a tethered anchor and a typographic rope show these problems can be solved and the ship can be salvaged in the same way as those who suffer from OCD when they receive proper treatment.

Drowning from Obsession,  Thomas Wightman
Drowning from Obsession, Thomas Wightman

His next work continues the message with different metaphors.  Its title “Plagued by Doubt” is a phrase repeated by an OCD sufferer, and Wightman has created a spiraling cutout of the repeated phrase and positioned it over the moth-eaten hole in the book.

Plagued by Doubt, Thomas Wightman
Plagued by Doubt, Thomas Wightman

This work is simultaneously delicate and ominous, perhaps more so than the first effort.  Wightman’s skill is on a par with that of the mystery sculptress of Edinburgh, but are these message-bearing works of book art as deeply artistic?  Once the metaphoric lock has been unpicked, is there an urge to unpick it again?  Like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, do the works warrant revisiting again and again?

If didacticism in art is in resurgence, these two bookworks make an impressive contribution, but just perhaps, they are more than that.

Related articles:

More Than Just Didactic Art

Art Bras Bring Attention to Women’s Health Issues

The Art of Public Health

Health Problems? Art Cures All

Book Artists “Reassemble” Baghdad’s Bombed Books: “Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here” An Exhibition at the San Francisco Center for the Book Now Through May 11, 2013 (

Bookmarking Book Art — Mandy Brannan

30 St Mary Axe is a skyscraper in London's mai...
30 St Mary Axe is a skyscraper in London’s main financial district. It serves as Swiss Re’s London headquarters. Designed by Sir Norman Foster architectural studio, built in 2001-2003. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

London’s 30 St Mary Axe is fondly referred to as “The Gherkin,” which a glimpse of the building on the skyline proves unmistakeably appropriate.  Mandy Brannan’s bookwork homage to The Gherkin is as architecturally intricate as the building’s cladding, and somehow more satisfying, perhaps because it’s less pickled.

30 St Marys Axe
30 St Mary Axe

Architecture: Reflections: 30 St Mary Axe

Chine Colle etching using pigmented gampi papers

Chine colle is a process that introduces color and texture into an etching without having to prepare and print additional plates. Any number of lightweight papers can be successfully used for chine colle, but good quality, natural-fiber papers with some degree of lightfastness are most compatible with general etching papers, which are also used in chine colle.

The papers are cut or torn into desired shapes, then dampened between blotters until uniformly moist. A printing paper used for the etching is then blotted to remove excess water. The chine colle papers are then brushed with a coating of wheat paste on one side and placed on top of the inked plate in their desired locations, paste side up.

The chine colle papers adhere to the plate enough to remain undisturbed when the dampened printing paper is placed on top. The pressure from the bed laminates both the chine colle paper and the etching paper. The ink from the plate prints on top of the chine colle papers, creating some interesting and unusual effects with lines, tones, and values.


This description of the chine colle paper process, which adds to one’s appreciation of the bookwork, highlights a certain synaesthesia of visual perception and tactile perception that one experiences when confronted by her book as well as by the building itself.

What would the “analogue” among ebooks be to this aesthetic insight yielded by the explanation of the technical craftsmanship that went into making this bookwork?

Bookmarking Book Art — Heather Hunter

SnowdropInspired by Lygia Clark’s movable sculptures and Mary Robinson’s poem, the snowdrop pushes upwards through the dark cold soil into the light. Then being changed by the wind into different spear shapes before the flower drops its head and opens in the sun. 2008 Triangular book 12cm high. 16cm diagonally.
“Inspired by Lygia Clark’s movable sculptures and Mary Robinson’s poem, the snowdrop pushes upwards through the dark cold soil into the light. Then being changed by the wind into different spear shapes before the flower drops its head and opens in the sun. 2008 Triangular book 12cm high. 16cm diagonally.”

“Environmental memories,” not just of places but of cherished objects held in the hand, are Hunter’s chief inspiration, and the design of her bookworks is intended through touch, reading and exploration to evoke in the reader “unique feelings that become the reader’s own environmental memory.”  Her artistic and literary influences and inspirations are an interesting blend of the 20th century Neo-Concrete and the 19th century Romantic movements.  Links to illustrations of those sources of influence are embedded in the caption to Snowdrop.

Hunter will be exhibiting and demonstrating her work at Turn End Studios in Haddenham, Buckinghamshire, 8-23 June this year.  Details available here.