Books On Books Collection – Paul Cox

Abstract Alphabet: A Book of Animals (2001)

Abstract Alphabet: A Book of Animals (2001)
Paul Cox
Casebound, sewn to doublures. H288 xW238 mm, 52 pages with single foldout. Acquired from Amazon, 1 July 2021.
Photos of the work: Books On Books Collection. Displayed with permission of Chronicle Books.

Not that the alphabet and writing happened chronologically step by step or in one place, but the theory is that they started with pictograms (one sign, one object), ideograms (one sign, one idea), logograms (one sign, one word); added the rebus principle and phonograms (one sign, an object or its sound as in bee the object or the sound of “bee” for use in a word with that sound); added marks for pronunciation or contextualization to distinguish one homonymic phonogram from another; and finally arrived at syllabaries and the even more efficient alphabets (one sign, one sound). Alphabetic letters acquired their non-pictorial shapes as all these signs became more simple and abstract through the tools used to inscribe them (a wedge-shaped stick, a reed, a brush, etc.).

The tools used to make signs in Abstract Alphabet are stencils and ink, or rather a knife and paper or die and metal to cut the stencils to be used with ink. The result is certainly abstract albeit less simple and yet perhaps more artful — and not simply because of its inspiration from the works of Jean Arp. In its artful way, Abstract Alphabet challenges us to think about the alphabet, how it works and how we learn to work it.

Cox’s alphabet skips the pictogram and goes straight to these Arp-ian abstract shapes. His abecedary (“a book of animals”) even skips the images of the animals whose names his signs “spell out”. His signs turn every which way, shrink or expand to fill the double-page spread, which makes the codex also a tool playing into how the signs look and how we read the words they make. The foldout key and the animal name’s initial letter are essential to identifying these animals. But what if there were no foldout key (another element of the Swiss-Army-knife codex’s performing its tool function)?

What if the initial Latin letter of the animal name did not appear in the upper left corner of each double-page spread? What if the animal name ran over to a third or fourth page? What if the Abstract Alphabet were delivered on a scroll? Or a set of 26 clay containers, each inscribed with the signs composing an animal’s name and inside each container a number of tokens each marked with the signs making up the animal’s name? Would the relative frequency of signs in just 26 words make deciphering possible? It would be what archaeologists and paleographers have faced and still face in figuring out where the alphabet came from.

In its visual abstraction, Cox’s alphabet also prompts puzzling over how reading is learned. Without figurative images of the animals to associate with the sets of shapes, how would the brain proceed? What ape looks like a combination of an orange dumbbell, gray egg and green chocolate drop?

Enciphering the alphabet with shapes reverses the alphabet’s historical movement away from the pictorial to the symbolic — but only partly, the shapes are abstract after all. Also the foldout key supplies alphabetic readers with their childhood phonemic clues. But if there were no foldout key, we would have to backtrack and learn what sounds a yellow half-circle, a set of red stairs and so on make. Could we have learned to associate sounds with these abstract shapes instead? Non-alphabetic written languages such as Kanji and Chinese have semantic and phonetic clues embedded in their characters. Cox’s Arp-ian shapes would have to evolve such clues. If it were not for color-blindness, the different colors might be useful in such an evolution; beyond some assistance in distinguishing D from U and F from V, they are not over-labored.

Still this is book art that makes us think. If only the animal below, which was pictographically the source of the first letter in the Greek and Latin alphabets, were the final association of sign and animal in Abstract Alphabet, the book would end on a deserved note of genius.

Further Reading

Abecedaries I (in progress)“. 31 March 2020. Books On Books Collection.

Paul Cox“. N.d. Atelier Muji, Japan. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Paul Cox“. N.d. Creation Gallery G8, Japan. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Paul Cox, AGI Open, Seoul 2016“. 9 February 2017. Alliance Graphique Internationale. Accessed 7 August 2021. Cox describes Abstract Alphabet at the 17’02” mark in the video.

Augustin. 25 January 2015. “Paul Cox“. Index Grafik. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Davies, Lyn. 2006. A is for ox: a short history of the alphabet. London: Folio Society.

Dehaene, Stanislas. 2010. Reading in the brain: the new science of how we read. New York: Penguin Books.

Hamaide, Eléonore. 2008. “Paul Cox ou le codex imaginatif. Article d’un cahier Figura, Université Marne-la-Vallée. Accessed 7 August 2021.

Manguel, Albert. 1996. “Reading Shadows”. A History of Reading. London: HarperCollins.

Wolf, Maryanne. 2008. Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain. Cambridge: Icon Books.

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