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.

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