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.