Books On Books Collection – Michael Chesworth

Alphaboat (2002)

Alphaboat (2002)
Michael Chesworth
Casebound with jacket. H250 x W220 mm. 32 pages. Acquired 13 October 2021.
Photos: Books On Books Collection.

Alphabet stories with the letters themselves as characters date back at least to the books of the Hebrew Kabbalah. In the Books On Book Collection, Ben Shahn’s The Alphabet of Creation (1954) draws on that source to provide an example of an artist’s book for older children and adults. Three other works in the Collection that establish this “letters as characters” as a sort of genealogical narrative line linking artists’ books and children’s alphabet books together are Sonia Desnoyer & Marcelle Marquet’s Il était une fois un alphabet (1951/2009), Warja Lavater’s Spectacle (1990) and this one by Michael Chesworth.

Il était une fois un alphabet (“Once upon a time there was an alphabet“) presents the vowels’ voyage of discovery (and board game) to join the consonants to create the alphabet. Spectacle presents a complex abstract version of how vowels and consonants joined together to form the spectacle of the alphabet, words and writing. Chesworth enriches this genealogical line from Desnoyer and Shahn to Lavater with his own mastery of children’s book traditions. Among those traditions exemplified by Alphaboat are the rhyming narrative, wordplay with letter shapes and sounds as well as self-referential wordplay with genres and the material aspects of reading and writing.

One double-page spread nearly suffices to illustrate. After Alphaboat and its crew ride out a storm, we have a double-page spread of calm below. The uppercase officers, punningly named Admiral T and Captaincy, preside over the boat. The lowercase crew f and r admire the punctuation-shaped sunset. And the facing page zooms out with a map to illustrate the ship’s progress and play word games with the map genre (note the feature of “Tear Incognito”), writing implements (“Ball Point” and “Computer Keys”), real locations (“Pencilvania” and “Isle of Write”), typography (“Sands Serif” and “Pica Peak”) and other common geographical phrases (“Isthmus Beedaplace” and “Down Bydee Bay”).

One more double-page spread is needed to expand on the lowercase f’s comment “Dot’s beautiful”. Throughout the voyage, words and images combine with the crew’s expostulations to allude to grammar, punctuation, spelling, typography and alphabetical order. About the pages showing the crew’s arrival back home, any admirer of these traditions and puns would have to agree with f: “Dot’s beautiful”.

Further Reading

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

Jon Agee, Alethea Kontis & Bob Kolar, Sean Lamb & Mike Perry, Lou Kuenzler & Julia Woolf“. 16 October 2021. More letters in character in the children’s book tradition.

Souza Desnoyer and Marcelle Marquet“. 22 December 2022. Books On Books Collection.

Warja Lavater“. Books On Books Collection.

Ben Shahn“. 20 July 2022. Books On Books Collection.

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.

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

Firmage, Richard A. 2001. The alphabet abecedarium: some notes on letters. London: Bloomsbury.

Flanders, Judith. 2020. A Place For Everything: the curious history of alphabetical order. New York: Basic Books.

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

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.

A bookmark for Norma Levarie, The Art & History of Books (New York, 1968)

Norma Levarie (1920-1999) was a graphic designer and author of  children’s books, one a winner of a New York Herald Tribune award — Little People in a Big Country.   But, in addition to her design work for the National Audubon Society, The Jewish Museum, The University of Chicago Press, Oxford University Press, Random House and Harry N. Abrams, this Virginian’s most important gift to those interested in the evolution of the book and book arts is her volume The Art & History of the Book (New York: James H. Heineman, 1968).

The quality of her research and writing measures up to the best.  If only Heineman had been able to afford color reproductions, her ability to handle illustrations and her keen eye for selection of examples would have placed this book in good company with works such as Michael Olmert’s The Smithsonian Book of Books (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1992).  Still, Levarie’s book merits a bookmark for its overarching message, which is cleverly embodied in the book’s organization.

Facing the stark image of the Prism of Sennacherib on the opposite page, these words of Ashburnipal launch the book on the recto page:

Prism of Sennacherib. Assyrian, VII century B.C. Oriental Institute, University of Chicago. Height 15 in. Reproduced from Levarie, The Art & History of the Book (New York, 1968).

“. . .  I read the beautiful clay tablets from Sumer and the obscure Akkadian writing which is hard to master.

I had my joy in the reading of inscriptions in stone from the time before the flood. . . .”

Continuing chronologically up to the fifteenth century and “block book,” Levarie switches to a geographical approach, starting of course with Germany, ending with England and returning to a timeline overview from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, the last illustrated with pages from Spiral Press’s Ecclesiastes (New York, 1965), drawings by Ben Shahn, engraving by Stefan Martin and calligraphy by David Shoshensky, and  Apollonaire’s Le Bestiare (Paris, 1911).

Guillaume Apollonaire, Le Bestiaire. Paris, 1911. Woodcuts by Dufy. Yale University Library, Graphic Arts Collection. 14 x 10 1/4 in.

This structure neatly builds to these concluding words:

“The homogenizing forces of our time have broken many barriers of national style, and sometimes it is difficult to tell at a glance the origin of a book.   But local differences in production or taste still exist, and where they are manifest they bring the pleasure of variety.  . . .

For the lover of fine books, nothing can replace the bite of type or plate into good paper, the play of well-cut, well-set text against illustration or decoration of deep artistic value.  But an inexpensive edition can carry its own aesthetic validity through imaginative or appropriate design.  These are not matters of concern only for aesthetes; if, in an era of uncertain values, we want to keep alive respect for ideas and knowledge, it is important to give books a form that encourages respect.  The style and production of books, for all the centuries they have been made, still have much to offer the designer and publisher in challenge, the reader in pleasure.” (303-06)

Leaping ahead more than fifty years to the shift from print to digital, we find that many of the observations and message legitimately reassert themselves.   Websites and ebooks do vary in design from region to region, but standardization and, more so, the global character of the Web and the products of the technology industries counter-assert a homogeneity in design.  Sven Birkerts‘ elegies for Gutenberg are echoed across blogs devoted to the continuing pleasures of the printed book.  But likewise Levarie’s stand that these are not merely matters for the elite is echoed across the debate of print vs digital in the popular press and the democratizing blogosphere.

What still must be translated from her message is how to make the leap that, if we respect ideas and knowledge, we must give online books as well as print books a form that encourages respect.