A bookmark for letters “outside themselves”

Ecstatic Alphabets, Heaps of Language – Art – Domus.

In his review in Domus, Zachary Sachs describes this MoMA exhibition which “courses through the history of twentieth-century art animated by language and language given artistic form.”   The works of art “tease apart the connection between sign and signified through modes of interruption largely inspired by the technology of printing.”    And the catalogue includes “texts that attempt at intervals to rationalize and idealize language, at once to purify it and to demonstrate its essential muddiness.”

Why bookmark this exhibition?

It is apropos to our unease, excitement or dismay about the digital metamorphosis of the book.  As Sachs puts it, “The historical works here swing between anxiety and ambivalence, emotions seemingly inevitable in response to the immense power (and attendent limitations) of written communication.”  The same is true of our reaction to the moiling of books, ebooks and apps.  

And the MoMA exhibition is one of those “full circle” phenomena, a recapitulation, a reminder of how, in trying to ground the history or evolution of the book, in reading its situation, we often go right back to the alphabet, the word, language itself.

Of David Diringer‘s two substantial volumes on the history of the book, the first is entitled The Alphabet (1968).  In Helmut Lehmann-Haupt’s brief but important One Hundred Books about Bookmaking (1949), an entire section is given to writing and lettering, and that is preceded by a bibliographical entry for Edward Chiera‘s They Wrote on Clay (1938), on how the tablets of the Babylonians still speak to us today.  For another instance, see also the posting here on Norma Levarie‘s The Art & History of Books (1968).

Art can be a means to, or cause of, ecstasy — extasis, to stand outside one’s self.   Book art and specifically in this case the “ecstatic alphabets” exhibition can encourage us to stand outside what is happening to the book in order to reflect on it.  If the exhibition were open to further curation, two “bookend” additions the exhibitors might agree would fit are

Heilige Maagschap (c.1470 )
Westphalian School
Panel 69x144cm

the Holy Kinship from the St Servatius Cathedral Treasury in Maastricht, which exults in the letter, scroll and book in the service of sacred art, and

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) by Dennis Ashbaugh and William Gibson (New York: Kevin Begos, Jr., Publishing, 1992), which “

even compared with other artist books . . .  is an unusual textual artifact.  Beyond the materiality of the book and realia themselves lies the issue of authorship. The text of the poem on the self-erasing diskette is by the novelist William Gibson, and the copperplate aquatint etchings inside the book were created by artist Dennis Ashbaugh.  Gibson and Ashbaugh are most frequently cited as the book’s “co-authors.”   However, the project was conceived by publisher Kevin Begos, Jr., and the code for the software that scrolls Gibson’s poem as well as for the encryption program (sometimes mistakenly called a “virus”) that subsequently erases that poem was written by a programmer signed “Brash” (who desired to remain anonymous) with help from John Perry Barlow and John Gilmore (founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation).”  

James J. Hodge, “The Agrippa Files, an online archive of Agrippa (A Book of the Dead).

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.