B   O   O   K       A   R   T   S

i s   i t   a   b o o k ?

How Form relates to Content, and how attention to this Relationship helps to make books Active parts of text rather than Passive containers of information.

"A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five."

- Groucho Marx

The book is a well-defined object in most people's minds. It is no more or less than a slightly three-dimensional, rectangular object, which consists of sheets of paper bound together along one edge (see our History page). When the word 'book' is spoken or thought, this image of the traditional western codex book format immediately pops up in our minds. The question we would like to ask is: are these simple, physical limits truly the beginning and end of bookness?

[drawing of an open book]

The codex format does good service for us - it is an excellent container for many types of literature - but the codex's very familiarity prevents its easily being used to stimulate the process of reading or viewing a text. For this stimulation to be possible, the format of the book must step out of the ordinary, in whatever small or large way, sothat it prevents the reader from taking format for granted. When the content and form of a book are considered together, and given equal weight, the book becomes more than a simple container - it is instead an integral and active part of the work and of the reader's experience of the work.

Of course, artists have taken it upon themselves to stretch traditional limits by examining the relationship between the form and content of books and attempting to force a redefinition of the concept of bookness in the viewer's mind. Similarly, a poet's words arranged on a page will affect the reader in a particular way - all artists work towards this directed viewing, whatever their media. An artist may think about many things while designing a work - beauty, grace, color, what will fill a particular space, the quality of lines and edges, and so on - but all of these details are merely ingredients. Each small part of a work contributes to the whole, and though the artist may not intend a particular statement (certainly the statements artists make are often inexpressible in words) the work speaks, and the way the artist has presented the work changes the character of that speech.

There have been many experiments with the visual and textual flow of books, some of which have become so widely accepeted that they are now convention. One significant example is the Lindisfarne gospels, which used unprecedented sectional title page layout and decoration.

[drawing of an illustrated fan]

Even simple mechanical devices can create a very dramatic effect if employed carefully. Some of these are described here, to wit, venetian blind, fan, and Möbius strip structures.

Because these formats operate physically differently than the more common codex format, their mechanics will influence the reader's perception of the book's content. One of the most basic and elemental ways these works accomplish this is by altering the essentially straight-line structure of the codex format. A book can be more than a single-direction sequence - when this restriction is lifted, many new dimensions (physical and thematic or intellectual) are allowed.

This can be accomplished with physical paper magic - however, artists and designers have also made this transition while working within the limits of traditional paper size and book structure by implementing graphical innovation (books with side notes or definitions in their margins, the judicious use of empty spaces or whole empty pages, multi-column format, and wavy typesetting are some examples). There has also been experimentation with unusual visual format, not necessarily involving text or words. These works challenge traditional linear concepts by playing with the placement of visuals on the page. One example is the photocopy flip book Sheherezade, by Janet Zweig and Holly Anderson. The book is made up of photocopies of text fragments of Anderson's versions of One thousand and one nights. Each page shows an increasingly larger image (blown up with the copy machine), until the words are so large that they can no longer be read. When the type is enlarged to the point that it becomes nonsense, a new paragraph of text appears, very small, in one of the white spaces on the page. The enlargements continue so that this new paragraph becomes too large to be read. This process repeats itself througout the book. The flip book structure allows the reader to view this process magnification as the primary message, though each page can be read separately as well.

[disturbingly masonic-looking drawing of a book and a compass]

Books with three-dimensional pop-ups are a good example of a small physical change in format which can make a dramatic impact. Although most commercial pop-up books basically fit into the traditional codex format, they present a challenge to the reader - she or he must assess and digest the visual surprise of the layout suddenly becoming three-dimensional as the page is turned. Pop-up books are in a sense value added.

There are other, perhaps more dramatic variations on physical form that can create or enhance nonlinearity in text or content. Some examples are poetry magnets, border books, flip books, and commercial works which use simple but dramatic extras like Pat the bunny and the Griffin and Sabine series.

There have been some more dramatic, physical expriments with the book format (the results of which might not be defined as books by the average reader/observer): these are typically books which are textual or book-like but cannot or were not meant to be easily read - they might be said to be more sculptural than booklike. Some examples of possibilites in this area are: books which are sewn, taped, stapled, or nailed shut, or which have other structural qualities that keep then from being opened; books which have their pages entirely disfigured so that they cannot be read; books which have words, lines, or whole sections of text covered or blacked out so that new stories are created from the old text; books with their pages torn out; books which have been variously burned, mutilated, or dampened; and books with the pages folded or added to, to create patterns.

For many of us, in fact, reading a book is more a process of absorbtion than of interaction - the book is a simple tool, and is used simply. The challenge to the artist is to develop the strengths of that tool, and to use its simplicity in new ways, to illustrate complex ideas and concepts.

(We have presented a discussion of the differing concepts of 'bookness' throughout time in our History and Future sections, and we invite our readers to visit The Whatness of Bookness, or What is a Book?, a brief article written by Philip Smith in response to a letter from Peter Verheyen to the Editor of the Designer bookbinders newsletter concerning "Bookness.")

-- written by Emily-Jane Dawson, 1997

Please see our Bibliography for books, websites, and articles on bookbinding, book arts, and artists' books, examples of nonlinear artistic works, typography & book design, and comics art.


[small photograph of 'Laura May 11th, 1995,' 

a book by Emily-Jane Dawson]

Laura May 11th, 1995, by Emily-Jane Dawson; a one-of-a-kind 'border book' made for Laura Grant's birthday from Keith Smith's instructions in Non-adhesive bookbinding (see our bibliography).

Other lovely gallery exhibits can be found via the following links...

The Silver Buckle Press, a museum of letterpress priting at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library
The Colophon Gallery has many interesting sites, those most particularly relevant to our topic are:
The Italian futurist book
Women's Studio Workshop (or visit the Women's Studio Workshop homepage)
Lise Poirier
The Moveable Book Society
Moving tales : paper engineering and children's pop-up books (exhibit)

Online in-tray: Neatly iron in, Any inner toil, Airly non-net

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