The Book As Place

One thing I did not take into account when I went back to school was how much I relied on the physical structure of my artist's books to ground the reader/viewer in a particular place or atmosphere. The first words about my first grad school stories were how my characters "floated" and were like "disembodied voices." Some of my classmates were intrigued, others were disturbed. Apparently, most had been taught that writers must set up a clear place; the readers want to know where they are. They want to see palm trees or weathered boards or the gates of the zoo before they meet the animals.

These comments confirmed that writing for artist's books was indeed a different activity than writing for a flat paper page or an online journal. In 2008 I wrote the article "The Background's the Thing," for the Pacific Center for the Book Arts' journal, The Ampersand, in which I compared book art to science fiction short stories, so my thinking about the function of writing in an artist's book had begun even then.

Let's look at how the physical book can function as a place.

Color. Color functions as mood or indicates time of day. For example, a navy blue might indicate we are to approach this book as if its contents were being presented at night. Night has overtones of quiet and sleep as well as fear and nightmares. Which will it be? What else is there? Moving on…

Cut or Torn Paper. A slashed page or ripped page might indicate violence. Plain pages neatly trimmed might indicate quiet or control. Using the feathered, deckled edges might suggest a dream.

Folded Paper. A fold-out page might present a path to follow, a sidewalk, set of stepping stones, or an airplane trail. A pocket might hold a secret diary or a smaller booklet that gives more insight into the story. A folded-over paper might conceal something ominous, romantic, or strange like a ransom note, instructions for a heist.

Threads. Threads that are only used for practical purposes can give the book a clean look, indicating efficiency and purpose. Many dangling threads can indicate a net, a web, or be a metaphor for a frayed or broken-down life without having to explicitly write that condition into the text.

These are only a few possibilities. Shape and size are other considerations. All materials and forms present information on a subconscious level, implying certain places or atmospheres. The materials you choose to present are clues to the reader. The reader/viewer is given the content on several levels at once: verbal, visual, and tactile, so care must be given to each of these areas so they build with one another to create a unified meaning.