Thursday, November 3, 2011

Blank Books, Book Art, Book Art Objects

When you begin a book you may not start with a fully realized intention, but you likely have an impulse. As you proceed, you may find that you are enjoying the binding and decide you will make a blank book. Or the materials suggest a larger concept which you develop into book art*: the pages meant to be viewed and read. Or the shape of the book suggests an obvious concept so you make a book that doesn't open or is more appealing as a sculpture: a book art object. Each of these kinds of books is gratifying to make. The question becomes: who is it for? That answer may shape further making.

It is much easier to make a blank book and release it to the artist's or writer's hands to fill. If you are a writer a blank book is valuable and has potential: ultimately, it is the writer who decides how to give a blank book meaning. In the New York Times column "Writers on Writing" from July 5, 1999 called "Putting Pen to Paper, but Not Just Any Pen or Just Any Paper," author Mary Gordon writes about how she chooses her materials to help her write. In one closet she devotes one shelf to notebooks: she collects these from her travels around the world and each one inspires her writing in a different way. If you are the bookmaker you have to concentrate on design and craft, but for a blank book you don't have to develop a deep concept; you are making a product. Making book art is the hardest because you have to do everything and you have to dig deep to do it.

The "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" known as xkcd by Randall Munroe posted this provocative comic recently, titled "Alternative Literature," which caused me to experience: a groan, a chuckle, a sigh, a nod, a head shake, and a cry.

What is real? What is true? In this case, I think it matters whether you are the maker, the writer, or the reader. If you go to the actual website, you can mouse around and find a hidden text that pops up when you hover and then stop your mouse.  In the "mouseover text" or "hover text" in this comic he gives an anecdote about truth in advertising. What I see is the dilemma of blank books, or the Emperor's New Books.

As a maker, if you want to try making a living at what you do, you must be a salesperson with the goal of selling work, or both an artist and a salesperson. It's not an either/or decision; it's just good to be aware of which goal you are working toward and what your intentions are. Making blank books with interesting covers is a wonderful way to experiment and to improve technical skills; I had fun making "Pop Art Journals" with soda cans wrapped around boards, but these are blank and ready for someone else to buy and fill. I would never enter them in a show because they may be crafted well, but beyond the novelty of the cover there is nothing there. Perhaps they will inspire a writer, but I cannot pretend they are book art. The book as book art should embody a complete and finished concept, inside and out. Book art objects with no content inside can work if they are elaborate and detailed, present a new view of the world, and are meant to be complete as they stand.

The above comic also reminds me of something that I hear frequently from those who are trying to make book art, "I want the reader to get whatever s/he wants out of it." Perhaps what they are really making is a community project, workbook, game, or mirror: all valid for what they are. I would argue, however, as I have done before, that the artist—whether making book art or book art objects—needs to give the reader something to grab hold of, a new angle to launch and catch his/her imagination, curiosity, and attention. Something meaningful, delightful, important, or audacious to think about. All kinds of stories. Something to come back to. Something that will last.

*I am including everything from fine printing to photocopied books to  one-of-a-kinds in the category of book art

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