What a Book Is

Hey gang! I’ve been meaning to get on here and write something smart about books for a while now, but I haven’t been able to. Ya wanna know why? Cuz I got appendicitis and had to have emergency surgery! And wow did it hurt. I’ve spent the last week or so unable to do pretty much anything, but today I seem to have gotten back a bit of my old vim and zest, not to mention the INTELLECTUAL RIGOR you come here for. And since an interesting new title has recently been donated to the East Falls Zine Reading Room, I think I’ll take a moment to tell you about it.

A few weeks ago I attended the Philadelphia Art Book Fair as an exhibitor. We had a table—we being The Soapbox, the DIY print- and book-making center I belong to—and were selling prints, zines, and artists’ books made by our members and giving out information about our upcoming events. We sat next to the folks from Ulises, which is a bookshop and curatorial project that brings out publications, exhibits, and lectures on a different theme each season. They were lovely guys, and I made a trade with them: a few of my zines for a copy of their publication of Ulises Carrión’s The New Art of Making Books. (You can read the full text here.) Carrión, a Mexican conceptual artist, is their project’s namesake.

By this point you may be asking, What is an artist’s book, Katie? My short answer is,
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ! My longer answer is that an artist’s book is a book, but not in the usual way. It’s a piece of art in the form of a book. The artist may make just one of these books, or she may make multiple copies or versions. And sometimes the artist’s book won’t look much like a book at all.

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See, here’s what happens when you google “artists’ books.”

The Ulises edition of The New Art of Making Books does not have a spine and is not otherwise constructed like a book in any way except that it is comprised of text that has been printed onto paper. These prints are stacked up and stapled together at the top. This not-a-book structure helps guide us toward an understanding of Carrión’s definition of a book, which he delineates by differentiating between books of the “old art” and the new.

“In the old art the meanings of the words are the bearers of the author’s intentions. … The words in a new book are not the bearers of the message, nor the mouthpieces of the soul, not the currency of communications. … The words of the new book are there not to transmit certain mental images with a certain intention. They are there to form, together with other signs, a space-time sequence that we identify with the name ‘book.'”

About those “old” books, Carrión goes on to say,

“A book of 500 pages, or of 100 pages, or even of 25, wherein all the pages are similar, is a boring book considered as a book, no matter how thrilling the content of the words of the text printed on the pages might be. … A novel with no capital letters, or with different letter types, or with chemical formulae interspersed here and there etc., is still a novel, that is to say, a boring book pretending not to be such.” Haha! No tea no shade!

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So many layers of meaning.

Because The New Art of Making Books is not really a book, we had to get creative about the way we added it to our collection. Storing unusual publications like these is continually challenging, since we need to protect them but also want to store and display them for ease of use and reading. This hinge clip contraption from the thrift store does the job nicely, and serves to highlight selections from the library.

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Of these three, only Daniel Zender’s Escape Plans, on the left, is a “real” book. This edition of the zine You, on the right, takes the form of a photocopied letter inside of a paper bag.

In Carrión’s manifesto / essay / theory / art piece, he reminds us that in the first place, writers don’t write books, they write texts. Though The New Art of Making Books was first published in 1975, it’s even more relevant now, as I prepare this text you are reading to be “published” not as a book, but on a blog, where it can be accessed for free by anyone connected to the worldwide network known as the Internet. But that’s a conversation—about reading, literature, and the changing nature of literacy—for another day.

Hooray for you

There’s a wonderful speech at the end of Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s stirring documentary film about the drag ball culture created by gay and transgender black and brown folks in NYC during the 80s. Dorian Corey delivers it, while she looks into the mirror and pats on layer upon layer of makeup, which is the way she conducted much of her interview. Several people were interviewed at length for the film, but she’s probably the oldest (and eldest, if you will), and her interview is the backbone of the movie in a way, which leads to her serving as a kind of narrator. To sum up her life as a drag performer, she says:

“I always had hopes of being a big star. But as you get older, you aim a little lower. Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think, you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark. You don’t have to bend the whole world. I think it’s better to just enjoy it. Pay your dues, and just enjoy it.”

I’ve watched this movie a couple dozen times and plan to keep on watching it whenever the mood strikes; it’s made a huge impression on me, with its lessons about what it means to survive and thrive and give a name to whatever it is that you are. This speech in particular is touching because it’s really, ya know, positive, despite the fact that it was delivered by a person who seems, in addition to being funny and intelligent and unceasingly dignified, pretty sad and embittered. (I’ve left out the more famous final line, which—breathtaking as it is—casts the rest of the quotation in a different, darker light. Look it up if you want.)

To a very young person, Corey’s speech probably sounds like resignation (especially that bit about aiming a little lower), and this view is completely supported by the culture we live in, which idealizes youth and considers mature a bad, embarrassing word. (In talking about all this with my husband he reminded me of the New Yorker cartoon we saw recently, in which one child says to another, “What do you want to be when you give up?”) But realizing that you don’t have to bend the world, but that you probably ought to work to make it better in your own small way, could be considered the essence of adulthood, the true definition of maturity, at least according to the philosopher Susan Neiman, whose new book, Why Grow Up? I’ve just started reading (and will try to read double-time, since it’s been out for two weeks and I’d like to review it). It’s interesting to me to note that I tend to consider this the essence not of maturity but of punk, at least the iteration of punk that my friends and I have adopted for ourselves, which talks about never giving up on your ideals while also refusing to blindly believe in dogma, which kind of inevitably leads you to conclude that the best thing you can do is use your life to make the world a little bit better and more beautiful for the people in it. And yeah, enjoy it, too.

Neiman is a philosopher and the director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam, which hosts lectures and other programs to engage “the public” with important thinkers—to take their ideas out of the academy and share them with the rest of us. Unsurprisingly then, her book is easy to understand and serves as an introduction to some of the major themes of the Enlightenment, with a special focus on Kant and his ideas about reason and experience and the importance of both. I look forward to digging into this book further because it’s already making me feel fired up—in a somewhat punky sort of way, actually. In her introduction she paraphrases Paul Goodman in his 1960 book Growing Up Absurd: “When consuming goods rather than satisfying work becomes the focus of our culture, we have created (or acquiesced in) a society of permanent adolescents.” Which is as relevant now as it was 55 years ago.