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Alexander, CharlesóBoundless Book
Alexander, Christopher. "Boundless Book." Rain Taxi 6.1 (Spring 2001): 12.

Books are everywhere—and like laundry, we do not think much about them, though they might be called our cultural cornerstones. Who does think about books, in terms of what they are and have been, what they might be, how they mean, and why we should care? Here poets, critics, philosophers, and a few book artists are gathered to contribute to the fledgling field of book arts criticism and theory. So fledgling, in fact, that this collection might be considered a primer in the field. Some of the most interesting works of art in the last 30 years have been either works in books or works that are books; yet a significant criticism in and of the field does not exist, despite key individual works, particularly Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artist's Books. A Book of the Book does not provide, on its own, that significant contemporary criticism, yet it may just lay the groundwork out of which such a legacy can grow.

What composes such a groundwork is extensive, defining the parameters of a field that includes manifestos of the book, book and writing theory, presentation of individual artist's books of the past century, critique of bookworks (including artistic and literary works)—writings that, in this context, extend the definition of book to encompass performance works, artistic installations, landscape works, writers' manuscripts, and a good deal more. Many of the works considered blur the boundaries between book and other genres of writing and art, and in doing so, agree implicitly with the writer/ philosopher Edmond Jabes's persistent presentation of the world as an unknowable book about which we never cease to ask questions.

Among these heady ideas, one might do well to abandon the sequential process (after all, books are the first and most effective hypertext, allowing movement anywhere within them at any time) and begin with an essay that grounds the book in its physicality, Keith Smith's "The Book as Physical Object." Smith writes of close experience with type, design, paper, printing, the turning of pages, and other tangible aspects of the book. As an artist, he sees such dimensions as fluid and therefore evokes a book that is "more than the sum of its parts," yet one that is best experienced as we "Pick up a book, hold it. Feel it. Look at it, then examine it, not routinely or mechanically by habit but make a conscious effort to see at every step in the process, every movement of the eyes or hands."

Another work that encourages us to see what is physically present is Susan Howe's marvelous essay, "These Flames and Generosities of the Heart: Emily Dickinson and the Illogic of Sumptuary Values." Howe espouses, in coming to Dickinson's work, the primary value of looking at the only evidence left us by the poet, the manuscripts from her sewn fascicles, with all their textual multiplicities, including "word lists, crosses, blanks, and ruptured stanzas." Howe insists of the manuscripts, "This space is the poet's space. Its demand is her method." We must know, as Howe shows, that our perception of Dickinson has been extensively shaped "by an assumptive privileged Imperative" imposed by editors and critics, and that Dickinson's radical nature is much more apparent to us as we attend to the books she left the world, rather than to how others have domesticated those works in Dickinson's publication history. A true reading of Dickinson leads us to the revelation that "meaning is scattered at the limit of concentration."

The meaning of a book, similarly, cannot be domesticated. A great delight of A Book of the Book is its fully presented artists' books, acting out the editors' belief that it is not enough to talk about books, one must experience them.  Thus the inclusion of Blaise Cendrar's and Sonia Delaunay's "La Prose du Transiberien" in its unfolded full color, as well as the explosively delightful collage book O! by Jess, and Cecilia Vicuña's Libro Desierto/ Desert Book. Readers who care about books but are unaware of artists' books can learn much about the possibilities of the book simply from these three included books. The editors claim in the preface that such inclusions are here "for the pleasure it gives us," but behind the pleasure stands a measure of method.  For a work so clearly forwarding the explosion of the book in the 20th Century, the need to show exceeds even the need to tell.

Of the many ways of considering this volume, one can see it as a portrayal of the book breaking its bindings by embracing permeable borders between the "lexical and extralexical," "literacy and post-literacy," the verbal and the visual, "meaning and indecipherable variation," and finally, the book and not the book. It is a bit surprising that A Book of the Book is so much about the past of books rather than the future; even the final section on "The Book to Come" is about what we already know, albeit through recent evidence. Yet attention to the past is part of book history. Gutenberg and other early book printers in Europe who helped create the future, after all, looked backward, creating sumptuous volumes whose models were manuscript books and whose subjects were the classics of religion and philosophy, including the Bible (book). While A Book of the Book does not so much look ahead, it does make evident that books and bookmaking have a wide open future. Many of the artists and writers who create that future will have read this volume.





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