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Highfill, Mitch. "Review of A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing, Edited by Jerome Rothenberg & Steven Clay." JAB 16 (Fall 2001): 27-28.
Jerome Rothenberg has edited some of the most important anthologies of our time, including America: A Prophecy, Revolution of the Word, Technicians of the Sacred, Shaking the Pumpkin, and the The Big Jewish Book. Now he has turned his attention to the book as such, and particularly, the artist's book. With publisher Steven Clay, Rothenberg has managed to compile a book which will be required reading for book artists for years to come. Rothenberg's strategy here is to show a multiplicity of approaches, including non-western and avant-garde projects, which inspire the reader even as they instruct the student.
No such anthology would be useful without an attempt to open up the term "book." The most elementary essay in this regard would be Keith A. Smith's "The Book as a Physical Object." Smith's attempts to define what a book is, discussing the effect of different kinds of bindings and papers, including cut and transparent papers. Smith asserts, "I ask questions to broaden my knowledge of traditional concepts, not to hold them as dogma, but as a foundation from which I can depart. Definitions are not an end, but a springboard." Thankfully, this is the spirit in which the editors do their work. The editors include a part of Steve McCaffery and bp Nichol's essay, "The Book as Machine." Their definition of the book would include a broad range of objects, focusing on the book as a storage device for information. Their section, "Twenty-One Facts That Could Alter Your Life" alerts the reader to various works that subvert both the readers' notion of what a book might be, and even how a text might work on (or off) the page. Using examples of works by Rabelais, George Herbert, Apollonaire, Gertrude Stein, bill bissett, Peter Garnier and John Furnival, McCaffery and Nichol put the book on the defensive, invoking Ian Hamilton Finlay's notion of the book of nature. "Poems become sun dials, gravestones, the page's traditional material opacity becomes the window's clear view into the objects signified. Any traveler through Finlay's garden has to be a reader too; it is a book involving participation of the feet as well as eyes."
There are critical readings of specific writers, such as Jacques Derrida on Edmond Jabes, Susan Howe on Emily Dickinson, Marjorie Perloff on Blaise Cendrars, Gerald Janacek on Kruchonykh, and Richard Hamilton on Diter Rot. Derrida's gloss on Jabes is informative and provocative. Susan Howe sheds much light on Dickinson's compositions, comparing the handwritten fascicles with the various published versions. The world of difference between the originals and their published versions becomes visible, and Howe struggles to clarify what it means to read Dickinson's works as intended. Marjorie Perloff puts the famous broadside of Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay ("The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne de France") in historical context. Gerald Janacek describes and discusses the first six manuscript books of Aleksey Kruchonykh, the great Russian futurist. Janacek illuminates the political and economic circumstances surrounding these books, and many pages are reproduced here, including collaborations with Khlebnikov and Malevich. These works seem utterly revolutionary even today. Rarely have I seen such a thorough marriage of form and content as one sees in Kruchonykh's pages. Richard Hamilton's essay on Diter Rot is particularly interesting because Rot reverses the usual relationship of author to typographer, to quote Hamilton; "an evidently typographic mind ordering type into poetry rather than the essential poet wrenching the printer's form into art."
John Maizels contributes an overview of the works of Adolph Wolfli. Wolfli was a patient in a mental institution in Switzerland at a time when psychologists were especially interested in the creative process as a therapeutic activity. When Wolfli began to draw and write, his keepers provided him with art supplies and let him have at it. In 1908, Wolfli began an illustrated epic of 45 volumes, 25,000 pages long with 1600 drawings and 1500 collages. These books contain Wolfli's unique musical notations as well. Academic studies of Wolfli and his contemporaries in various European asylums gave this kind of art a name, art brut. Wolfli was its most prolific artist, and his inclusion in this anthology is crucial to any serious examination of the book.
Karl Young's "Notation and the Art of Reading" explores pre-Colombian screenfold format books, differentiating their traditional use from the European use of the book. That ceremonial readings of such books prefigure performance-based texts such as Jackson MacLow's "Gathas." Young then examines Chinese calligraphy with an eye to the subtlety of deciphering such texts in light of the near infinite variations of interpretation available to the reader of Chinese poetry in manuscript form. Having established the pictographic and other visual elements of these texts, Young points out the ambiguities of 17th century English verse, as it was printed at the time. Different ways of spelling words contained in one text imply shadings and nuances in the oral delivery of the poems, and cognitive analysis is affected as a result. Young then makes a case for postmodern poetries as continuous with this phenomenon, with multiple readings built in just the same way as their ancient forbears in Mexico, China, and England.
In his essay, "The Chinese Art of Writing," Jean Francois Billeter updates and corrects many of the ideas first stated by Fenollosa in his book, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, which inspired Ezra Pound's lifelong interest in Chinese poetry, and played a large role in the development of Imagism. Billeter has a much more sound methodology, and he takes advantage of more advanced linguistic studies than Fenollosa had at his disposal. Oddly enough, the conclusions both writers draw from the differing data are similar.
Dennis Tedlock performs a close reading of some passages from the Quiche Popul Vuh, or Council Book of the Maya. He compares various aspects of Quiche compositions with the writings of Gertrude Stein and Lyn Hejinian. However specious these comparisons may be, if they inspire new readings of either, that is all to the good. Similarly, Nancy Munn looks at Walbiri track prints, showing how the Walbiri can read stories from them, implicating all of nature and man in the construction of the text.
The medieval European idea of the book, or codex; that is the book as a carrier of vital information, differed from concepts of non-European cultures which were colonized such as the Maya. What was the difference between painting and writing, for instance, and what about the colonization of language which took place wherever the Europeans went? These issues are elucidated in Walter D. Mignolo's "Signs and Their Transmission: The Question of the Book in the New World."
One of my favorite essays is Jerome McGann's "Composition as Explanation (of Modern and Postmodern Poetries)." Readers of Ezra Pound and David Jones might have had premonitions of the typographic resonance of such works before, but McGann identifies the actual printing and binding techniques as compositional factors in poetics; starting with Pound's Cantos. Citing specific typographic issues (font, font size, inking), McGann suggests that Pound consciously chose the various typefaces used in the first editions to place the Cantos within certain historic streams, specifically Renaissance and Vorticist streams. McGann goes on to implicate Yeats and Zukofsky in the same typographic project. He then describes the work of Bob Brown, a major avant-garde poet of the exile period, whose visual poems were actually handwritten. He quotes Brown, "Writing has been bottled up in books since the start, it is time to pull out the stopper." The essay closes demonstrating how some postmodern poets have extended typographical play in their poetry, especially Jackson Mac Low, Clark Coolidge and Susan Howe.
Another favorite essay is Martha L. Carothers "Novelty Books: Accent of Images and Words." Ms. Carothers describes a range of books with various features such as pop-up children's books, accordion-folded books, 3-D and panorama books, books with interlocking sections and self-contained separate folios, many of which have little or no "literary" value.
Thomas A. Vogler's survey of book-objects is also highly entertaining. He discusses a lot of truly unusual pieces, such as David Antin's [work with] sky-writing, Helen Lessick's "Le Paysage Vivant", involving a word shaved into the side of a cow! Several marvelous works by Buzz Spector are cited in this essay, which convincingly demonstrates a possible future of the book as universal art form.
The idea of the book as a metaphor for the world is articulated by book artist Barbara Fahrner in an interview about her Kunstkammer project. This idea is revisited again by Richard Sieburth's essay on Mallarme, Blanchot's piece, "The Book to Come," and the tiny Barthes excerpt, "The Written Face." There is a Borges statement, "On the Cult of Books," and David Meltzer's notes on the Kabbalah reflects a deeper version of the same thesis.
Then there are the bookworks presented in this anthology. We see examples of William Blake's illuminated "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"; selected pages from Max Ernst's collage-novel, The Hundred Headless Woman, a photo of Marcel Duchamp's "Boite-en-Valise"; notes and photos of Alison Knowle's The Book of Bean; notes and photos of Tom Phillips' A Humument; part of Ian Hamilton Finlay's Little Sparta; notes on Carolee Schneemann's Up To and Including Her Limits; Ann Waldman's poem, "My Life A Book"; and Jacques Gaffarels' "Celestial Alphabet Event". More amazingly, an entire book by the West Coast artist, Jess, is reprinted. Titled, O!, this collage-narrative has been out of print for over 35 years, and would easily be worth the cost of the anthology for Jess fans.
The most impressive reprint in this book is the fold-out insert, "The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne de France", a broadside written by Blaise Cendrars and illustrated by Sonia Delaunay. Originally published in the Paris of 1913, what we see is a full-color photograph of the entire broadside (considerably less in size than the original), translated on the back of the insert by Ron Padgett (whose Complete Poems of Cendrars is definitive). A marvelous poem in a gorgeous format, with an amazing translation to boot. Walter D. Mignolo quotes a 16th Century definition of the book by Alejo Venegar (Toledo 1540)."
"A book is an ark of deposit in which, by means of essential information or things or figures, those things which belong to the information and clarity of understanding are deposited."
At a whopping 537 pages, this is the ark of deposit. Rothenberg and Clay have created a veritable smorgasbord of the book, while challenging previous lexical definitions. Along with Johanna Drucker's The Century of Artist's Books, A Book of the Book is essential reading for book artists, readers and fans of the artist's book. More important than having all the answers, this book asks the right questions. What a pleasure.
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