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The Background's The Thing
By Alisa Golden
Pacific Center for the Book Arts, The Ampersand, Fall 2008, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp.20-22

In a world where language rules...in a world where every few years words get held up for a makeover…the definition of "what is a book" comes 'round and 'round. Johanna Drucker wrote: "There are no specific criteria for defining what an artist's book is, but there are many criteria for defining what it is not…" If you've heard this before you might agree with Keith Smith who wrote "It depends upon intention. If that person declares it a book it is a book! If they do not, it is not. Definitions are not ageless laws, but current understanding."

A current of understanding ran through me recently when I picked up a book edited and introduced by the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov; artist's books are like science fiction short stories. After reading this anthology, I noted the similarities: the importance of background, the unfolding or revealing, the concise wording, and the twist at the end. It doesn't matter whether you like science fiction or not, Asimov, unknowingly, links us together. Using his definitions for science fiction and for the short-short story we can understand artist's books even better. This description, in the introduction to Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales, sounded familiar to me:

"It is supremely irritating (frustrating, even) to watch an outside reviewer discuss a…book and miss the point completely. As, for instance, when he complains…of the inadequate depth and richness of characterization and never says a word about the completely adequate depth and richness of background. For in science fiction, more than in any other branch of literature, background's the thing."

While Asimov used "background" to mean the scene that is set with words, it can be used equally to mean the scene that is set with colors, design, textures, physical materials, and structure for an artist's book. Those elements give a clue to the reader to how s/he should approach the work. May Castleberry suggests: "…All visual and structural elements interpret, reflect, or heighten our awareness of the adjacent text." The background, as form, reinforces the content, as Asimov was trying to point out.

In the case of the artist's book there is an interplay between all of the elements; as if the connections between them, like negative space on a flat surface--or connections between what we know and what we can imagine in science fiction--are just as real and tangible as the objects themselves. The connections are part of the background.

The future, another world, or a new technology defines the background of a science fiction story, another world of materials or alternate reading realities define the background of an artist's book. In one of the earliest anthologies about book art, Richard Kostelanetz explored the idea of the materials, making book art distinguishable from a conventional book because: "In theory, there are no limits upon the kinds of materials that can be put between two covers, or how those materials can be arranged..."

To the new reader of an artist's book, or even to the seasoned reader, confusion may set in. What are all these materials? How do I look at this book? Is it okay to open it? As the reader turns the pages, shuffles the cards, opens the box, the concept is gradually revealed. Asimov wrote: "…the background is introduced little by little and the first portion of the book may be unclear. To the science fiction reader, this actually supplies an added dimension of enjoyment for it is pleasant to watch apparent paradoxes smooth out and obscurities clear up as the story progresses. An outsider without the necessary patience may simply feel confused and give up."

In addition to creating an engaging background, the hope is that the book artist (and the science fiction writer) will make reading worthwhile; the hope is that something exciting or moving or beautful, enlightening will happen by the end. Asimov articulated it this way: "…and there is the added delight of [the reader] trying to outguess the author and (we hope) failing, and therefore being at once surprised, shocked, and delighted at the final sentence."

The element of surprise or joy--the twist--is one distinguishing factor common to both artist's books and to science fiction. The only danger, for either, is making a "funny once" book (in artist's books, Johanna Drucker refers to these as "one-liners"); Robert Heinlein looked at this concept in his 1968 science fiction book The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. How can you make a book that is surprising more than once? A "funny forever" book?

One approach is by using many layers of text, imagery, or activities such as pockets or pop-ups that provoke an interesting and different experience each time it is read. Richard Kostelanetz says: "Most [conventional] books are read for information, either expository or dramatized; book art books are made to communicate imaginative phenomena and thus create a different kind of 'reading' experience."

I like the term "imaginative phenomena." It could be read as "conceptual," but I think it encompasses creativity and the relationship of the form/connections as well. Part of the concept of science fiction is that we have to suspend belief and cling to the world as it is given to us; the artist's book encourages us to suspend our expectations of what a book is supposed to be and accept this new take on the landscape.

Regarding reading: the short-short story carries its own expectations, as Asimov declares: "Because it is so short, [the short-short story]… can be read quickly, and in our hectic times a "bite-size" piece of writing, designed to be nibbled at between meals, is always welcome." Book art often contains a short text (particularly if you are setting metal type one letter at a time by hand) and may be designed to be read at one sitting as well. With all of the visual and interactive elements, the reading experience frequently slows down, so a shorter text is welcome, particularly when it is not possible to get back to the book for a second reading.

Ulises Carrión, who also wrote an article included in Artists' Books, may not believe in a second reading. He states: "In order to understand and to appreciate a book of the old art, it is necessary to read it thoroughly. In the new art you often do NOT need to read the whole book. The reading may stop at the very moment you have understood the total structure of the book." This can be interpreted to mean that you can quickly understand the concept in most artist's books by just opening to one page. You may find that after reading one page or a few pages that it isn't the kind of book you would like to continue examining. It is just like picking up any book and seeing if the book has flip strength, engaging you in just a few sentences. On the other hand he says: "The old art takes no heed of reading. The new art creates specific reading conditions." The "specific reading conditions" may relate to the interactive nature of the artist's book, be it typography or hidden compartments. This may, indeed, take a thorough reading to fully understand.

Currently, much of our "specific reading conditions" are on a computer screen. While there is talk of technology overtaking books today, here is a curious look at books in Asimov's story "The Fun They Had":

"They turned the pages, which were yellow and crinkly, and it was awfully funny to read words that stood still instead of moving the way they were supposed to--on a screen, you know. And then, when they turned back to the page before, it had the same words on it that it had had when they read it the first time."

What is awfully funny is that these words were written in 1962. In the story, it turns out, all books are stored on your television. It is hard for the children in the story to imagine why anyone would want to have a book: when you are done you throw it away; the materials are ephemeral.

The story here did not predict another phenomenon: that we have become more interested in tactile sensations even as we sit at keyboards and monitors. The story does make us think about how we read. The children are amazed that the words stay in one place. Book artists can also make words move with pop-ups, slide-out tabs, or other physical, structural possibilities. I think we have finally settled down to our parallel universes with keyboard in one hand and object in the other. That each can and does inform the other is the subject of future discussion.

Asimov's story highlighted the book as object and reading as concept, and his introduction gave his description of science fiction and the genre of the short-short story as having unique characteristics: "[There is the]…extra dimension of the science fiction short-short. There must be the concise writing and the final punch of the ordinary short-short, and on top of that there must also be the evocation of a background differing from our own." While not all book art has words, or even a twist at the end, the background--the materials, connections, structure, and reading experience--is the most important and defining element for all artist's books. Here's a case where Isaac Asimov had a definition of book art ready for us in 1966; we just didn't know it. The background's the thing.



Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales with an Introduction by Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin. (New York: Collier Books, 1963) Quotes from Introduction, pp.11-15, Asimov, August 1962; quotes from short story "The Fun They Had," p. 25

Artists' Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook edited by Joan Lyons. (New York, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books in association with the Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985) "Book Art" by Richard Kostelanetz, p. 29. originally published 1978; "The New Art of Making Books" by Ulises Carrión, pp. 42-43

Structure of the Visual Book by Keith A. Smith. (New York: Keith A. Smith BOOKS, Third Edition, Third Printing 1998) p. 23

Experiments in Navigation: The Art of Charles Hobson. Preface by May Castleberry. (Stanford University, CA, 2008) p.10

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (New York: G.P. Putnam's -Berkeley Medallion Edition, 1968) pp. 12-13

The Century of Artists' Books by Johanna Drucker (New York: Granary Books, 1995) p. 14


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