The Beauty of the Book

The universe (which others call the Library)….
—Borges

I take a profoundly Borgesian pleasure in the book. When I say “book” I mean that perfectly ordinary object: a paper or board gatefold containing a certain number of pages filled with words and sometimes including illustrations. That such a humble object can open up an adventure of the mind (and no two adventures alike) is one of the miracles of our human world.

This does not mean that my aesthetic tastes are minimal. My favorite kinds of books are art books. The riches of a book like Robert Morris: The Mind/Body Problem, Guggenheim Museum Publications, 1994, can scarcely be catalogued.* This is a book that one could study for a lifetime. It has text and pictures, as art books generally do. It contains a number of essays by different writers, as art books often do. The essays are of a high intellectual caliber. The Introduction, written by Thomas Krens, is an extraordinarily complex text in terms of what it does with the interplay between texts and images. As a document that explores some of the range between the limitations and the possibilities of the book it is comparable to texts written by Georges Bataille, who has written some of the most impossibly beautiful books ever.

It’s true that books can disappoint. When that happens one has a crestfallen feeling that the maker of the book has failed to see the miracle, has missed all the possibilities and not gotten past the book as a mundane object. What an unfortunate missed opportunity! Such books pile up in thrift stores. Maybe some use should be made of them but I don’t like to see visual art works made out of old unwanted books. All I see are neat or ornately stacked piles of missed opportunities, including the very last one, that in scanning thrift store shelves one might find a neglected gem.

Others like to force the issue of eschewing the mundane. For them the book itself cannot rise far enough above the mundane to achieve the miracle, as I have spoken of it. There must be another way. And to find it they must look for a way to disrupt the book as a discrete, mundane object. This is how I see some of Anne Carson’s projects. I love her writing, but I never bought a copy of Nox. I don’t like the idea of a book that literally folds out of a box like an accordion and then has to be folded back in. I don’t like faux techniques: imitation masking tape, staples etc. I don’t like text that’s hard to read because of typographical novelties (Lou Reed’s Pass Thru Fire is a disaster for this reason). I don’t submit poems to journals, regardless of the journals’ content, if those journals are hard to read. The beauty of literary metaphor is that, materially, it only requires black text on a white background. The beauty of a literary book is that it requires only black text on white paper to work its magic. Anything that facilitates or enhances that essential simplicity also enhances the beauty of the book—the feel and quality of the paper and the canvas colored cloth cover of the first Grove Press hardback edition of Jean Genet’s Funeral Rites, for example. It’s an exceptionally beautiful book. Carson’s Float, on the other hand, not so beautiful. It sounds like a cool idea—individual chapbooks collected in a clear plastic case—until you hold the object in your hands. Individual chapbooks can offer the kind of beauty of the book that I like. Hence Float offered the possibility of more book for the buck. But many of the “chapbooks” are very short and consist of a folded over piece of paper.

Carson’s reason for constructing Float in this manner—that the individual pieces aren’t linked thematically or stylistically as in her other books—isn’t convincing. To me the collection doesn’t appear any more random than any number of poetry collections, hers included. A typical collection of poetry consists of a selection of poems written by one author but all with individual characteristics. The individual poems are discrete little machines of words. Together they make a book. And the beauty of the book is that such an ordinary thing can contain these multitudinous wonders. That one book can contain both The Glass Essay and The Gender of Sound is what makes Glass, Irony and God so beautiful. They are no more connected, in my opinion, than By Chance the Cycladic People and Stacks. The Table of Contents in Float is a stand-alone piece of paper. The only reason to have one, it would seem, is to inventory the contents of the box. And that is how I found out that my copy was missing a piece. By Chance the Cycladic People is, it would seem, one incarnation of a large number of possible combinations. Why this one, fixed in place? The logic of Float would seem to ask that each unit of the piece stand alone on its own piece of paper, albeit within its own folder in the plastic case of Float. Ironically, the field of possibility that By Chance the Cycladic People seems to represent is stifled inside that plastic box. It does the opposite of what it would seem to intend, simply because of the logic of Float as a book. Float is both an unwieldy object and unattractive as a book. If the pieces were collected in a conventional container it would be a very beautiful book, for the fact remains that the individual pieces are as beautiful and worth reading as anything Anne Carson has written. Ironic, isn’t it? And I would pay for Float, all over again, just to have that book with a table of contents arranged alphabetically as the only indication necessary of the arbitrary.

 

*You can look at a digital copy of this incredible book online

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