Monday, 8 July 2013

David Pearson’s Foxcroft Lecture (7) Books as Craft Objects

Philip Harvey
 Quite uninformed about the meaning of the term ‘metafiction’, my daughter recently converted a book on this subject into an art object. The book was duplicate and probably lying about the place waiting to be turned into a paper pyramid. With scrupulous attention to margins and edges, she folded in each of the 95 leaves (10 opening pages + 176 numbered pages + 4 end pages) of ‘Metaficton : the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction’ by Patricia Waugh (Methuen, 1984, ISBN 0-416-32640-4 (Pbk.)) one weekend, as the spirit moved her. The cover was removed. Title page and back fly-leaf were fixed together with a silver pin and she even did something very quirky, leaving one leaf (pp. 5-6) unfolded so it quivered in the air. This act was much too unself-conscious to be called either craft or art: she did it because she felt like it. I am the person who calls it an art object. Here is my daughter’s booktree (her word) of an old paperback on metafiction. It is chance that she chose this particular book, though the irony of the final object would not be lost on academics who make a living out of teaching metafiction. She creates these things because she feels like it, so booktrees can be found around our house, and even in the garden. Lisa Occhipinti, in her book ‘The Repurposed Library’ calls this kind of creation a “pleated sculpture”.


Occhipinti’s book itself comes in for criticism of its own in David Pearson’s Foxcroft Lecture. “What we need to do … is recognise that the areas where [books’] key value lies is changing, and we should give much more attention to books as material objects, rather than as words on pages. If we don’t, there is a threat that a different kind of approach to books as objects may take hold.”

Pearson then talks about finding the Occhipinti book in the British Library Bookshop. He says: “It’s all about taking orphaned and outdated books and turning them into sculptures, decorations, or useful household objects – a hanging mirror, a lampshade, narrative vases.” One can hear him shudder as he announces that this phenomenon is “taking off”, and continues ominously: “There is going to be a lot more discarding of books going on in the wake of digitisation, and a growing questioning of the necessity for ongoing investment in big physical libraries. If we don’t generate a broad recognition of these different kinds of cultural values and unique qualities that can be found among our books and collections, the wrong books will get turned into lampshades.”

Personally, I don’t take Lisa Occhipinti’s book so seriously. It (‘The Repurposed Library : 33 Craft Projects that give old Books new Life. Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011, ISBN 978-1-58479-909-2) is an innocent, even innocuous, example of the literature on the books arts. If anything it should be classified under home decoration, not book arts, as her main interest is, as Pearson says, to turn books into mobiles, clocks, locket boxes, and other domestic objects. She even turns books into switch plates and fireplace screens. At any moment one expects the classic whisky flask secreted in a hollowed out encyclopedia. Most of the thirty-three craft ideas use the book as base material, they are not pretending to make statements or leave us thinking.

David Pearson’s indignation reveals a contradiction in his argument. If we live in a world of expendable books in their millions, now that digital has taken over, is it not surprising that Occhipinti book craft will escalate? What to do with all this old stuff just lying around? Almost anything is up for repurposing. But meanwhile Pearson’s own arguments for sequestering books in select libraries with limited access are themselves a case of inutility that defies the purpose for which the book was made in the first place. His anxiety about the “wrong books” being made into craft objects is hardly helpful if he espouses that they instead be put into collections where they cannot be accessed, there to languish in obscurity, the fulfilment of Anthony Powell’s dictum, “Books do furnish a room.”

Thus do we find ourselves, between the excess that justifies artists and craftspeople to convert books into something else, and the scarcity that could turn what was once dime a dozen into something that millions of dollars cannot retrieve. Somewhere between these two extremes exists the discernment of the knowledgeable librarian.


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