Saturday, 17 July 2021

An Exhibition of Superlative Books: The Shapeliest Book in the World

[One] The shape of the book has been entrenched in the human mind for over a millennium. It opens, it closes, it stays still. Held open in the hand it is like a bird. Closed, it could be a paving stone. It stays still, but tilted may riffle like waves. Here is a collection of seven triads about book shapes. [Two] The paperback concentrates more knowledge into a cubic octavo than we can imagine in our philosophy. The leatherbound gilt-tripping marbled-edged rectangle that repeats itself for miles along oaken shelves wishes to protect itself from the elements of time. The half-calf folio requiring two people to lift was intended as a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Such is our inheritance. [Three] Gouging begins with thumb-marker lunettes for letters in dictionaries, or anatomies, or books of the Bible. Magnifying glasses loom in built-in drawers of micro-print reproductions, millions of words tinier than ants. A map of the local area folds out into a city covering the entire floor space. All very practical. [Four] Then it starts getting impractical. ‘Natasha’, a children’s story book about Russian dolls, contains doll-shaped pages each one slightly smaller than the previous. ‘Circus Zingaro’, a pop-up book about a homeless girl who dreams of joining the troupe, takes longer to pack up than set up:  ‘Tilt’, a history of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, is bound at a severe angle to the perpendicular, lending new meaning to the word ‘cute’, though not cute to shelve (pictured). [Five] Converting the codex into an art object or personal statement is to acknowledge the complete familiarity of the book shape in everyday life. Google Image ‘artists books’ and we can spend hours scrolling through the myriad ways the book comes to life. Here are three examples that I found just now when searching ‘artists books’: A Webster’s Dictionary, its interior trimmed into the rooms, passageways and corkscrew steps of a house; a concertina that is a township stretching in all street directions into the bush; an old unused scrapbook that, when opened, is a stork taking flight across the room and through the window. To put it simply, the shapeliest book in the world is purely in the eye of the beholder. [Six] While the modern proclivity for repurposing or upcycling books is widespread, due in part to the scale of available objects. Here’s another triad based on Google Image ‘upcycled books’: the book that became a framed abstract cityscape collage; the books that literally furnish a room with chairs and couches; the books that are an English cottage garden. [Seven] Such is its familiarity, the book shape has become an inspiration for architects and designers everywhere. The book is in the landscape. If you are going to Kansas City it’s hard to miss the Public Library carpark, a three-storey row of 22 book spines shelved along the street. (pictured) More subtle is the Public Library in Lyon, where bookcases of different vintages hold famous volumes, all delicately painted fresco across the five storey walls. Online has a whole library of marble benches, staircases and glass skyscrapers, all designed in the shape of the book and really we could go on but it’s time now to switch off the reading lamp and get some sleep.

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