Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Altering the Path of the Dying Book


Since books have always been a passion of mine, I'd like to share some of my thoughts on a matter of real concern.  Real books face extinction in a society which is overly concerned with beauty and convenience and speed.  These are three alluring traits.  Most books, especially, old books are not beautiful, not in the way most people perceive beauty and art; they are functional.  Books are not easy.  You have to physically move the pages with your fingers.  Oh, so much effort.  And books are not fast; like anything physical, you have to go somewhere to buy them or borrow them. That takes a little time.

Some artists are taking old books, most of which they find at garage sales, flea markets and old second hand bookstores, and transforming them into works of art.  Sounds harmless, right?  Even honorable? 

Artists call this hobby “altered books.” Wikipedia defines an altered book as “a form of mixed media artwork that changes a book from its original form into a different form, altering its appearance and/or meaning.”  How far an artist alters is up to him or her. 

A common routine is as follows: 

The artist turns to the first page of the book and, essentially, whites it out.  Of course a bottle of office whiteout would take forever, unless it’s a very tiny book.  So artists use a large bottle of “gesso,” which is a thick, opaque paint.  Gesso is more routinely used to refinish a previously painted canvas.   But in this case, the pages of the book are considered the “canvas.”  Most artists use white or black gesso, but other colors are also used. 

Once all trace of the writer’s words have disappeared and the gesso has dried, the artist will paint or draw on the page.  Pages of the book may also be burned, cut, folded or torn completely out for the purpose of thinning to add embellishments such as buttons, beads, coins, feathers, ribbons, etc.  Often, the cover of the book is also remodeled. 

The result can be an artistic masterpiece.  One need only stroll down the aisle of an art fair or visit a few artist/crafter websites and blogs to see the beautiful artwork people create using this medium.

So is it harmless to take a book and, gut it, erasing its very life essence, in order to create art?  I don’t know.  I guess it depends on whom you talk to… an artist or a writer.  They will give you very different answers.  It’s like a war between the north and the south.  No one will ever agree on the virtue or justification for creating altered books.

I know that everyone has a different value system, which motivates them to do what they do.  For some people, art sits at the top of their value system or close to it.  For me, writing sits at the top.

Some of my closest friends and family dabble with this artistic medium, and though I can’t stomach it myself, I try not to judge them.  I love them and respect them and know that we view the world with two different sets of eyes, which makes us walk in different directions.  Our differences is what makes the world such an interesting place.  In fact, it is the differences whirling around me, which make fabulous fodder for my next story! 


Artists who make altered books say they like it even more because it "breathes new life into an old book" that perhaps nobody will ever read again.  That is absolutely true.  An altered book artist creates a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece of art out of an old, worn out book (one of many copies).  These artists are both honoring their love of art and their love of books in one fell swoop.  Many of the artists who alter books are also book lovers.  I do wish I could focus on that aspect of it and enjoy the hobby.  I love to doodle and draw when I’m not writing. 

To shed further good light upon the act of creating altered books, one need only imagine all the books that have been destroyed because no one wants them any more.  It makes me sick to think of it.  

I am a writer.  And therefore, for me, there is a deeply embedded, emotional aspect that will always be attached to books.  Real, live, books that breathe.  In all honestly, books are where I breathe.  All my life I've wanted to publish a book; I could never block out the pages of someone else's work for any reason.  

For me, in order to “breathe new life into the book,” I would first have to "suck the old life out of it" by blanking out the pages.  And when I raised my brush, loaded with white gesso, I’m certain I would feel the cold breath of the writer slithering across my shoulders.  I’m sure I would feel his enraged presence bearing down on me.  Any writer would be wholly offended to think that anyone, for any reason, would willfully paint over what took months and maybe years of their blood, sweat and tears to create.

In my mind, real books are already in enough trouble.  Altering books is only a side effect of the insidious disease that’s been eating at the very core of the real book industry:  Electronic books and e-readers.  The electronic publishing industry is squelching the life out of real books.  The attraction of immediacy, of instant gratification, as well as affordability, is alluring to readers.

It’s so important for those of us who still cherish the aesthetically pleasing feel of a real, bound book in our hands, who still stare in awe at all that goes into the process of creating a real book, the research, writing, editing, marketing, publishing and physically printing those words on paper, who love the smell and the history and the charm of a real book… to shout out our love of this dwindling medium. 

I pray I never live to see the day that the printing presses stop forever.  That will be one of the saddest days of my life.   And I also pray that I can overcome the craving to buy an e-reader, should it ever itch my belly.  A Tale of Two Cities in two minutes?  USA Today right now?  It’s enticing to any avid reader.  Don’t misread what I’m saying.  I’m not opposed to new technology, but I do recognize the danger of some precedents, and I don’t want to sacrifice one for the other.  Can the e-reader and traditional book industry co-exist?  Only time will tell.

Altering books may further devalue real books and weakens society’s perception of them.  Real books need all the advocates and good advertising they can get.  Altering them, even ones perceived as archaic or obsolete, only adds fuel to the raging fire of the e-book industry. 

I could never practice the art form of altered books, and I observe the right of others to partake in it if they choose. 

But I wonder… Every time someone chooses to download an e-book versus buy the real thing or gessos over the pages of a book, and people applaud and say it’s a beautiful thing, are we that much closer to snuffing out the light of real books forever?  As much as I love my friends and family, including those who use e-readers and those who make altered books, this question is disturbing.

Ahh, the real book.   Long may it live.

To anyone who disagrees with anything I’ve said here, feel free to post a rebuttal or correction under this blog entry.  I promise not to delete any comments, as long as they are not malicious or pornographic in nature.  It’s an interesting conversation that is taking place more and more. 

My sister has some very interesting comments on this topic if you'd care to read her blog entry here: http://art-frenzy.blogspot.com/2012/12/real-books-and-their-value.html

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing and Other Shit

It was bound to happen.  I'm writing about nothing.  Nothing at all.  Honestly.  I have no topic.  I have nothing of interest to say.  But I have been staring at a blank page all day, and I've decided that vomiting up a whole lot of nothing onto the page is far better than blank space.  Blank space can be haunting to a writer.  It's a clear indication of failure.  So here goes...

Okay, maybe I'll write about something.  It will be meaningless to most who read it, but it will be something.  There.  I'm heading in the right direction.  At least I have a direction.

What is a Permalink?  And is it similar to Permafrost?  Are they both found in the north pole?  Or only in geographical locations which have internet service?  And how do they relate to the extinction of the polar bear?  These are the questions that spiral out of control in my brain.  Sad, but true.  The frequency of nonsense which riddles my brain is directly proportional to the level of my desire to procrastinate doing anything worthwhile.

I like internet terminology, but social networking terms are even more amusing.  I have to like it because there is no option for "unlike," at least not yet.  I wonder what percentage of horse racing handicappers are now using Facebook to let each other know their preferences in specific races?  Instead of asking, "Who do you like in the seventh?" do they just post a photo and wait for a response, such as:  "Ernie Exacta, Gladys Goodluck and 3 others like this."  It makes me wonder.  What are the odds of that happening?

My week has been a series of mishaps, much of it involving shit or holy shit.  Yes, upon review, I'd say there has definitely been a theme to my week, a theme of fecal matter.

On Tuesday, I went to the Wisconsin State Fair with the sole intention of holding a baby pig.  It's been on my bucket list for a long time, ever since reading the heart-wrenching yet strangely uplifting Charlotte's Web.  But there were no baby pigs to hold.  I could ooh and ahh over one litter through glass.  They were cute.  But no touching and no holding.  So near and yet so far.  Disappointed, I headed toward the exit of the Swine Barn.  Hogs to the left.  Hogs to the right.  It smelled to high heaven (Why do they say that?  Does heaven really smell that bad?) so at that point I was moving pretty quickly down the aisle.  A farmer and his herd of huge hogs darted out in front of me.  Okay, maybe they didn't dart.  Maybe it was more of an amble, but they appeared out of nowhere.  I acted fast and managed to side-step the whole ensemble.  But then I felt a smooshy feeling under my left tennis shoe.  I had stepped smack dab in the center of one heaping, steaming pile of hog SHIT.

I grumbled and kept moving and wiped it off on the grass outside the barn.  Posted on the barn door was a sign that read, "Please wash hands after leaving Swine Barn."  Well, there was a line of about fifteen people waiting for one little sink outside.  Since the barn door was wide open, the vile stench of swine was heavy in the air.  I plugged my nose, looked at the line, and thought it over.  It occurred to me,  hey, I never touched a pig or a pig pen or anything in that barn, so I'm good to go.  Don't have to wait in the hot sun.  So I walked around a bit more, listened to some music, but just wasn't into the whole fair thing and was still bummed out about not holding a single damn baby pig.

Trying to lighten my mood, I hopped on one ride that jerked my head back and forth and wasn't really much fun anyway. I used to love fair rides.  SHIT, I'm old.  I had to admit it.  There I was at the fair and I wasn't having a bit of fun.  Anyway, by this time it was getting crowded so I decided to get my traditional cream puff and go.  I bought a cream puff, ate it, did the whole lick-your-fingers thing and headed home.

After I got home, I washed my shoes outside with 409 disinfectant and left out in the sun to dry, then went inside to read my emails from earlier that day.  My friend had replied to my email about going to the fair and holding a baby pig.  She said, "You might want to check before you go.  A lot of fairs are dealing with Swine Flu outbreaks and won't let pigs in."  Swine Flu.  Hmmm.... I thought.  Maybe that's why the sign said wash your hands.  Even if I didn't touch anything in there, maybe those flu bugaroos can hop from pig to person, fly right through the air... Well, the next thing I did was what stupid people do after they've done something stupid, I searched the internet.  For me, it always yields the motherlode of wisdom, some of it actually true.  I searched the web for symptoms of Swine Flu.  Nausea, headache, stiff neck...

Holy shit.  Okay, so I didn't get a wink of sleep that night because I was lying awake worrying that my nausea wasn't actually from washing down a cream puff with a glass of Leinenkugel's, and my headache and stiff neck wasn't from riding a amusement park ride, but actually early signs of Swine Flu.  The next day, I realized I didn't actually have Swine Flu, but before I enter another swine barn, I'll 1) don a pair of those plastic shoe covers (they hand them out at walk-through art exhibits; why not swine barns?) and 2) I'll wash my hands.  Hell, I'll power wash my hands.  Actually, unless someone can promise me 100% that I'm going to be holding a baby pig, I'm not stepping foot in another swine barn.  So there.

Okay, that was just the beginning.  On Wednesday, I went to a garage sale to find a cheap plastic container to collect cat SHIT in and I injured myself.  I'm not kidding about the cat shit or the injury.  I needed a container into which I could shovel soiled litter and crap (literally) from our three litter boxes at home and carry it all to the covered pail outside.  Since I'm now "freelance writing," which means not bringing in a red cent, we are on a tight budget so the whole process of litter excavation has changed at our house.  Let me elaborate:

I switched from "World's Best" brand cat litter, which is the gold standard of cat litter, to "Cheap-Ass" brand litter -- which is nasty as hell, has zero deodorizing capability, cannot be simply shoveled into the toilet and flushed away to a place that is far, far away from here and sticks to everything including the cats' butts, the shovel and the bottoms of the litter boxes -- and that means frequent excavation to prevent revolting conditions.  With any job, it requires the right tools.  So continuing with my story, I went to the garage sale to buy a plastic container.  Caught up now?  Okay, so I walked up the driveway at the garage sale, (rummage sale for the Wisconsinites out there), perused their shelves, found nothing I could use and headed back down the driveway.  This took all of twenty seconds.

As I was nearing my car, I spotted an older woman (and when I say older, I mean older than me, but not as old as Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies) who was trying to get up out of a very low-seated chair that was on sale.  Without a moment's hesitation, since she was on my way back to my car anyway, I offered my arm to help her up.  She, also without a moment's hesitation, since her derrière was stuck in the chair, took my arm.  But then she shocked me by not helping in the slightest.  I mean, she put ALL of her weight on me, all 200-plus pounds of her, which went into my arm at an angle, and down into my lower back and hip.  Ouch.  Basically, she made me her human hoist.

The second shocking thing is, the woman never said thank you, just mumbled something about her "therapy." Well, I need therapy after hoisting her up.  So what did I say as I tried to get out of my car, upon arriving home?  You guessed it, "Holy shit.  My back hurts like hell."   I've been resting it, icing it, downing double doses of Naproxen for two straight days and eyeing my precious bottle of Flexeril, which has three tablets left and is rationed because it's expensive.  But things are changing.  For all my special self-care, the pain is actually getting worse by the hour.

Holy shit.  So much for being a good samaritan.