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:

1 comment:

Diana said...

Yea! the commenting works!