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When a Book Gets Caught Up in the Story. The Art of the Book in the Digital Age

When I was in college, David Foster Wallace (DFW as he was affectionately referred to) was a literary powerhouse. He was the author that all of the literature fanatics loved to read (or at least said that they loved to read). He wrote books like the thousand-page tour-de-force Infinite Jest that were too long and complicated for science geeks like me. DFW gave exactly one talk about his philosophy on life, addressing the graduating class of Kenyan College in 2005. The talk was titled This is Water.

After he died, that speech became a holy relic to the worshippers of DFW. But how do you take that speech and make it into something more, both as a homage to DFW and a way of preserving and extending the insights of the author? You create a book.

I loved the speech and was curious about how it could be transformed into a book. The speech is only 25 minutes long, so it needed to be something special. When I was in college, there was a room in the library for special books called The Art of the Book. It displayed books for their craft and construction, not just their content. The book This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life reminds me of the books in that room. It is a beautiful little volume with DFW’s speech split up over pages, complementing the cadence to the author’s writing.(1)I enjoy reading the book while listening to the audio at the same time and follow along for a multi-sensory experience.

I checked out the book out of the library. When I opened it up for the first time, I saw this:

The purple stamp caught me by surprise. Someone had written in this library book. People don’t write in books today, much less in library books. Books are a “read-only” medium. Blogs and websites can be easily updated. But books? Those are permanent.

Books weren’t always like that. They were about starting a conversation with other people and other authors. Hundreds of years ago, books were expensive. When travelers would visit far-flung libraries, they would bring their notebooks, called commonplace books. These books would contain passages from books, bits of original writing, reference information, and anything else the writer could think of. These commonplace books became a “best of” of the writer’s thoughts mixed with the best ideas they’d come across from others.(2)Once printing became cheaper with inventions like the Penny Press, people moved onto something similar with scrapbooks. The world’s most famous commonplace books are from Leonardo da Vinci.(3)One of Leonardo’s commonplace books, the Codex Leicester, was sold to Bill Gates for $30M.

The Vitruvian Man from Leonardo da Vinci’s Commonplace Book

Writing is different today. Printing has become cheaper. Distribution on the internet is free, allowing everyone to be an author. Authors on Facebook and LinkedIn are creating a different form of media than what came before. When someone posts something online, they are not trying to create the next great masterwork. Rather, they are trying to form connections with others. This is what people are doing with memes, GIFs, and, emojis.(4)Ze Frank, a viral media guru who was the president of Buzzfeed Entertainment Group, has a great talk about media as a sharable experience.

Even though many people are using technology to create connections, some are using books to create new forms of art like This is Water. My favorite is the re-mix of Neil Gaiman’s speeches and writings in the book Art Matters. Chris Riddle illustrates and handwrites these speeches and creates something wonderful. It really makes me stop and mull over his words rather than just move onto something else.(5)I like reading the book while listening to Gaiman’s speech.

From Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddle’s Book Art Matters

But all this brings me back to the purple Stamp in This is Water. When I Googled the words “The Author of this Book Committed Suicide” was taken to an art exhibit by Aaron Krach called “The Author of this Book Committed Suicide.” From July 19-26, 2012, Krach checked out every available book from the New York Public Library by an author who committed suicide. Then he stamped the title page of each book with the purple stamp. From those books, he created a number of different art forms like this:

A book created by combining copies of the title pages.
Pages exhibited at Codex.
Exhibiting the books alongside a picture of a title page at Field Projects.

After it was over, he returned all of the books to the library, which is where I found that copy of This is Water. I was curious about what to do next. I really wanted to keep the book. Then I would have this wonderful story to tell and this book to go with it. But then I’d be stealing a book from the library and also destroying some of the art. So I did something better. I made my own. I bought a copy of the book, copied the purple stamp, and pasted it in my new book. Now I’ve become part of that artistic conversation, remixing other people’s art to make something of my own. Of course, I’m also adding to that conversation with this blog post.

My re-creation of the art

Note: I wrote about another one of my creations in How I (Re-)Built My Favorite T-Shirt.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I enjoy reading the book while listening to the audio at the same time and follow along for a multi-sensory experience.
2. Once printing became cheaper with inventions like the Penny Press, people moved onto something similar with scrapbooks.
3. One of Leonardo’s commonplace books, the Codex Leicester, was sold to Bill Gates for $30M.
4. Ze Frank, a viral media guru who was the president of Buzzfeed Entertainment Group, has a great talk about media as a sharable experience.
5. I like reading the book while listening to Gaiman’s speech.