Thursday, July 14, 2016

Guest Post: Lynn Festa on Blooks and the Nature of Books

Program designed by Jenny Davis
On February 2, 2016 the Grolier Club and Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library partnered to present a colloquium in connection with my exhibition Blooks: The Art of Books That Aren't. The colloquium was filmed and can be seen in its entirety by clicking on this link:
Speakers included (in this order) Mindell Dubansky (Preservation Librarian, Metropolitan Museum of Art), Lynn Festa (Associate Professor of English, Rutgers University), and Bruce and Lynn Heckman (collectors). Karla Nielsen of Columbia University, was moderator.  This post includes the full content of Lynn Festa's inspiring talk on the relationship between books and blooks. I found it so interesting, I thought you would like to reading it and I thank Lynn for offering it to the About Blooks blog:

I want to talk today both about “blooks” themselves, and about what “book-look objects” have to tell us about the nature of the book: its properties as a material thing as well as word-based text. What do “blooks” borrow from the book, on the one hand, and what do they tell us about the nature of the book, on the other? Why choose to fashion an object— whether a spruce-gum box, a sewing kit, a lunch box, or a lighter— in the form of a book in the first place?  Although objects shaped like other things are not all that uncommon—chocolates and candles and soaps come in all sorts of guises— the blook seems special.

In part, blooks are special because books are not like other things: they are both physical object and text, conjoining the material and the immaterial, the shared world of language and the private world of thought, sense, experience.  Books are strange objects in that they recede into invisibility when we read; the "blook" by contrast insists upon the physical properties of the book in a way that makes its materiality an object of contemplation. “Blooks” remind us of the power incarnated in the book’s— the codex’s— very form, underscoring the ritual or social purposes that books possess apart from being read. The coffee-table book broadcasts a message about the status or refinement of its possessor without being cracked; the book given as a high school prize declares an honor without necessarily being devoured by its teen-aged recipient.

Blooks also remind us of the more casual ways we employ books as material objects rather than reading matter— as doorstops or paperweights, as coasters or barriers to an unwanted conversation on the subway. That many blooks are closed books— offering the shape and mass of a wordless object— reminds us that what we treasure in books is not always the allegedly superior value incarnated in the text. We also love books as things. The “blook” on these terms offers a revelation about bibliophilia, about the love we bear towards this particular copy of a book, as opposed to the story we love, and about the passion and perversion of book collecting.  Even as the Freudian fetishist’s interest in the shoe lies in something other than its purpose as a protection for feet, so too does the collector of books (as well as, perhaps, the collector of blooks) treasure something that goes beyond the so-called “proper” use of the book as a delivery system for language.  Perhaps— countermanding the chiding of countless generations of parents— what matters is not what’s inside, after all? The blook as a representation of the book— with its lavish or cheap bindings, its ornate lettering or unadorned typeface—remind us of the forms of value not associated with specifically literary merit that also inhere in the book. And why should we denigrate these other values? The large number of book-objects that are bibles, for example, reminds us of the role played by the Bible not just as scripture, but also as a perdurable object that consolidates relationships or communities through its presence as a material object— not despite but precisely because of its obdurate materiality. Blooks— or at least some blooks— capitalize on this.

Holy Bible in stone. American, 19th c.

And I say some blooks, because blooks, like books, have genres, moving from the reverent sobriety of a stone-book Bible  to the low comedic value of the mass-produced electric-shock gag gift.
Exploding book, "World's Greatest Jokes by R. U. Laffin." American, Franco-American Novelty Co., New York, mid-20th c.  

Blooks thus alternately consecrate the book— reaffirm its sanctity— and jest with it— cut its high seriousness down to size. In the next few minutes, I want to offer readings of three kinds of “blooks”— three possible ways of thinking about what they tell us about our relation to books that might be roughly classed as the sentimental or affective, as utilitarian, and as playful.  (This is by no means exhaustive, and for every statement I make there will be a counterexample.)

First: the sentimental or affective. “Blooks" toy with a kind of literalization of the inward nature of the book and of our reading practices. On these terms, we might read the book-object as a kind of allegory of reading.  The hollowed-out book shape, for example, literalizes the ways we think of reading as an activity involving depths and insides: we dive into novels, we delve into texts, we talk about what’s in a book.
"Smoke and Ashes by Flame" smoking set. American, mid-20th c.

A book repurposed as a secret hiding place for keepsakes has much to tell us about the forms of interiority and selfhood we associate with the book. Books, like blooks, offer passage to a hidden inside.  Although not all blooks open, the pleasure of opening and finding things within— and here I cannot help but think of the popularity of “unboxing videos” on youtube as a strange extension of this pleasure— is part of what the blook promises. The discovery that something is harbored within the blook thus echoes elements of the experience of reading.

Blooks also capitalize on the way books, as embodied language, exteriorize and make inner feeling at least partially available to other minds.  The book-shaped love tokens and sentimental or memorial objects such as the spruce-gum boxes carved by lumbermen in the North Woods or the stone books carved with the name of the recipient all are exterior signs of inward emotion.  
An American spruce gum box, 19th c.

As personal memento, keepsake, memorial, souvenir, or gift, these objects are vessels for sentimental value. I want to focus on the anthracite book that commemorates the death of the miner James Fagen at the age of 22.
Coal memorial book from Pennsylvania, 1897.

This blook marks the premature ending of a life with too few chapters. The fact that it can’t be opened to be read— that it is a closed book in every sense— and the “muteness” of the stone book— the “inert thingness” of the memorial— make this blook the nonverbal expression of something— the grief of loss— that cannot, perhaps, be brought to the level of language. Words cannot express everything.  The stone book that marks this foreshortened life borrows from the permanence or solidity of stone to suggest the enduring love towards the lost loved one and the promise of eternal life, also invoked by the book’s inevitable reference to the bible. The emotion that suffuses these objects makes the blook, like the book, a tool for preserving and revivifying emotions about absent objects. Both blooks and books give substance and form to the ephemerality of subjective feeling, experience, thought. (One thing that does not come through from looking at the blooks in the exhibition is the immense pleasure of holding them: the smoothness of the wood, the texture of the grain the heft of the stone, the satisfying fit, snug in the hand.  These are tactile as well as visual objects; they are meant to be held.)

If the sentimental or affective “blooks” serve as objects of meditation or contemplation, what should we make of their more utilitarian counterparts? What connections can be made between the contents of certain blooks and the book form? The logic behind housing writing materials, alphabet blocks, and a book repair kit (charmingly titled “The Care and Feeding of Books”)
"Care and Feeding of Books" book repair kit. American, mid-20th c.

in a book-shaped container is fairly evident, to be sure, and the fact that blooks are often vessels for new or emerging technologies— photographs, viewfinders, microscopes, cameras, and tape recorders—suggests the ways the book-form acts as a mediator to buffer technological change (as in “pages” and “folders” on our computers).
Crosley Book Radio. American, 1950s.

Some blooks— the game boards disguised as books, for example— are perhaps trying to borrow from the relative prestige of the book to give idle pastimes greater respectability.
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"Milton's Poems" card set. American, mid 20th c.

But other objects are not so easily explained. One might, I guess, say that the incendiary content of literature and the flammability of paper explains the book-shaped trench-art lighter (and certainly the useful object crafted out of shell-casings and bullets produces a reminder for the soldier of the civilized world of books, so distant from the violence of war), but what about the sewing kit?  Why put a sewing kit like the 1840s “the Gem” in a book form?

"The Gem" small sewing kit. English, 1840s.

Although part of the reason is decorative (a pretty, fashionable case, easy to transport), another reason is perhaps to hide or camouflage the object. A sewing kit in a book form allows work materials to be left out on a table, and thus ready-to-hand for the kinds of minor repairs for which it is intended, even as the book form disguises the invisible ubiquity of female labor that underwrites domestic life. Perhaps the practical contents of these blooks also serve as a reminder that “book smarts” need to be complemented with practical know-how: the speculative “how-to” knowledge that reading a book about tailoring might convey is replaced by the sewing-kit that enables one to mend a shirt.

Although the sewing kit blook disguises its contents, many blooks do, punningly, proclaim what they ostensibly hide.  The flask is nestled in a blook labeled the Secrets of the American Cup,
"Secrets of the American Cup" flask. American, 20th c.

while the clothing brush is housed in Not So Dusty by Y.B. Untidy.  Here the blook form has recourse to language— to words— to suture the relation between the book form and the blooks’ contents. 
"Not So Dusty by Y. B. Untidy" clothes brush. American or English, 20th c.

That so many blooks have punning titles is, I think, a reflection of the fact that there is something oddly literalizing about the blook. It arrests us on the material form of the book in much the same way that the pun returns language to its most material form, as sound.  The pun plays with the sonic similitude of words, much as the blook plays with the material likeness of the book.
The importance of puns indicates that all is not high seriousness in the world of blooks, and I want to close with a few words about the sheer entertainment value and even silliness of some blooks. The gag books in the exhibition— the folk-art trick snake boxes from which a snake rises to strike the unwary Pandora,
Snake trick. American, 19th c.

the exploding books and the electric shock books— all entail a curious materialization of reading: the serpent serves as a reminder that dangerous things lie in books, while the shocks inflicted in opening a risqué cover literalize the notion that we are reading something “very shocking” (offering a playfully punitive response to the prurient desires that led one to open the book in the first place). These blooks sport with the pleasure of being surprised or perhaps, rather, with the pleasure of surprising someone else (the vague sadism of many practical jokes). But they also play with the delight at illusionistic trickery associated with trompe l’oeil, with the outward mimicry of a form that turns out to be something else. Wherein lies the pleasure of being lured into seeing a book in an object that is not a book? I think the pleasure— and the profit—elicited by this fleeting mistake lies in the toggle between one thing and another that alerts us to the enduring relation we take to books. For in not being a book, the book-look object offers us a glimpse of the many things that we ask books to be.

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