In this week’s mailbag, Susan asks: “Have you ever created an altered book? I would like to but I can’t get over the voice in my head that says ‘don’t deface books!’ I usually don’t even write in my own books!”
When I first started making my newspaper blackout poems, it was in the spirit of recycling: there I was, staring at a blank Microsoft word document, with no words, and there, in the recycle bin next to me, were thousands of them. The thing I always enjoyed about using newspapers is that no one was ever aghast at my choice of medium: Newspapers are considered disposable media. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrapping. Etc.
At about the same time I started making the poems, I started working in a public library, and one of my duties there was “weeding”—going through the collection, checking circulation records, and removing books from the stacks to make room for new acquisitions. This was an educational experience for an aspiring writer. It is eye-opening to take a cold hard look at what kinds of books the average population actually reads. It is also eye-opening to understand how many books are thrown out or sold off. (I’ve heard David Sedaris say of his books, “I just imagine every book ending up at Goodwill.”) When you publish a book, it is one of literally hundreds of thousands of books that are published each year.
While I appreciate beautifully printed books and the fine art of bookmaking, I have become less and less interested over time as books as fetish objects to be worshipped for their inherent magical powers. There is a magic to reading, but it comes mostly from the energies of the reader. A book is dormant until the reader comes along to bring it back to life.
On to altered books: I’ve never made one, myself, but I buy books in junk shops to cut up and use in my collages later. (At my feet are ratty copies of Gray’s Anatomy, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, and The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics, all purchased for less than a dollar.) Do I feel guilty for cutting up these books? Not a bit. For one thing, I have clean, duplicate copies elsewhere on my shelves, for another, these books are finding new life in my diaries.
As for writing in books: I’ve been reading with a pencil for over two decades. It’s my way of owning the book, of engaging with the material, making it my own. It’s a step in between reading and writing. (I do wonder sometimes if my attitude towards books comes from a middle-class place of plenty. I grew up with as many books as I wanted.)
Your question made me think immediately of Brian Dettmer and Tom Philips, two of my favorite artists who both use old books to create their art. Here’s Dettmer on dealing with his initial guilt of cutting up books:
My first works were with telephone books and other disposable catalogs and I slowly developed a tolerance. Now, I don’t feel guilty as long as I know I’m working with something that is not rare and more often than not, has completely lost its function, but I do still feel an obligation to the material, to respect it and push it in a worthy direction to raise these questions in the viewer.
If you really want to attempt an altered book, you might follow his lead, and begin with newspapers, magazines, and more ephemeral material that’s headed for the recycle bin, anyways. Over time, that voice in your head might quiet down…
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