Book Art Object is an ongoing project bringing together book artists around the world (but mostly Australia during this leg of the journey) to respond to a set text in the form of an editioned artist’s book. Each participant gets a copy of everyone’s work.
The suggestion of an extract from Jeanette Winterson’s Art and Lies novel was, I confess, mine. From the moment I’d read the book, years and years ago, I’d been enthralled by her vision of the Library of Alexandria:
300BC. The Ptolemies founded the great library at Alexandria.
400,000 volumes in vertiginous glory.
The Alexandrians employed climbing boys much in the same way as the Victorians employed sweeps. Unnamed bipeds, light as dust, gripping with swollen fingers and toes, the nooks and juts of sheer-faced walls.
To begin with, the shelves had been built around wide channels that easily allowed for a ladder, but, as the library expanded, the shelves contracted, until the ladders themselves splintered under the pressure of so much knowledge. Their rungs were driven into the sides of the shelves with such ferocity that all the end-books were speared in place for nine hundred years.
What was to be done? There were scribes and scholars, philosophers and kings, travellers and potentates, none of whom could now take down a book beyond the twentieth shelf. It soon became true that the only books of any interest were to be found above shelf twenty-one.
It was noticed that the marooned rungs still formed a crazy and precarious ascent between the dizzy miles of shelves. Who could climb them? Who would dare?
Every boy-slave in Alexandria was weighed. It was not enough to have limbs like threads, the unlucky few must have brains of vapour too. Each boy had to be a medium through which much must pass and yet nothing be retained.
At the start of the experiment, when a book was required, a boy would be sent up to get it. This could take as long as two weeks, and very often, the boy would fall down dead from hunger and exhaustion.
A cleverer system seemed to be to rack the boys at various levels around the library, so that they could form a human chain, and pass down any volume within a day or so.
Accordingly, the boys built themselves eyries in among the books, and were to be seen squatting and scowling at greater and greater heights around the library.
A contemporary of Pliny the Younger writes of them thus:
Fama vero de bibliotheca illa Phariaca, opulentissima et certe inter miracula mundi numeranda, siparis ventisque mercatoriis trans mare devecta; nihil tamen de voluminibus raris ac pretiosis, de membris scriptorum disiectis fractisque, de arcanis Aegyptiacis et occultis devotis, quas merces haud dubio sperarent nostri studiosi, renuntiabant nautae, sed potius aulam esse regiam atque ingentem, tecta ardua et cum solo divorum exaequata ut dei ipsi tamquam in xysto proprio vel solario ibi gestare possent; quibus in palatiis tecto tenus loculamenta esse exstructa et omnes disciplinas contineri, nec tamen intra manus studentium venire sublimitas causa. Maxime enim mirabantur tantam illiam sublimitatem quantam nemo vel scalis vel artificiis machinarum evadere posset, nisi tantum turba innumera puerorum, quibus crura liciis tenuiora, quibus animus ceu fumus in auras commixtus, ut Maro noster, per quos denique multa transmittenda sed nihil retinendum. Illi enim circum bybliothecam in tabulates semper in altiora surgentibus collocati, ratione propria quadam ac secreta inter se mandata permutare poterant et intra tam breve tempus unius diei quemlibet librum demittere.
There is no system that has not another system concealed within it. [my emphasis] Soon the boys had tunneled behind the huge shelves and thrown up a rookery of strange apartments where beds were books and chairs were books and dinner was eaten off books and all the stuffings, linings, sealings, floorings, openings and closings, were books. Books were put to every use to which a book can be put as long as it is never read.
Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies (London: Jonathon Cape, 1994), pp. 4-6.
Isn’t it marvellous? Everyone else in BAO thought so too, or at least enough of us to form a posse while the others did Paper Wrestling (I did PW as well, cos I’m a sucker for participation).
But you know, when it came to actually making the response, I got stuck. There were just SO MANY ideas, most of which involved altered books, and then I had to move house and studio and my year just went pear-shaped. One morning, as I am wont to do, I woke up having dreamed the book I wanted to make. It seems my subconscious never sleeps. And the book had nothing to do with the Library of Alexandria, except…
except that the internet is our LofA now, isn’t it? It holds more than anyone could hope or dream of being able to read in one lifetime, and just like the LofA, it could be destroyed quite easily. All it would take is the inability to generate electricity. Simple. That was my dream, and my starting point.
So I wrote my own story, modelled on the structure of this excerpt (without, of course, the brilliance of it being, you know, Winterson’s writing) and made a book that is unstable. I’ve done this before; the topic interests the hell out of me.
I wanted it to look groovy (ahem) but utilitarian. So the binding is simple wire spiral binding, but on both sides of the book (there’s also a cover that wraps around, spiral-bound on the opposite sides, so the initial view of the work is of a totally encased spiral-bound object) and the pages unfold outwards from the middle. The paper is acid-free, but the ink used to print the book is from my cheap domestic inkjet printer, the kind that pretty much every household has these days, the kind that are cheaper to replace than fix. It isn’t fancy photo-grade archival ink, and it will deteriorate over time. The final question, the one that lingers in my head on almost a daily basis, is printed on the last page, the back of the book, in silver letterpress ink:
It should still be there when the rest of the book is fairly unreadable.
The images, at the risk of Too Much Information, are close-up photos of my jeans taken when I was sitting bored at the dentist while my son was getting his braces fitted. I took one by accident, and then liked the movement of the fibres and threads. I helped it a bit in Photoshop, just enhancing the ‘connection’ twinkles, but the crappy printer created the rest of the atmosphere by itself. Don’t fight it, go with it, always a good motto.
Nothing beats holding the actual book, but I also scanned it and made an online copy. Seemed to complete the circle a bit. It doesn’t quite fit into the template provided by issuu, but that’s not surprising! Click on the link below and see the book in action for yourself.