Celebrating book art

Last Updated 11 December 2010, 12:47 IST

Even a keen follower of the genre like me found several new and interesting titles here that I had overlooked, missed, or that were simply too recent for me to have heard of, or come across in a bookstore. I’m especially grateful for making two discoveries here, The Night Bookmobile, which I wrote about last time and The Art of the Bookstore, which I’ll bring up in just a moment.

Books about books with pictures are what captivate me the most in the genre now: illustrations and photos that graphically detail a bibliophile’s life. It’s nice to have a book that talks to us of books in pictures. For instance, The Art of the Bookstore, a book full of oil paintings of famous and not so famous bookstores.

This is the work of Gibbs Smith, a publisher who travelled widely visiting bookstores and painting them. He painted just the exterior storefront, taking in the street, the signboard, the window display and the front door. The first bookstore he painted was the iconic bookstore in San Francisco: City Lights, famous for being the bookstore that nourished the Beat movement. My favourite paintings from the book are Gibbs’ portrayal of Gotham Book Mart, Books and Co, Shakespeare and Co, Politics and Prose, Three Lives and Company. And the Barnes and Noble Union Square, housed in a beautiful, three storied Beaux Arts building, an oil on linen ‘16x 20’ painting. Many of these bespoke bookshops are now shut, and Gibbs’ paintings become a homage to what they meant in the lives of readers.

The first picture book about books that I had the unexpected pleasure to gaze upon was illustrator Boscove’s Where Books Fall Open. Carefully selected prose passages and poems about the reading life by our best writers, but what interested me more were Boscove’s full colour paintings of catching various readers in the act of reading (the familiar graphic of a young woman reading, found in all Crossword Bookstores, feels like an inspiration from here). I hadn’t, until then, imagined a reading life in pictures.

Illustrations and photos showing someone reading (unless ironic) are not images you come across in magazines and books and paintings, but the moment I set eyes on these elegant bookish paintings, I couldn’t get enough of it. Next, I turned up Jill Krementz’s Writers Desk: black and white photos of modern writers at work, accompanied by each writer talking about her work habits at the desk. (Updike said he uses three desks to work).

The strangest (and the most compelling) picture book about books I’ve come across is Abelerado Morell’s A Book of Books. 52 photographic images of books from striking angles that almost seem sculpted; that invite you to meditate on the materiality of the book, the book as sacred or rhapsodic object — even as odd, funny, whimsical objects. Critic J P Cohen evocatively describes what these photos convey: “Fluid pages curving over their spines like majestic mountains in the distance. The abstract pattern of a dictionary takes on the enigmatic characteristics of crop circles, while a water-damaged book shows itself as a twisted organic form.  An aging book slowly decays in a stark image of paper so fragile it has practically turned to dust. Library stacks seen from above become a labyrinth through Morell’s lens.”

Which brings me to that luscious coffee table book for the bibliophile, devoted to the Art of the Bookshelf: At Home With Books. A picture book that more conventionally celebrates books and bookshelves as aesthetic artefacts: Lush colour photographs of various private home libraries of the rich. Books as tasteful home decor. Stunning bookshelves in stunning rooms.  A more sophisticated entry from last year is Unpacking my Library: Architects and their Books. 12 noted architects speak of their personal libraries (with photos of bookshelves) in terms of design and collecting. An odd little book that I recently stumbled on is The Libraries of Thought and Imagination. It’s a tough book to describe. Pocket size but pleasingly elusive. An anthology of writers speaking of imaginary books and bookshelves! Bookshelves as visual art.

 Coming back to this year’s noteworthy visual books about books, a delicious instance is Living With Books, 200 photographs by Roland Beaufre. Similar to At Home With Books, this new coffee table entry on the art of the bookshelf displays lavish photos of different examples of personal libraries, such as The Artist’s Library, The Designer’s Library, The Writer’s Library, The Collector’s Library and The Journalist’s Library. A more whimsical entry is Art of McSweeneys. The art and design work across several forms (hand illustrated book covers, The Believer covers) of independent publisher McSweeney. Their experimental design work is a showcase for the cutting edge in contemporary bookmaking. 

Like The Night Bookmobile, Insomnia Café is another rare hybrid entry to this genre: a book about books crossed with a graphic novel. Turkish illustrator Perker offers this fantastic tale about an insomniac rare book expert who gets a tour of what lies behind the Insomnia Café: a secret archive of incomplete books.

Books that famous writers started but never finished. I wish Perker had infused this comic book with more bibliophilic images. Too much action and fantasy, too little bookishness. Still, shouldn’t complain too much — graphic novels with a bibliophile theme are the scarcest. (The absolute best, the most exhilarating, being Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter).

Lastly, there is Lane Smith’s It’s A Book. A children’s book about books about a bookish monkey that any adult will relish.  

It’s playful, subversive and witty: a mouse asks a monkey reading a book what he’s reading and is informed it’s a book. “Can you scroll down?” the mouse asks. “No, it’s a book,” growls the monkey. “Let me have it,” says the mouse, “and I’ll charge it up and give it back to you.’” The monkey sighs, “You don’t need to charge it up. It’s a book.”  
What it is — like the other books I’ve spoken of here  —  is a picturesque paean to the art of the printed book.

(Published 11 December 2010, 12:43 IST)

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