31 Oct 2015 9:00 PM | Deleted user

In my continuing efforts to engage students and faculty with the research and expository writing possibilities of artists’ books, I had a recent teaching experience of matchless opportunity for inculcation. To put it another way, if success can be judged by students not checking their phones, a reluctance to leave when class was finished, and an urgent text message to a visiting parent to get right over to the library, we scored.

A faculty member in the Anthropology department had contacted me about whether Special Collections had any books
that offer “a critique of media saturation, or perhaps examine the notion of archiving culture?” (Haven’t books been archiving culture from the beginning?)

Off the top of my head, I could think of a few books that directly address digital culture as the central theme (Peter Malutski’s  
Lucy in the Sky, Emily Larned’s Search Results, and Emily McVarish’s The Square) but I had to probe deeper to understand the context for his course. He explained: “As a larger theme, the reimagining of the book as something more than a simple document would be a good jumping-off point.” Aha! Sounds suspiciously like an artist’s book….

Teaching newcomers about artists’ books is a lot like teaching a foreign language. One has to start with the basic principles and then build on them to recognize nuance, texture, and meaning. The biggest challenge is to slow the students down so they don’t just flip randomly through the pages, often the collateral damage of screen reading. I find that if I present groups of books with related study questions, it forces them to read more closely. So I enlisted my best student assistant, Meredith, who, along with a prodigious memory for artists and press names, is a proto-curator, and a critical and emotional reader. Better still, she knows well the world of her fellow Wellesley students, who grew up reading and interacting with a screen.  We put our heads together and came up with an approach that would ask students to analyze how they read differently with the books in front of them and how they would absorb the content if delivered digitally instead of physically. Yes, to the initiated, the answer is obvious, but to first-year students who have never seen artists’ books, it is an entry point and a hook for critical thinking. My Mini-Me curator was great. She stood in front of the class after I gave my lofty academic introduction to artists’ books, and summed it up with a two word exhortation: “ASK WHY!”

They did, and it worked beautifully. The comments I heard were insightful and original. It worked so well in fact, that they will be coming back for a second class with artists’ books in the spring semester. Nothing like real hard copy books to give meaning to a course on the virtual.

Following are the thematic groupings of books we selected and the study questions for each. For a complete list of artists and titles, please contact me at rrogers@wellesley.edu.

Random Access Reading

Does it need to be linear to be understood? How does the book mimic digital access? Does the physical form aid your interpretation of the content?

Linear Reading

Could any of these be read as digital texts? What elements would or would not transfer well?

Haptic Reading

What is obvious to you about these? How do you read them? Could they be mimicked on a screen?

Reading without Reading

How are these books? Could these have the same effect digitally?

Data Made Physical

The data presented in these books is available online.  How does the artist change the reading experience?

Artists Comment on the Virtual World

What point is the artist/author making? Do you relate?


  • 14 Nov 2015 5:29 AM | Susan Viguers
    I took Ruth up on her offer to send the list of books she and Meredith Santaus offered students in their session on the intersection of artists’ books and the digital culture, which she promptly sent me. The list is a reminder of how much power the specific has; her post resonates in extremely interesting ways in the context of those books. Beginning with just the first theme, “Random Access Reading,” and the first question, “Does it need to be linear to be understood?”, and one of the books listed—I can’t imagine a linear reading of Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poémes. The reader’s creating its nonlinearity seems important, which would fit with a digital iteration. On the other hand, the physical anchoring of those choices also seems important.

    Does nonlinearity inevitably involve an analytical kind of game? What about books that are narrative based? How is the emotional, empathetic immersion in story rendered in nonlinear works whether they be haptic or digital? Certainly, viewers can become lost in digital games. But I think of a book like Clifton Meador’s Memory Lapse, an artist’s book that presents a great deal of historical information, all of which could be accessed if read in a nonlinear way. But, if read nonlinearly, the emotional immersion in the process of uncovering/discovery would be lost. (Maybe there’s a problem with the way I’m connecting the nonlinear and games.)

    This is an issue I am struggling with in the artist’s book on which I am current working, which involves three tangentially related narratives. I originally thought that I would present them simultaneously, but I fear that will undermine their emotional impact.

    What is the nature of emotional immersion in the narrative of a physical artist’s book? How does it compare to that of the digital?
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