SPEED NOW, BOOK // Rebecca Childers

01 Jan 2017 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

“Speed now, Book…A thousand hands will grasp you with warm desire…” —from the publisher’s note distributed with The Nuremberg Chronicle in 1493

Books are threshold objects. Even with their backs turned on us, spines out, they seem to beckon. Like unearthed artifacts, their appearance is charged with incipience, their small heft suggesting pockets of space and time a reader might re/enter through the conduit of her body (eyes peering, hands grasping, the theater of the mind set into motion). Both as symbolic objects and as experiences, books possess the allure of the real and expansiveness of the immaterial, marking a dilation of presence in absence.

The codex serves as metaphor for both embodiment and ensoulment. In her plaster casts of the negative space around shelved books, Rachel Whiteread evokes the ghost in the machine of the book, so to speak. In her room-sized Untitled (Paperbacks), we find hollows where the library’s volumes once were, the impress of fore-edges in the plaster like the postures of witnesses at Pompeii. Here the book represents a palpable break in the skin of the known. 

Gaps (books 1), Loris Cecchini, 2005

Loris Cecchini, in his Extruding Bodies series, also uses the book as a symbol for threshold states. Gaps (books 1), like Whiteread’s Untitled (Paperbacks), employs an all-white palette to lay bare what Cecchini calls “poetical distance”—a murky space of emergence into material being. Jumbled spines press against a skin of polyester, as if straining to tell their stories. There is a fragility yet stubborn insistence to this gesture, the bodies of the books limning a gap between the graspable and the ineffable. This urge to become, to emerge and persist, is one that all living things share; for us humans that urge extends to the persistence of memory, for which books are both medium and metaphor.

Alchemist's Handbook, Alexis Arnold, 2013

It could be argued a book only “becomes” in the mind, its contents crystalizing moment by moment in the imagination. But what if a book lies fallow, unread? Alexis Arnold addresses the transience and vulnerability of the physical book in her artwork. She collects discarded paperbacks, transforming them into colonies of borax crystals. She speaks of this almost as an intervention, an attempt to immortalize the body of the book by replacing inert text with living crystals. “The books,” she writes, “become artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and nostalgia.”

Books themselves may be time capsules of personal and cultural memory, intended to extend knowledge beyond one lifetime, but in the artwork discussed here, it’s the very bookness of the book that matters most, not its contents. The suggestion of its form is enough to provoke reverie or something bittersweet, a pang of loss. Even when closed, a book offers a kind of window, a glimpse beyond, as well as silent witness. Saskia Hamilton captures this threshold quality in her beautiful poem from 2014.

I slept before a wall of books and they
calmed everything in the room, even
their contents, even me, woken
by the cold and thrill, and still
they said, like the Dutch verb for falling
silent that English has no accommodation for
in the attics and rafters of its intimacies.


  • 18 Feb 2017 9:28 AM | Gloria Sun
    I really appreciated this exploration of the "idea" of the book - unread books, books stored along shelves, ignored books, the need for a book to be read in order for it "to become" - the idea that a book is more than its own physical form where it appears to exist, a capsule that can convey ancient thoughts directly into a reader's mind, or the idea that that capsule will beckon witnesses to appreciate it as both a metaphorical and physical window in a room, even as it merely sits there.
    While this post challenges mostly the definition of what inert texts can mean to the reader who has not read them, we could also think about what inert texts mean to the reader who has. A shelf of long forgotten but once beloved books, for example, would symbolize not only a capsule of thought to the author's mind, but a capsule for the reader's previous experience of the book.
    Or the different experience of a brand new versus a vintage book. One has been grasped by "one thousand hands of...warm desire", one perhaps may reach that status eventually.
    I'm still mulling over what the "threshold quality" exactly means, but perhaps this may be further explored in later posts!
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  • 21 Feb 2017 2:00 PM | Lincy Shen
    Although I have always been a fan of reading books, I never really thought about them in a personified light. From commentaries on both pieces, there are some lines which really struck me. In the commentary on Lois Cecchini's Gaps (Book 1), this line stood out to me: "This urge to become, to emerge and persist, is one that all living things share; for us humans that urge extends to the persistence of memory, for which books are both medium and metaphor." In a way, this sentence leads to the subtle personification of books, which are "both medium and metaphor" for "the persistence of memory" which "human urge extends to." Even today, we are still reflecting upon, analyzing, and reading works from hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Some of the most highly appreciated and loved works are ones which were written numerous years ago. These works or "classics" indeed serve to preserve the memory of humans from past times.

    In Alexis Arnold's 'The Alchemist's Handbook,' the parts of the commentary that struck me the most were the lines that follow:
    "...to immortalize the body of the book by replacing inert text with living crystals. '“The books,”' she writes,“'become artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and nostalgia.”'
    Similar to the line I referenced above in regards to Cecchini's piece, these lines seem to personify books in a subtle manner. They also show indirectly the contrast between what was once ignored (the unpopular book) and what is seen as valuable and important (the artifact which is the crystal covered book). This too strikes me as possibly, beyond being applicable to books, being applicable to the lives of humans as well. While we are alive, we may be unpopular, unloved, or unwanted. However, after we die, the life we lived, perhaps even the ideas we proposed or the work we created will be memorialized, worshiped, or even deemed as highly valuable. There are many examples of such individuals. One notable example of an artist who became famous after his death is Vincent Van Gogh. It is hard to find someone today who has not heard of his famous 'Starry Night.'

    Overall, I really enjoyed this post and the works presented within the post. They really had me thinking (not just about the pieces themselves and what they stood for) about how there is a greater purpose behind books.
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