The Book is a Verb // India Johnson

01 Nov 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

Writing in The Century of Artists’ Books about the codex, Johanna Drucker claims that the most successful artists’ books with codex structures synthesize form and content into a unified whole. They “account for the interrelations of conceptual and formal elements, thematic and material concerns.” [1] Drucker’s approach in Century remains a valuable way of conceptualizing the artist’s book. For example, Susan Viguers reports that she was struck by the continued relevance of Drucker’s approach while curating a survey of artist bookwork whose purpose was “that of defining the artist book.” 

Let’s call Drucker’s approach, which defines the artist’s book as the kind of book whose elements cohere into a unified whole, the nominal definition of the artist’s book. For, as Drucker elaborates in her discussion of the codex, “it is important to begin with the obvious but profound realization that a book should be thought of as a whole. A book is an entity, to be reckoned with in its entirety.” [2]

But is the book best understood as whole? Are artists’ books best conceptualized as total works? In contrast to Drucker, the poet and printer Alan Loney suggests a different way to conceptualize the codex. He claims that while the codex may combine a written text and a physical volume, ‘the book’ does not emerge due to their integration. Rather, the book results from the inherent tension between text and volume: a tension which codex structures foreground, according to Loney. He ponders: “The book as the excess of text, text’s supplement ... ‘the book itself as expressive means.’ The book is more than, extra to, the text. It has a history as bodily existence and function that is not that of the text ... but reading a book is excess to the volume. Volume and [written] composition are therefore in excess of each other ... Reading a book and reading a text is an example of indeterminacy. We cannot do both at once. There is instead a sort of shuttling back & forth, however rapid, between the two.” [3]

To define the book as the tension between the composition and the volume, as Loney proposes, does not center the book as a specific kind of object. It centers the reader’s experience of the object. Loney’s writing about the codex suggests a verbal definition of the book⁠—one which defines the book in terms of the experience of reading. Yet a book cannot be read all at once, as the body’s sensory apparatus can only focus on one element of the book at a time. This means the body of the reader may work against, rather than facilitate, the experience of an artist’s book as a total work.  

Although he is not writing about the artist’s book specifically, Loney’s ideas about reading resemble those of Ulises Carrión, whose definitional arguments about the artist’s book also focus on reading (although Carrión preferred the term bookwork): “What our definition has failed to take into account is the reading, the actual experience of the bookwork by a viewer. Bookworks must create specific conditions for reading. There must be a coherence between the possible, potential messages of the work (what our fathers called “content”), its visible appearance (our fathers’ “form”), and the manner of reading that these two elements impose, or suggest, or tolerate. This element I call “rhythm.” [4]

In fact, Carrión was so focused on the experience of reading that he goes so far as to trumpet, in The New Art of Making Books, that “reading itself is proof of the reader’s understanding.” [5] It may seem either outrageous, or obvious, to claim that to read is to understand. But if the artist’s book is best understood not as a noun, but as a verb, Carrión was right to center the reader. 


[1] Johanna Drucker, The Century of Artists’ Books (New York: Granary Books, 1995), 122.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alan Loney, "What Book Does My Library Make?" In Threads Talks Series, eds. Steven Clay and Kyle Schlesinger, 3-17 (New York City: Granary Books and Cuneiform Press, 2016), 13-15.

[4] Ulises Carrión, “Bookworks Revisited,” in Quant aux livres: On Books, ed. Juan J. Agius (Geneva: Éditions Héros-Limite, 1997), 163.  

[5] This comes from my own translation of The New Art of Making Books, based on the text co-published by Tumbona Editions and the Mexican Ministry of Art and Culture in 2016:


India Johnson: I am a Book Art MFA candidate at the University of Iowa. My training also includes bench work in book conservation and bookbinding school at the LLOTJA. I make artists’ books and book objects; I also do translation or lexicography projects about bookbinding. 


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