Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is it okay to intentionally damage a book?

For the bibliophiles and art-lovers of the world, altered book art is a touchy subject. It's a careful matter of weighing allegiances: you're not supposed to desecrate books, but you're also not supposed to stand in the way of artistic expression. These aren't just guidelines—for many people they're deeply held, nearly spiritual beliefs.

When I first encountered the art of Brian Dettmer, I was blown away by the intricacy of his book dissections:

"World Books" by Brian Dettmer on Flickr.

"Science in the Twentieth Century" by Brian Dettmer on Flickr.

"New Books of Knowledge" by Brian Dettmer on Flickr.

I also love Georgia Russell's explosive book art:
"The Story of Art" by Georgia Russell at England & Co. Photo: England & Co.  

"Spectacle" by Georgia Russell at England & Co. Photo: England & Co

"Le Mariage Parfait" by Georgia Russell at England & Co. Photo: England & Co

At first, it never occurred to me to regard this art as a mistreatment of books, but after reading through the comments on the various blogs featuring artists such as Dettmer and Russell, I can't help but see the comments as an ethical debate. On both sides, people are certain of the wrongness of the other. "You just don't do that to books," some say. Others straddle the fence by complimenting the art but pointing out that they could never do something like that to a book. And of course, some decry any art that destroys a book.

Researching this post, I found instances of altered book art being called not just destructive, but heinous, degrading and abhorrent.

Similar stuff was classified by one library under "book mutilation" … along with articles about libraries being ravaged during wartime. Mutilation? Really?

The sanctity of books

What is it about books that inspires such revulsion at the idea of cutting them up? Partly it must be what they represent: condensed and preserved knowledge, history and identity, eduction that will enable one to climb the social ladder, freedom of expression that not so long ago was reserved for the very few who knew how to read and write. But it's more than that, for I'm sure no one would mourn the old pamphlet, newspaper, or website printout used for art. No, that would be admirable—it's recycling, after all!

We see books as more than the sum of their parts: a couple hundred pages of paper bound by string, glue, and cardboard or sometimes leather. In a post about people who write in books, Sarah Werner at Wynken de Worde says, "what comes across is a fetishization of the clean book, an idealization of books that seems to prioritize book form over book content."

Going to the source

What do authors think of their books being used for art?

Jonathan Lethem, who once received a gift of his first novel, Gun, With Occasional Music, cut into the shape of a pistol writes:
In the first life of creative property, if the creator is lucky, the content is sold. After the commercial life has ended, our tradition supports a second life as well. A newspaper is delivered to a doorstep, and the next day wraps fish or builds an archive. Most books fall out of print after one year, yet even within that period they can be sold in used bookstores and stored in libraries, quoted in reviews, parodied in magazines, described in conversations, and plundered for costumes for kids to wear on Halloween. The demarcation between various possible uses is beautifully graded and hard to define, the more so as artifacts distill into and repercuss through the realm of culture into which they've been entered, the more so as they engage the receptive minds for whom they were presumably intended.

Here's another piece by Robert The, who turned Lethem's novel into a pistol:

title: Britannica Vol. 14
materials: wooden broom handle, encyclopaedia
artist: Robert The
year: 2008
images: ©2008 Robert The

Is this piece more provocative because it recasts a book as a broom, an ordinary object used for moving dirt?

How about this piece by Richard Minsky:

Forlorn Hope: The Prison Reform Movement
Text by Larry E. Sullivan
Binding by Richard Minsky, 2002.
The Eighth Amendment from The Bill of Rights limited edition set by Richard Minsky.

Minsky writes:  "During the 1990's the drive toward prison reform reversed. Prison libraries were closed, chain gangs and striped uniforms came back, and prison populations increased. The book is bound in stripes with the word 'CONVICT' on the back cover, printed inkjet on canvas, and is chained to a miniature jail cell of painted wood."

Does altered book art become more acceptable when it has a political cause? When one weighs both political and artistic expression against the act of damaging a book? Or is this piece more acceptable because the book is not actually destroyed, but merely rebound?

What's your relationship to books?

As I dig deeper into the world of book art, I am increasingly intrigued by our reactions, and I'd like to hear from readers about this. 

I still remember when, as a child, I once left a book sitting overnight on my swing set. In the morning it was warped from dew and I was In Trouble. Perhaps my accidental disrespect for Richard Scarry is why I never wrote in my books in college and now can barely bring myself to sell them to used bookstores. I dream of one day owning a home with a library.

So what do you think? How do you feel about books, what creates those feelings, and do you feel torn between respect for books and respect for art when you see an altered book?

Finally, I'll leave you with "This is Where We Live", a stop-action animation video that brings books to life. How can a book-lover not feel protective about books when, yes, this is the reader's world?


  1. Really visually striking. I remember one book I read in college that, even though it was water-damaged and in three pieces (and pretty tedious to boot) I still couldn't bear to throw out.

    That said, I think that this art is impressive enough to merit the sacrifice!

  2. Jesse -- You should check out the photographer Cara Barer, who takes photos of extremely worn (and often posed/sculpted) books. I think it'd be up your alley.

  3. We're not talking about carving up the last surviving copy of the Gutenberg Bible or the Book of Kells.

    In art school, I caught the college's head librarian throwing culled volumes of a german art encyclopedia set in the dumpster. These were in good condition mostly and contained beautiful engravings.

    At the very least, he should have given them to the students to use for art projects. Better to be cut up and repurposed as art than an ignoble death in a landfill.

  4. Malckie -- yes, though some commenters (on other sites) got pretty worked up seeing dictionaries go under the knife.

    It's true that there's nothing noble about saving a book from an art project only to have it end up in the trash!

  5. I think the video "this is where we live" was amazing. it reminds me of all the stories in these books that we read, but the stories have come out of the books and to life (like they often seem to do in our own minds). I think if you get art out of a book, then good for you. books are for the imagination, and art comes from the imagination. So I think it's a brilliant thing to do.

  6. Wendy--thanks for the tip! I should send her that busted-up copy of Gödel, Escher, Bach that I was talking about in my comment =).

  7. A very thought provoking article. As a book artist, a collager, and a lover of knowledge and I find myself enjoying books in their intentioned state and as artist material.

    For me books seem to fall into two categories: either I think of the book as sacred and I would never dream of ‘damaging’ it, or the book is one that I don’t mind ripping pages out of or altering. But what is it that makes the difference between these types of book?

    I have one book that falls in between: It is an old dictionary that I discovered sitting in someone’s recycling pile, getting damp in the evening rain. I rescued it and shipped across the country (utilizing the postal service’s special rate for books). I love the book for its vintage look and grand size, but I also like it as a source for my collage art. Some of my friends can’t believe I would cut it up. In my art, though, I use the words and images that the dictionary holds to address the sanctification and officialization of knowledge. I like to play with the meaning of things and utilize the text to question our assumptions about meaning and knowledge of the world.

    If a book’s content is deemed outdated or unimportant, it often reaches the status of material waste for most people. Outdated scientific theories or beliefs and values no longer held to be true are discarded along with old books. Therefore, a book, which houses our ideas/values/theories, is an object bursting with potential to be utilized to critically examine knowledge and history in a contemporary paradigm (i.e. as art). The book form itself is ripe to be re-examined exactly because people are so shocked by others’ differing perspective on how a book can be used. Let the artists dissect books, and they will also dissect our society’s deeply held values and beliefs.

    And my ‘sacred’ books? I guess our society still informs my valuing of the book and knowledge, even as I question it…

  8. In my opinion, it comes down to two choices - should an unwanted book be tossed into a landfill or used for art? I would much rather see art, any day...

    Great blog, I'm subscribing to it via Google so I can keep up. *smiles*

  9. LOL; the story of the book in the swing set is mother still gives me hell over a couple of Fairy Tales books I scribbled over when I was 3 years old ;) I guess that's why I haven't shared with her my latest book altering project -I'm still scared of her screaming at me, but I guess you won't tell her so I'll show you. These are the first pages (I have been neglecting working on it for a long time now...)

  10. Well I guess it is, if it's not needed by anyone.

  11. I am in the process of altering a book ( at a quite basic level). I brought a very boring looking book from a junk shop that was the right size and shape, and then had it serveral months before I could bring my self to do the deed. It was incredibly hard to put a knife to the pages of that book. I love books and was brought up not to damage them.

  12. I love books too- I can't begin to count all the books I accidentally damaged as a child by leaving in the treehouse, barn, etc. As an adult, I still have so many books lying around that sometimes get bent when they fall off the bed as I fall asleep reading. I guess I don't really care how it looks or holds up as long as I get to enjoy the contents, and after I am through with it (and it is too rumpled to pass on without embarrassment) I would be thrilled to have the skill to turn it into art.


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