Small Chirp: The Book as Artifact

From the desk of Melissa, the Library Canary:

There’s so much talk about the future of books lately. As readers turn increasingly to electronic alternatives to paper and the internet book-trade, the usual fingernail-nibbling questions emerge. What will happen to the book?  What will happen to brick-and-mortar libraries and bookstores?

Maybe books will become our bricks and mortar.

A recent trip to Vancouver, BC had me pondering the idea of the book as artifact. In Vancouver, book-oracles seemed to whisper from every street corner, prophesying the destinies of our discarded, unwanted and remaindered books. Here is what they showed me:

The Book Beyond Art:

An art installation at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia suggests one possibility. “Window” is part of a previous exhibition, a retrospective of works by the Uruguayan Conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer. Below, you can see how a window has been filled in with a layering of concrete and paperback books.

Camnizter has installed several such pieces at various locations around the world. The Belkin gallery’s decision to permanently house this piece seems fortuitously appropriate for the exhibition that follows: Canadian artist Michael Morris, famous for his concrete poetry, showcases the movement that blurs the lines between visual art and literature, experimenting with literature’s physicality.

But the booked-up window is not solely art. As critic Richard Leslie notes in Art Nexus, the book’s objectivity takes on different meaning in Camnitzer’s hands: “As a printmaker Camnitzer was one of the earliest artists to be aware of the possibilities of copies as a concept, thus a vehicle for critique in object-oriented cultures…Camnitzer has consistently made a case for understanding Latin American conceptualism as different in its greater concentration on a local context of social problems rather than the US/capitalist focus on loss of the object or dematerialization.”

The Dematerialization & Re-materialization of the Book:

Dematerialization takes on another aspect in Gastown, the recently-revamped portion of downtown Vancouver now aglitter with glitzy, expensive boutique and designer shops. In the spare, hipster-minimalist aesthetic of LYNNSteven boutique, a tower of repurposed airport novels can almost go unnoticed, until you step into the dressing room. The cylindrical room’s walls are entirely constructed from the paperbacks, their cream-colored edges turned outward to give the look of a discrete screen or curtain.

The phrase ‘tower of books’ takes on new meaning just a few blocks away, at MacLeods, a popular used-book store and the stuff of a claustrophobe’s nightmares. Wading in between the precarious stacks in the basement, I wondered how long it would take the store’s owners to discover me if a stack suddenly collapsed.

Which reminds me, in turn, of volunteering for a book sale at a small-town library in California. The Friends of the Library collected used books for months, stockpiling them in large storage containers in the parking lot. The day before the sale, I helped unpack and organize the books onto banquet tables. Over the course of the weekend, bargain-hunters did their best to carry off a sizable quantity, benefiting the library in the process. A few savvy dealers even brought along their phones to scan barcodes and determine profitability, selecting and loading boxes full of books into their overloaded hatchbacks and driving them off to uncertain destinations.

Yet even with the help of these ruthless young book dealers, the non-profit was still left with thousands of unwanted books. Beyond a nominal amount, no area thrift stores would accept the remaining books. Without the staffing to sort and mail the valuable books to potential internet buyers; without the shelf space in an already-threatened small public library branch; without the funds to pay for recycling, the Friends were virtually forced to dump the books.

In this light, the creative reuse of unwanted books begins to look not only like an appealing alternative but also as inevitable in tomorrow’s book-saturated future. desk at Delft University, Netherlands
Image from Inhabitat Gallery

Tower of Babel made of books, Buenos Aires
from Web Urbanist

Pieces by Swiss artist Jan Reymond, installations at annual book fest

Images at Book Patrol and Boston Book Bums

What’s your take on the book as artifact? What are some of your favorite examples of creative or purposeful reuse?


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2 thoughts on “Small Chirp: The Book as Artifact

  1. I love my books as conveyors of stories, but I have to admit to loving them in these configurations as well. (This is my introduction to books used in this manner, so I’ll have to ponder the question further!)

    • I love seeing the use of everyday objects presented in news ways, and there is something so bittersweet about seeing books repurposed in this manner. I still don’t know how I feel about it in the abstract, but I always appreciate seeing new examples of it. 🙂

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