Janet McAllister on the arts
Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Deconstructing the notion of hard copy

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Courtly bibliophiles complain: 'Books are now being massacred for crafts.' But is it book-burning or rubbish-bin rescuing? Photo /Terry Lobb
Courtly bibliophiles complain: 'Books are now being massacred for crafts.' But is it book-burning or rubbish-bin rescuing? Photo /Terry Lobb

Fifteen years ago, in the BE era - Before e-books - American writer Anne Fadiman suggested there were two ways to love a book. Those who practise "courtly love" use bookmarks and would never leave a book splayed face down, lest it crack the spine; for courtly lovers, "a book's physical self [is] sacrosanct ... its form inseparable from its content". Carnal lovers, on the other hand, love their books to pieces of dog-eared marginalia. Fadiman was brought up to believe "hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy".

But now that you can peruse a book's electronic content without holding its physical form - immensely exciting for researchers, self-publishers and heavy book-bag carriers - another couple of bibliophile methods have blossomed. They're more book fetish than book love, for those who worship the physical book as an object rather than focusing on what's printed inside.

The first fetish mirrors courtly love; it emphasises biblio-accoutrements and the beauty and possibility of the book form. At the substantial, serious end, you can study book history and press-printing at the University of Otago's 2-year-old Centre for the Book. At the frivolous end, the internet (ironically) is full of lists of creative bookends, bookplates, bookbinding and "18 Insanely Cool Bookshelves You'll Want To Own". They really are insanely cool, even those that can only hold a couple of books. Interior design, not book storage, is the main aim. Best buy new books chosen by size and colour to finish the look.

This is fun, but it can also get a little weird. For example, a book called My Ideal Bookshelf, illustrated by Jane Mount, mostly contains paintings of the spines of other books. You can order gift cards, notebooks and prints of the illustrations - you can even order a custom painting of the spines of your own most significant books.

I have visions of these things being hung in rooms containing no actual books. It reminds me of going into a bookshop a dozen years ago and finding Winnie-the-Pooh soft toys, stationery, mugs and simplified retellings - but nothing written by A.A. Milne.

The second fetish mirrors carnal love: people tearing up books to create art. Recently Canadian Jori Phillips constructed an intricate cocktail frock out of an old thesaurus ("ghastly get-up-and-go genius garland" reads the bodice). Other artists - such as Brian Dettmer and Kerry Miller - keep the exterior structure of old natural histories, anatomy textbooks and cookbooks as frames for their Peter Madden-like collages of the books' butterfly, organ and roast chicken illustrations. Still others sculpt whole stacks of books into abandoned skyscraper cities (Liu Wei) and life-size Buddha heads (Long-Bin Chen).

Then there's "How to make an e-reader cover from an old hardback". Sacrilegious! The courtly bibliophiles complain: "Books are now being massacred for crafts." But is it book-burning or rubbish-bin rescuing? One book artist, Cara Barer, claims "no important books have been injured" in her work. The comment was made: "Unless, of course, one feels a primer on Windows 95 is important." Personally, I prefer books on screens to books on software.

- NZ Herald

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