27 October 2005

Italo Calvino and decorative books

One of the books I have recently read is Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, published in 1979. It reads like a grab-bag of literary styles from the late 70s.* Each time the protagonist gets his hands on a book it somehow vanishes after the first chapter. As he searches for the rest of the book he finds another, even more interesting book to pursue. Along the way, while confronting many of postmodernism's conundrums, he meets a person, Irnerio, who doesn't read at all--who deliberately unlearned the skill of reading. I'd like to have him try my test.

Anyway, later in the book, the protagonist bumps into him again, and they have the following conversation. The protagonist is waiting in the home of a mutual friend, Ludmilla, when Irnerio walks in and starts looking for a book. Beginning on page 148, protagonist speaking:

"I thought you never read."
"It's not for reading. It's for making. I make things with books. I make objects. Yes, artworks: statues, pictures, whatever you want to call them. I even had a show. I fix the books with mastic, and they stay as they were. Shut, or open, or else I give them forms, I carve them, I make holes in them. A book is a good material to work with; you can make all sorts of things with it."
"And Ludmilla agrees?"
"She likes my things. She gives me advice. The critics say what I do is important. Now they're putting all my works in a book . . . A book with photographs of all my works. When the book is printed, I'll use it for another work, lots of works. Then they'll put them in another book, and so on."

For all I know, making art out of books was a completely original idea in 1979. It is possible. Anyway, it seems that even if one isn't using books as a medium, books are never the less very important.

Ann Hamilton's installation Tropos, for example, featured among many other things, a reader steadily burning out the words of a book as s/he read. At first I really wanted to know which book was being destroyed. It seemed very important to know which text was being banished out of Hamilton's carefully crafted environment. But from everything I have read it really
doesn't matter.

That seemed really strange to me, and it still makes me wonder a bit. Like most of us (or so I would imagine) I am accustomed to words being very important, and to have a book at the center (literal if not figurative) of a work and have it not matter what that book was or what was written in it . . . well, lets just say the idea takes a bit of getting used to. Meaningless text is a major postmodern theme and so I guess it fits.

Books as a vehicle toward an aesthetic conclusion aren't lost on these folks though. Maybe Irnerio will give them a call.

*just a warning: some of these styles contain what some would call questionable or outright pornographic content, so don't take this post as a blanket endorsement of the book.

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