A short film has been made about the rediscovery of four medieval books in the Birkbeck library.
Watch the film here:
Image credit: © 2016 Birkbeck Media Services / Dominic Mifsud
A short film has been made about the rediscovery of four medieval books in the Birkbeck library.
Watch the film here:
Image credit: © 2016 Birkbeck Media Services / Dominic Mifsud
Animation artist Shay Hamias and Birkbeck academic Professor Anthony Bale have been awarded funding by the Leverhulme Trust for a ten-month residency by the artist, to be based in Birkbeck’s School of Arts. Their project will explore medieval manuscripts as a source, inspiration, and critical intertext for contemporary animation.
The project takes as its cue the idea that illustrated manuscripts sought to ‘animate the letter’ – that is, to bring the word to life through visual and media effects. Working with the medieval manuscript holdings of Birkbeck’s library and of other London institutions, Hamias will explore what animation can bring to the vibrant, lively world of the medieval page.
Hamias and Bale are both interested in questions relating to design, ways of reading, and the status of media. Can animation help us see what we can no longer see in medieval books? Can we activate the emotions of a contemporary viewer in similar ways to how our medieval predecessors responded to the illuminated manuscript? What techniques did medieval artists use to animate the mind and communicate via the eyes? What techniques and illusions were used to evoke visual or intellectual ‘movement’? Might animation offer a translation of a medieval mode of viewing, one which is more comprehensible to the modern viewer but based on medieval imagery?
The main outcomes will be
Shay Hamias will take up his residency at Birkbeck in January 2017. For examples of his work click here.
For more details about the Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence scheme click here
This is a video of an event held at Birkbeck, University of London as part of Birkbeck Artsweek (a week of free public arts events which runs annually). It features Professor Anthony Bale and Dr Isabel Davis talking about the Birkbeck manuscript collection, which was recently rediscovered in Birkbeck college library. It was an event held for a general audience. If you’re interested in this, you might also be interested in Anthony’s previous blog post about the books.
Introduction to the event – Isabel Davis
The Birkbeck Books – what they are and where they’ve come from and how they got lost – Anthony Bale (00:56)
Medieval Books of Hours – what they are, how they were used – Isabel Davis (26:00)
It will, of course, be no surprise to textual scholars and members of the Material Texts Network that textual variance is rife in works of contemporary fiction. However, for a number of reasons – pertaining to copyright, digitisation, and an assumption among many hermeneutic/theoretical critics that texts published around the world are self-identical – textual variance remains an under-studied phenomenon for those working on novels that are fresh off the (digital) press.
When I was recently working on David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas , however, I found a range of variants that exceeded my usual expectations of accidentals by quite some range. One of the chapters (‘An Orison of Sonmi ~451’) was almost totally rewritten in US and electronic editions of the text. I decided to investigate this further, even wondering whether the author had deliberately submitted different manuscripts to different publishers in an attempt to play a trans-textual game (the chapter in question does, after all, focus on storing the words of a death-penalty convict within a state archive for preservation and stability).
It turns out, as ever, that the differences are due to a social flaw in the editing process and not due to any technological aspect. Indeed, in 2003, David Mitchell’s editorial contact at the US branch of Random House moved from the publisher, leaving the American edition of Cloud Atlas without an editor for approximately three months. Meanwhile, the UK edition of the manuscript was undergoing a series of editorial changes and rewrites that were never synchronised back into the US edition of the text. When the process was resumed at Random House under the editorial guidance of David Ebershoff, changes from New York were likewise not imported back into the UK edition. In the section entitled ‘An Orison of Sonmi~451’ these desynchronised rewritings are nearly total at the level of linguistic expression between UK and US paperbacks/electronic editions and there are a range of sub-episodes that only feature in one or other of the published editions.
What I really wanted to know here, though, was what these edits actually did to the text. How would close reading be affected by these changes? What was actually different, and where? Since the extent of linguistic changes would be drastic, I compared functional questions and responses in this chapter (which takes the form of an interview). In other words, if, in terms of plot development, a Q&A was doing the same job in both editions, then I marked the sections as identical. I then modified the D3.js Sankey chart software to allow unlinked nodes and… hey presto, we can roughly visualize the changes to the syuzhet introduced through the editorial process.
Reading from top to bottom of this diagram on both sides allows us to see clearly reorderings and omissions between editions.
But… so what? “We” know that texts vary and that this is likely to be the case in the contemporary as much as in medieval studies. But that’s not the case for everyone. Indeed, as James F. English has noted, the canon of contemporary fiction in the academy is broadly determined by the literary prize culture circuit. Yet, with such variance, who can even be sure that all members of an international jury are reading the same text? What about online international book groups? What about local book groups where some readers are using a digital edition? What about the mass of academic criticism that has conducted close reading of one or other versions but never noticed these differences?
So much for close reading…
The full version of the article is available to read at: Eve, Martin Paul, ‘“You Have to Keep Track of Your Changes”: The Version Variants and Publishing History of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas’, Open Library of Humanities, 2 (2016) <http://dx.doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/olh.82>
What is a full page image of the Virgin Mary doing in one of the most defining books of the English Reformation?
Bizarrely, some copies of the 1552 Book of Common Prayer (STC 16280-16280.5) contain a woodcut of the Virgin, with her symbols and names from Canticles in banderols, on one of the final leaves. In his bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer, David N. Griffiths has described the Virgin’s appearance as ‘unexpected’, although offers no further comment or theory as to how this page can have materialised in the book (p. 66). How did this woodcut get there and what does it tell us?
This woodcut is similar to others which make a regular appearance in printed primers made in both France and England for the English market.
The first printed primers, like manuscript books of hours before them, had a distinct emphasis upon devotion to Mary; Eamon Duffy writes, ‘the whole primer was in some sense a Marian prayerbook’, based on the Little Hours of the Blessed Virgin (p. 256). That being the case, Reformed English primers were produced which moved to supplant these ‘traditional’ Latin ones, recognising a popular desire and need for devotional books but supplying, in their place, English ones whose devotions were heavily revised to shape and fit the expectations of Protestant readers.
For example, a ‘Goodly Prymer’ printed by John Byddell for William Marshall in 1535 (STC 15988), whose character Mary C. Erler has described as ‘unequivocally reforming’ (p. 240), was prefaced by an ‘admonition’ to the reader inveighing against Marian prayers, such as the Obsecro te which had had such a prominent place in the medieval book of hours, as idolatrous:
What vanity is promised in the superscription or title before Obsecro te, Domina Sancta Maria? where it is written, that whosoever saith that prayer daily before the image, called the image of our Lady of Pity, shall see the visage of our most blessed Lady, and be warned both of the day, and also of the hour of his death, before he depart out of this world. I pray you, what fondness, or rather madness, is this? (‘A Goodly Prymer’, p. 2).
In her discussion of Byddell’s primer, Christine Peters has argued that Reformed primers urged respect for, even as they rejected devotion to the Virgin Mary; ‘it seems too simplistic,’ she writes, ‘when drawing up a balance sheet of the effects of the Reformation, to assume the ‘loss’ of the Virgin Mary’ (pp. 208 and 215-16).
Yet, the appearance of the woodcut of Mary in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer goes further than the respect Peters finds for the Virgin in this reformed primer. Jayne Wackett, in her study of the counterintuitive cross-over between the image cultures of prayer books from the times of Edward VI and Mary Tudor, has demonstrated that the ‘unexpected’ is remarkably common in mid-sixteenth-century prayer books (pp. 257-8). Yet this full-page devotional image in the Book of Common Prayer is more unexpected even than the illustrated initials she compares. Not only are the Virgin’s names in Latin, rather than English, they also invoke the forms of address in the Obsecro te and other petitionary hymns in the Horae, whose misuse the ‘Goodly Prymer’ attacks.
Curiously, this impression of The Book of Common Prayer with its renegade woodcut was put out by Edward Whitchurche under the Sign of the Sun, an establishment which was inherited from John Byddell: the same printing outfit which had put out the 1535 ‘Goodly Prymer’ (Atkin and Edwards, p. 33). The woodcut may have slipped in, in place of a printer’s emblem, through Whitchurche and Grafton’s previous association with François Regnault; a similar woodcut appears, for example, in Regnault’s English ‘Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use’, printed in Paris in 1531.
Grafton and Whitchurche had collaborated with Regnault in Paris in 1538 on the printing of the Great Bible, an endeavour which was disrupted by the seizure of the pages by Francis I’s Inquisitors of the Faith (Atkin and Edwards, p. 38).
Later, according to John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, Grafton and Whitchurche returned to Paris to get ‘the presses, letters, and servants of the aforesaid printer, and brought them to London’, setting up as printers themselves to produce the Bible they had begun with Regnault (cited in David Scott Kastan, p. 93). Regnault was one of the leading printers of primers for the English market packaging them into ‘lines’ that catered for established as well as emerging religious and readerly tastes (Erler, p. 230). Similarly, and oddly given his energetic involvement in the production of reformed literature in English, in 1536 Byddell produced a Latin primer (STC 15991) in a small sextodecimo format with a distinctly Marian cast.
For Erler, consumer demand led printers like Regnault and Byddell to produce books for people across sectarian lines and a mixed market for devotional books meant that they both produced English and Latin primers (p. 240). The new prayer book replaced books for liturgical use within churches, of course, but also aspired to supplant primers (Duffy, p. 213). Indeed, across the course of 1552 and into the following year, new quarto and octavo editions of the Book of Common Prayer were produced, often bound with the psalter as the primer was, suggesting a targeting of that lay market and an attempt to attach the volume to people, as well as institutions. The woodcut, then, reminds us that, although the prayer book was a product and a driver of hardening sectarian lines, it emerged into a literary market which was driven as much by lay devotional tastes in all their variety as official ecclesiastical need, a need which was more easily directed from the top.
Once a book had reached that lay market, furthermore, it was difficult to govern its use. Consider, for example, the British Library copy of the 1552 prayer book which carries numerous manuscript erasures of King Edward in favour of Queen Mary; the pronouns are also accordingly changed from masculine to feminine (C.25.l.3; STC 16285). Another copy (C.24.a.2) replaces Edward with James, despite its being superseded by an Elizabethan edition. Neither of these readers seems fazed by the obsolecence of their Book. Readers, as well as printers, then, failed to keep books in their true places and, whilst the ‘Goodly Prymer’ complains about the misuse of Catholic prayers in the old primers, misuse was a problem which potentially affected all books however ‘correct’ and whatever their reformed credentials.
It is easy to think about the mid-sixteenth century as a time of clear sectarian lines, when books, their owners and makers took up sides. This unexpected woodcut, a hang-over from a supposedly supplanted age, shows us how hard it was to hold those lines in book production. Print, for all its technological modernity, was still set and pressed by hand and the larger scale of text production amplified the quirks that work by hand admitted. The image of the Virgin Mary in the 1552 Book of Common Prayer is, then, ‘unexpected’ but also typical of a culture which, for all the violence of its religious revolution, sometimes unwittingly readmitted what it sought to delete.
If you liked this, you may also be interested in a related article on the 1552 Book of Common Prayer and the so-called Black Rubric, in Textual Practice, 30:7 (2016). If you don’t have institutional access but would like a copy of this, email me and I will send you a free link (firstname.lastname@example.org)
‘A Goodly Prymer’, in Three Primers put forth in the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. Edward Burton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1834).
Hore beate Marie. ad ritum ecclesie Sarisburiensis, T. Kerver for Francis Bryckman (Paris, 1521). STC 15931.
The boke of common prayer, and administracion of the sacramentes, and other rites and ceremonies in the Churche of Englande (Londini: Edvvardi Whytchurche, 1552); STC 16280.5.
Prayer [sic] of Salysbury use, (François Regnault with Robert Copland: Paris,1531); STC 15974.
Atkin, Tamara and Edwards, A.S.G., ‘Printers, Publishers and Promoters to 1558’, in A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain, 1476-1558, ed. Vincent Gillespie and Susan Powell (D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 2014), 27-44.
Duffy, Eamon The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 (New Haven: Yale, 1992).
Erler, Mary C., ‘The Maner to Lyue Well and the Coming of English in François Regnault’s Primers of the 1520s and 1530s, The Library, s6-VI (1984): 229-43.
Griffiths, David N. The Bibliography of the Book of Common Prayer, 1549-1999 (London: British Library, 2002).
Kastan, David Scott, ‘Print, Literary Culture and the Book Trade’, in The Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature, ed. David Loewenstein, Janel Mueller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 81-116.
Peters, Christine, Patterns of Piety: Women, Gender and Religion in Late Medieval and Reformation England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Wackett, Jayne, ‘Examining the Unexpected: Printed Images in the Prayer Books of Edward VI and the Primers of Mary Tudor’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte – Archive for Reformation History, 105 (2014), 257-83.
When an email came through announcing Professor Elizabeth Robertson’s Matthews lecture in the Senate House on ‘Chaucer and Wordsworth’s Vivid Daisies’, the opportunity to enhance the occasion by displaying a couple of books to allow Chaucer and Wordsworth to speak for themselves through the printed word seemed too good to miss. After all, Senate House Library has strong literary collections, which we want people to be aware of and use.
Selecting an edition of Chaucer for the praise of the daisy in his ‘Legend of Good Women’ was easy. The first edition in which it appeared, the Workes of 1532, appealed to the eye by virtue of being printed in black letter, and exercised all the attraction of the earliest appearance of the work.
This copy of Chaucer’s Workes formerly belonged to Sir Louis Sterling (1879-1958), and the Sterling Library of first and fine editions of English literature turned up trumps again with Wordsworth. But the first edition of Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes (1807), containing his three ‘Daisy’ poems, could not as a drab duodecimo volume be expected to exercise quite the same aura as the Chaucer folio. We played with the idea of showing the facsimile of the manuscript of Poems in Two Volumes, a good way to indicate the creative process, and also to showcase Senate House Library’s palaeography collection. Manuscript facsimiles constitute a significant proportion of this, and this Wordsworth book provides a salutary reminder that these are not exclusively mediaeval. Ultimately I chose A Decade of Years: Poems by William Wordsworth, 1798-1807 (1911). This is a selection of Wordsworth’s poems, mostly composed between 1798 and 1807, arranged to present ‘as a whole and subjectively those special characteristics which make Wordsworth pre-eminently the poet and interpreter of the mysticism of nature, to wit, his own mysticism & oneness with the spirit of the universe, “that impels all thinking things, all objects of all thought, & rolls through all things” …’ (p. ). The volume was printed by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson at the Doves Press, the private press he established with Emery Walker in 1901 to print works of great literature in productions rendered beautiful with type alone, devoid of illustration and other ornament.
The Matthews Lecture is being delivered by Professor Elizabeth Robertson (University of Glasgow), at 5pm 18th November in Beveridge Hall in Senate House, London, WC1E 7HU. It is followed by a wine reception. This event is free and everyone is welcome but you must book a place. You can view the exhibition of books mentioned above in Beveridge Hall.
When is a book not a book? The destruction of a book – through burning, through recycling, through iconoclasm, for instance – places great emphasis on its materiality, its power as a physical object that must be destroyed. Conversely, when nobody knows about a book’s existence, it simply disappears – both the physical book and the textual lives inside it. When a book is unknown and hidden away it is perhaps reduced to the bare facts of its existence: a piece of matter unread, unloved, unvalued, uncatalogued.
Books disappear easily when they are not catalogued; it is through catalogues and finding aids that medievalists find their sources. When I joined Birkbeck College as a lecturer in 2002, I was excited to find that the College owned one manuscript, which I knew about from Neil R. Ker’s magisterial four-volume catalogue, Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. But time passed, I became diverted by other projects, and I never got round to looking at the manuscript. And then I more or less forgot about it.
This year I have been teaching a class on ‘Medieval Material Texts’ for students on Birkbeck’s MA in Medieval Literature & Culture. It struck me that it would be so much easier to talk about medieval books if one had one to show to the students – to talk about the binding, the physical construction of a book, the stains and the damage, the signs of a book’s lived life, as well as the text, the decoration, the illustration. So, somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered Ker’s description of one manuscript, and looked it up, and sent an email off to my subject-librarian at Birkbeck’s library.
It was as much as a surprise to the College as it was to me to discover that Birkbeck houses a small collection of not one but four medieval books (three manuscripts and one incunabulum). I quickly arranged to view the books, three of which have not been catalogued and do not seem to have been viewed since around 1991. The books comprise a sort of ‘capsule collection’: they represent several important developments in European religious culture, in book history, and in literary tastes.
The books are:
The Birkbeck Hours (sine numero): a beautiful small book of hours, from northern France, dated to c. 1400.
MS L.I: the rules and customs of the Capitoli della Compagnia di S. Girolamo of Siena, dated to the early fifteenth century.
MS 108.C: a manuscript of the Sententiae Sapientiae, attributed to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Seneca, and which once belonged to the Monastery of St Zeno, Verona; dated to c. 1450.
Dictys Cretensis & Dares Phrygius (sine numero): a skin-bound volume, a much-read history of the Trojan War, printed at Venice, 1499.
One of the manuscripts, the Birkbeck Hours, was given to the College in 1977 by the widow of Dr Charles Fox (1897-1977), a lecturer at Birkbeck who later became a distinguished mathematician at Concordia University in Montreal. How the other three manuscripts reached Birkbeck is not known at present, although we do know that MS L.I was purchased by the College in the 1950s, probably to be used as a teaching aid. Ownership inscriptions in MS 108.C show that, in the nineteenth century, it belonged to a Peter John Bruff and, later, the Victorian scholar and antiquarian R. A. H. Bickford-Smith (1859-1916).
The books open a window onto readers and writers from hundreds of years ago; by coming back into public view, they can delight and instruct again. A more detailed examination of the books will, in time, yield much more about the lives these fascinating books have lived, and continue to live.
NB: The books are not currently available for public view, but it is hoped that a digitisation project will make them available online in due course.
Sluice is a radical four-day art event that questions the role of the contemporary art fair. Taking place during Frieze Week, Sluice acts as a refreshing counterbalance to the corporate manufactured glamour of the Frieze Art Fair. This year Sluice is located on the South Bank in London’s iconic Bargehouse building at Oxo Tower Wharf. Throughout the weekend there will be performances, screenings, talks and a collection of artist-run spaces and galleries exhibiting new and challenging work. Unlike Frieze, entry is free. Spiralbound will be at the Sluice Art Fair throughout, displaying our range of recently published books.
Spiralbound is a non-profit artists’ publishing project exploring the influence of new digital technologies on the material presence of the book. Strongly supported by London gallery studio1.1. and existing as an offshoot of Susak Press, we work with artists and writers who want to use the book medium to experiment beyond, and challenge their usual practice. By subverting the capabilities of digital print on demand, the project’s aim is to publish book editions that remain uncompleted and in flux as we allow our authors the opportunity to re-shape and interfere with the book’s original version. Spiralbound is investigating how new digital technologies influence the way in which we read literary texts and how new digital influence is encouraging experimentation with the materiality of the book.
Spiralbound holds events throughout the year and at each event we launch new titles and also new editions of existing books. Our authors have the freedom to re-visit, edit and make a new edition of their book by adding or taking away image and text. As a result, the books Spiralbound produces reveal successive drafts and stages of an author’s work in progress. This allows the reader to collect and compare different versions of each book. By producing non-static content, Spiralbound is channeling performance and the immediacy of the live event into the book’s materiality whilst attempting to capture the flick and switch and pause and collect of internet-centered new digital media. For example in Manifesto (Daniel Devlin, John Hughes and Keran James), blurred images of unheralded literary and artistic figures of the twentieth and twenty-first century are uploaded and updated in each printing. These recycled and found images are juxtaposed with a collaborative group hacking and re-writing of an experimental text. Similarly, Skip I Am Far Above You (Keran James) unpacks and transforms internet spam into a piece of (in)coherent storytelling.
Books, like painting and sculpture, invite us to get our hands dirty unlike the clinical touch and trace of digital surfaces. The materiality of new digital technologies, from the click of a mouse, to the thin peel of a protective iPad cover, to the buzz of a mobile on vibrate, are making contemporary writers and artists more conscious of the physical aesthetic of the book form. What connects the Spiralbound books is an engagement with the boundaries between fiction and reality. Both Socrates (Daniel Devlin) and Manifesto of A Tranny (Brian Dawn Chakley) capture live performance by combining text and video stills but it is unclear if these grainy images are depicting events that were stage managed, accidents or if they even took place. Biographies (Ghazal Mosadeq) plays with the recording and fabrication of fictional authors’ real life stories. Many Weathers Wildly Comes (Carol Watts) captures the practicality of an everyday walk yet is recorded through the blurred snapshots of a London dreamscape. Lamping Out The Trains part 1 (The RMT Jubilee South Branch Audio and Film Collective) combines oral recollections with fragments of radical London literature addressing themes of nostalgia, trauma and left-wing melancholia through a manipulation of found audio, film and text. The Glass Slipper (Athanasia Hughes) is a futuristic satire on consumerism and fashion and our increasing dependency on technology, yet the story is told through a relationship with a hologram.
Computer software programmes and applications like Photoshop or Final Cut have appropriated the visual materials traditionally related to books through their use of cut and paste, scrolls, paper clips and page turning. Digital Media theorist Lev Manovich states that ‘many new media objects are converted from various forms of old media’ (Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, 2001; p. 28). For example, a webpage can be read like a photograph album or an iPad application similar to a pack of playing cards (Manovich, p. 220). At the same time, archived text messages and emails cease to be emails. Rather they take on the form of a photograph, becoming a screen shot frame that has fleetingly captured a moment of a past life. This peculiar digital aesthetic is the essence of Spiralbound. Taking something fluid and in motion, freezing it, observing and considering it, watching it but allowing it to develop and evolve. As a result each book acts as a snapshot of live text, a fleeting moment in our spiral bound times.
Spiralbound books, therefore, exist in an in–between world. The books are produced and bound professionally yet they are determinedly not part of commercial publishing. These books cannot be found in bookshops. In a way they don’t really exist, as they have no ISBNS. Yet neither are they Artist Books. There may not be many copies but they are not limited editions. Print on demand allows easy access and production, and all Spiralbound books are sold at £5. They are not zines or pamphlets but borrow the DIY spirit of Punk. Just as Sluice is re-positioning and challenging the contemporary art fair, so Spiralbound, by responding to the influence of new digital technologies, is helping to re-position the Artist Book.
Spiralbound will be at Sluice Art Fair 16 – 18 October 2015
11 – 6pm
Bargehouse, Oxo Tower Wharf, South Bank
To see a preview of the books at Spiralbound please visit:
Chris Ware, Building Stories (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012). A piece of work produced as part of The Book Unbound module at Birkbeck run by Dr Luisa Calé.
Chris Ware’s Building Stories (2012) is a graphic novel presented and sold in a box. Following in the footsteps of Marc Saporta’s Composition No.1 (1961), B.S Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969) and Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch (1966) Ware’s Building Stories is an example of a contemporary novel that subverts the materiality of the book. The box is 42cm in length x 29cm wide x 4.5cm deep and has the appearance of a board game. Martha Kuhlman has suggested that the design of the box creates a parallel with French avant-garde comics group ‘Oubapo’ which means ‘workshop of potential comics’; she writes, ‘[f]or Ware and the French cartoonists, comics become a kind of game in which one can manipulate and test the limits of the medium’ (The Comics Journal, 8th October 2014). In Ware’s Building Stories the game we are being asked to play concerns the anxiety of story making itself. It demands the reader’s participation, forcing us to build the stories physically. Visually it re-creates childhood memories of playing board games yet this is a game we play on our own. On the base of the box a diagram instructs the reader to open the lid and further separate its contents by depositing the materials in specific locations such as the kitchen drawer, the bookshelf or underneath a table. This diagram serves as a clue to one of the book’s central themes: our relationship with buildings especially the family home.
Inside the box are fourteen different pieces (tabloids, pamphlets, comic books, booklets, flip books, a poster, two hardcover books and accordion book). This generous wealth of materials immediately recreates the essence of Sunday newspapers, with their numerous sections, advertising leaflets and supplement magazines. The box’s contents consist of stories recalling the loss of romance, sex, childhood, virginity, home equity, ambition, creativity and the lost dream of being an artist. Seen mostly through the eyes of Ware’s female protagonist, we witness the loss of family members, friends and pets (her Dad, Stephanie and the cat), the loss of relationships and friendships (her first boyfriend the life model and her friendship with Stephanie) and even the loss of her leg (through a childhood accident). By physically scattering these materials of individual loss out of the box we re-enact the characters’ pain and re-make the book as performance.
Within the loose layers of Building Stories are two bound hardback books. Both books engage with the idea of the book as a private and personal object. Through its dimensions and gold leaf spine, the smaller book replicates in appearance the Little Golden Book Series so evocative of American childhoods. Inside the front cover is a pattern of leafy vines, flowers, animals and a space for the reader to sign their name as if it were a child’s diary. This design challenges notions that comics are for children only. The sense of diary adds a visual outer layer to the theme inside, which is a story of three different lives acted out within 24 hours. It is the only material that is dated (23rd September 2000) within the box and each page is represented by one hour through the numbers of a clock, starting at 12am and finishing at 11pm. The final page is dated April 20th 2005, 3pm and shows a young woman returning in a car with a baby to the house where she once lived, which is now for sale. The other hardback looks and feels like either an artist’s sketchbook or a banking clerk’s accounts ledger. It is A4 size, has a beige cloth binding and a sea green colouring. The secrecy (there is no information anywhere on the cover) engineered through its appearance symbolises the account or portrait of the young woman’s life: she remains unnamed throughout the collection of materials.
The accordion book is the material most like an object, and can work as an object on permanent display exhibited out of the box like a sculpture, rather like John Baldessari’s Artist Book The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1988) displayed at museums such as MOMA (New York) and the Victoria and Albert (London). Unfolded and free standing Building Stories can be read like a surgical screen. On the front are stories and clues about the house. It works almost as a pop-up theatre, a backdrop to the layers of other materials. The pages are not separate; rather, they connect into one another and therefore can be read as interlocking sequences or as a whole image, like a cinema screen. The diagrams on the reverse side work like mind maps to the internal prisons of the house. If the reader interacts with the accordion (and pushes the walls in) it becomes like the house itself, an upright 3-dimensional rectangle with four enclosing walls, an inverted house where the images and story and characters lives are on the inside.
The images of characters reading iPads, iPhones and iMacs throughout Building Stories show Ware engaging with the contemporary culture of consumer digital technology within relationships. In the ‘Disconnect/ Browsing’ booklet, presented in A4 comic strip format, Ware draws images of couples in bed, with a glass of wine, at meal times, in the supermarket, always with a tablet or smartphone in hand. The screens are drawn blank and therefore become portraits (shiny blank computer screens reflect and act as mirrors). These representations of shiny, expensive objects are in stark contrast to the raw materials of the codex format in which the novel is presented. Yet within the comic’s panels the images of the different rooms in the house reveal no books. It is as if books no longer exist. Is Ware warning that books and print are no longer relevant and are being replaced by digital tablets? The only time the female narrator picks up a book she describes it as a dream. Ware is thus contrasting the cold material of technology with other? materials rich in texture and physicality. Within these physical, sculptural forms he draws the clinical, cruel image of a naked man on bed glaring at an empty screen as his partner look on, naked, clothes stripped to her feet. This image is what Ware has done to the materiality of the book: undressed, shredded and stripped of its bindings to a raw, naked, dis-connected self.
The ‘Browsing’ booklet shows the unnamed woman dreaming of being surrounded by books. We know it is set in the future because her daughter is a grown woman and her husband the architect is referred to in the past. Drawn through twelve square panels she is pictured walking amongst shelves of books with the line: ‘One of those big chain bookstores that don’t exist anymore’. There is a sense that books and bookshops no longer exist, replaced by our ‘browsing’ of digital technologies. Ware draws her bending down, rummaging through a bright red box on a grey floor.
‘And it wasn’t…I dunno…it wasn’t really a book, either…it was in…pieces, like…Books falling apart out of a carton…’
The box of Building Stories and its loose materials is therefore involved in the text. Yet it is depicted as a dream. A fantasy image of loose liberated sheets of writing materials falling into space surrounded and watched by the packed shelves of a forgotten bookstore.
Chris Ware’s Building Stories is a contemporary graphic novel that subverts the materiality of the book. Ware achieves this aim by gathering the raw materials of the codex and presenting these materials as unbound layers in a cardboard box. As a consequence his material has a non-linear narrative and embraces a discontinuous reading. Through the nature of its physicality it challenges the reader to participate with the book’s materiality. By doing so the reader, through an act of performance disguised as reading, mirrors the book’s theme of characters connecting and dis-connecting, of human isolation, and material and physical loss.
Ware is also a rare example of a contemporary artist who uses the medium of the newspaper as an outlet for his work. The materials of Building Stories have appeared scattered in newspapers and magazines such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Chicago Reader long before the ‘Box Set’ of Building Stories was published in 2012. His latest work The Last Saturday has appeared every Friday since September 2014 solely for The Guardian website. This on-going project can be read as a sign of Ware’s growing engagement with the materiality of new digital technologies (as seen in Building Stories). By continuing his subversion of the book form on a digital media platform, Ware is connecting to a global audience, creating new forms of readership.
This post introduces an exhibition to coincide with the Biennial London Chaucer Conference on the theme of Science, Magic and Technology. It runs from 29th June to 12th July at Senate House library.
Senate House Library often puts on displays to support conferences. It’s a win-win situation: the conference is enhanced by the books or manuscripts shown, and the Library demonstrates a sample of the richness of its holdings and the relevance of its material for research. This is the second time that it is supporting the biennial London Chaucer conference. Last time it exhibited a range of editions of Chaucer, from Richard Pynson’s 1492 printing of the Canterbury Tales onwards, and including private press editions noteworthy for their production as ‘books beautiful’. This time we broadened the display to fit the theme of ‘Science, Magic and Technology’, focussing on the science – more specifically, on astronomy and astrology.
We still showed a couple of early editions of Chaucer: his Workes from about 1550 (ESTC S122266), open at the ‘Knight’s Tale’ because that tale is rich in astrological symbolism, and the Workes from 1532 (the first complete edition of Chaucer) because it provides the earliest printed appearance of Chaucer’s Treatise of the Astrolabe. And we fetched out some other examples of medieval literature: a 1554 edition of Gower’s Confessio Amantis (in part imbued with astrology), and an illustrated edition of Dante’s Comedy from 1544, showing Dante’s paradise of nine concentric circles around the earth.
But we also used early scientific works. Possibly the rarest item, and the item with the most illustrative appeal, is Philosophia Naturalis, by Paul of Venice (ca 1368-1428), printed in Paris in about 1515. Despite its comprehensive title, this book comprises just one work, De Compositione Mundi – an abbreviated Latin version of the thirteenth-century monk Ristoro d’Arezzo’s Composizione del Mondo, written in about 1282. The Composizione, itself based on work by Ptolemy, Aristotle, Averroes and others, is the first astronomical work to have been written in Italian; a further claim to fame is that it may have influenced Dante, who influenced Chaucer.
Visit the exhibition at Senate House Library (4th floor, Senate House), 29 June – 12 July 2015. Available during Senate House Library opening hours: Mon. – Fri. 9.00-17.45; Sat. 9.45-17.15.