Altered Books: Blasphemy or Creativity?

08 September 2011


Cluster of toadstools with thin strands of greens growing from bottom right; August, 2011;© Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2011


In July the Book Review of the Sunday New York Times pranced out a new column called “Reading Life.” On August 28 Geoff Dyer, the column’s author, wrote about the “The Well-Read Book As a Thing of Beauty.” Clearly, books are a treasure to him, but he realizes that each of us has a different relationship with the content as well as the physical structure–that is, how we care, read and maintain our shelves and stacks of them.

Most of us are familiar with school books being highlighted or secondhand books being underscored and tattooed with our individual markings. The purist will leave the pages as snow-white as the day the book was acquired. Dyer equates the worn-out book with one that is enjoyed for its own sake. The human touch infiltrates and leaves clues that become part of the book’s beauty. But he confesses that he now is “reluctant to read a book that shows any sign of prior occupancy.” Dyer’s discussion of our invasion of printed material is a pussy-cat approach compared to the manipulation and obliteration accomplished by artists and others who intentionally use the book as their canvas, deconstructing and reconstructing.

His article refreshed my memory about a books arts course that I took five years ago–the week-long course changed my view of the preciousness and vulnerability of printed material. Here is an excerpt (in bold) from an essay that I wrote as a reaction to the class:

Is it possible to bring new life to an old worn paperback or ragged hardbound?  Yes, of course, it is. I watched as a young art teacher revived two different paperback editions of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. This renewal or restoration became more like a travelogue of her trip to China.

This was a book altering with meaning and purpose, but I suspect that any artist who uses this technique is neither haphazard nor indecisive about choices to incorporate in the alteration.

Then I returned to yesteryear, and a time when I committed some form of blasphemy. With serious intentions I’d take pen in hand to underline and leave notes on individual pages. Then I reformed, and used the blank last page of the book to jot down ideas and quotes for future or immediate reference. Post-it notes also were employed, but later I decided they can easily tear a page. Eventually, I abandoned the inside markings, and now stick with pencil notations on post-its piled on top of each other or sheets of paper.

It’s really all in our heads, because paperbacks (for example) are produced for one or two readings. They are not made for longevity. It’s the hardbound that is meant to endure.

Nothing is sacred once it gets into the hands and imagination of an artist. A sentence or even a few words on a page can be isolated for meaning or not, and the rest can be covered with collage, paint or cut into shreds. Sometimes whole chunks of pages are removed to make room for the stuff added to the altered pages.

Does the obliteration of an author’s text mean blasphemy? Or once purchased is a book the property of the owner to do with as seen fit? Does the author give up “rights” to the words on the printed page? Does copyright apply? Up pops the concept of altering books. To see the entire essay, please go to my Homepage and click on Writings, 1970s-2010. Scroll to 04 August 2011.

Once again I started to ponder the whole subject of tampering and tinkering with the inside and outside of a book. The class opened my vision to the inner workings of bookbinding and construction by hand of an entire book. The very nature of a book should be sacred ground, but human nature chimes into any territory it pleases. We make and we deconstruct. We deconstruct and we reinvent. It’s the path toward innovation. Please see British artist Tom Phillips’ site ( show.html) and cast your eyes on his slide show about his treated book based on a Victorian novel. His work made me “fall” for the artistry of altered books.

Now I wanted to find the children’s book that I used for my first altered book. I began its alteration (sounds like a garment that needs fixing) about three years ago, and never completed the job. I scoured my bookshelves upstairs and down for it. Or to find another candidate, but walked away empty-handed. But I intend to take a worn-out paperback as my raw material, and transform it into something of lasting memory.

Books take us into quiet anticipation. They’re silent (and sometimes auditory) communicators that give us so much more than we give them. The debate about the future of the printed book continues. Our social landscape mixed with cultural technology produced the e-book. Can you alter a Kindle-read book? Can you take notes on it? Does it matter?

The world of books is changing and rearranging how we perceive them. To grab a book from a bookstore (Thankfully, they still exist.), and hold that precious commodity fills me with wonder. Once read and sequestered to retirement that same book could be transported into another form of communication.

So blasphemy or creativity: It’s probably both.

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