A Book of the Book:
Some Works and Projections About the Book and Writing,
edited by Jerome Rothenberg and Steven Clay. New York: Granary Books, 2000.
You are not reading a book.
What makes you so sure of that? Is it the size of the page? The number of pages? The paper? The content? The title? Samizdat is Russian for self-published, which is what you have to become when the government controls the press (or when commerce, careerism, or community morals do). The first samizdat were typed carbons, definitely not books, just as the Samizdat you are holding now is definitely not the usual literary journal. Does that affect how you read it? Does it change the meaning or value of these words?
I am reading a book called A Book of the Book. It is a book, not the book, which suggests it is not definitive. But it is a book of the book. Is that The Book, as in the Good Book? Or, perhaps, the Book of Nature, God’s creation (as opposed to man’s)? Or, maybe, some version of Mallarmé’s “ideal Book, the Book to end all books,” which is described and excerpted by Richard Sieburth in A Book of the Book? Is it, mayhap, none of these mighty Books but simply “The Book as Physical Object” (Keith A. Smith)? Or, more complexly, the book as social construct? The conventional book? The unconventional book? The book as trope? The trope as book? The medium as message? (Like the message you hold in your hands: a literary journal that vaguely resembles a newspaper and is called Samizdat.)
A Book of the Book poses all these questions about the book and raises many others as well. Can Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden be a book? (Read the photographs of Robin Gillanders to find out.) Do paintings that simulate African-American quilts (like those of Faith Ringgold) qualify as books? Do man (and woman)-made tracks that tell a story? (The stories are retraced in Nancy Munn’s “Guruwari Designs” for your appraisal.) Can a book be made of soap or of cows? Thomas A. Volger (“When a Book is Not a Book”) suggests they can. Can one be made of beans–or is that full of beans? (Consult “On The Book of the Bean” by Alison Knowles for some answers). How about 150 copies of a 7-foot sheet of paper folded into 22 panels that when unfolded and lined up vertically are as tall as the Eiffel Tower? Would it be a tower of books? (Check out A Books’s 4-color, 2-foot version of this Blaise Cendrars/Sonia Delaunay collaboration, La Prose du Transsiberien, and decide for yourself.)
Dear Reader, have you had it with all these questions? Do you want to “run like water from steep shores after a storm, when [you] hear Question’s horn beblown,” as Dieter Roth does in “Introduction to Books and Graphic? “But Answer is fat and mad, too,” adds Mr. Rot (his alternate spelling). It affixes you unless, emulating Keith Smith, you ask “If a broadside is folded into quarters and then eighths, is it then a book instead of a poster?” not for the definitive answer but “as a foundation from which [to] depart.” And what of the unnamed questioner in Jerome McGann’s “Composition As Explanation (of Modern and Postmodern Poetries)” who repeatedly interrupts the discourse? McGann calls this “textus interruptus”: a message and method. That being so, it is best to ignore the random access capability of the book and read this one start to finish– to ensure being of the book.
* Why create an anthology of the book? “A Humument,” says its author Tom Phillips, “exemplifies the need to ‘do’ structuralism, and (as there are books both of and on philosophy) to be of it rather [than] on it.” Rothenberg and Clay likewise want all of the bookish effects and potentialities they address to be experienced not merely envisioned. The genitive “of” bespeaks possession, internalization, an unmediated immediacy and self-referentiality that about and on do not. “About” and “on” promise theory, history, classification. A Book of the Book offers this and much more: Derrida, Barthes, Blanchot (the usual suspects), Borges, and Bernstein for theory. A chronology of essays on writers from Blake to the Postmoderns for history. And for classification, an array of book types described by experts (the artist book by Johanna Drucker, novelty books by Martha Carothers, Max Ernst’s The Hundred Headless Woman by André Breton). There are also exempla in abundance: an illustrated page from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, photographs of installation books, even complete books within the book. “Gifts,” Rothenberg calls them: the Cendrars/Delaunay broadside and Jess’s O! These alone make the collection worth having.
You also get an old-fashioned plethora of “Pre-Faces”: Rothenberg on the poetics and ethnopoetics of the book (and of this book); Derrida on Jabes; Jabes himself; a poem by Anne Waldman; essays about printing, reading, and the materiality of books. These multiple prefaces conjure bookishness, of course. More important, they initiate motifs that appear in various combinations throughout the collection. The motifs contribute to the genitive immediacy and fluidity of A Book of the Book by virtue of their apparently artless intertextuality. The theme of text as score, for example, first surfaces in Karl Young’s marvelous “Notation and the Art of Reading.” Young describes the reading conventions of Mexico in 1500, China in 810, England in 1620, and North America in 1983. In the first three times and places, slow reading and meditating were the norms necessitated by orthography: iconographic in Mexico, calligraphic in China. In seventeenth-century England, quill pens, the vagaries of early printing, and the lack of orthographic standards made alphabetic English slow going as well. Since the oral culture had not yet been supplanted by the book culture, “A written poem was essentially a record of spoken verse and a score that could enable a reader to recreate it” (italics mine). Young’s reminder that reading is not always and everywhere silent, solitary speed-reading provides a context for the complexities of contemporary poetry, for both performance poetry and concrete poetry, and for other textual scores, like Mallarmé’s Un Coup de des, which Maurice Blanchot describes as “a musical score or a painting to be read and a poem to be contemplated”.
Mallarmé runs through A Book of the Book like a song in your head, or like a river, sometimes underground, but often visible and turbulent. It is Mallarmé, after all, who predicted the crise de vers in an age of mechanical reproduction, who conceived of the book as spiritual instrument, who said the world exists to end up as a book. Mallarmé understood the tension between the liberating question and the entrenching answer as the tension between chance and necessity. “A throw of the dice will never do away with chance,” he wrote. The tensions inherent in the book–between what it contains and what it unleashes, between its material limitations and the experiments that explode them, between the spoken and the written word–are motifs here as well. Behind Susan Howe’s contention that “‘Authoritative readings’ [of Emily Dickinson] confuse her nonconformity,” for example, is the tension between fluid manuscript and codified book. Howe is speaking of the editorial erasures of Dickinson’s punctuation, word choices, and what might be called “scoring” marks. Like A Book of the Book, Dickinson’s writing, “is a premeditated immersion in immediacy, ” but one that the slavish application of publishing conventions largely destroyed. As much as anything else, A Book of the Book is an argument against narrow definitions of book that lead to codification at the expense of genuine (and therefore fluid) authenticity.
It is this argument against the definitive that explains the rather diffident subtitle: “Some Works and Projections About the Book and Writing” (italics mine). Diffidence to the contrary, A Book of the Book clearly speaks its message: the primacy of poetry (prose works are barely mentioned) and the need to think outside the box of the book. The precedent for such thinking is the book as conceived in other cultures and times, examples of which abound in A Book of the Book. Ironically, this message is loud and clear exactly because it is in a book that when read conventionally from cover to cover is cumulative and therefore compelling.
There are books that take a lifetime and books that are a lifetime: Anne Waldman’s poem “My Life a Book”; the illustrated and fanciful multivolumed autobiography created by Adlof Wolfi while a patient in a Swiss asylum; Tom Phillips’s A Humument. Phillips draws his work from the writings of a relatively unknown British essayist named W.H. Mallock, in order, he says, “to write poetry while not in the real sense of the word being a poet.” For nearly half a century, Rothenberg has been, in every sense, a poet. He is also, according to Charles Bernstein, “the greatest American anthologist of the postwar years.” Indeed, his greatness as an anthologist is the product of a poet’s gift for assembly– combined with an acutely modernist sensibility and a samizdat compulsion to put into books what has never been there before. For over a decade, his coeditor, Steven Clay, has run Granary Books and been an equally adventurous publisher of poetry and artists’ books, many of which he has conceived and commissioned. Together Rothenberg and Clay have had a lifetime of preparation for the making of this anthology. The memorable result is a book that, like a great poem, casts its light on everything else you pick up to read after you put it down. It is, in short, a true anthology–a book of the book.