Blurred Library: Essays on Artists’ Books
Tate Shaw points out that Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore claimed, “the book is an extension of the eye” (50). Shaw’s new book, Blurred Library: Essays on Artists’ Books, extends that claim to encompass the body and the psyche. So, if the medium is the message, then what, Shaw asks and explores, are artists’ books communicating? And how?
Shaw’s intention in Blurred Library is to spotlight individual books and artist/authors, and how they make connections and perhaps fit into a canon, obscure though it may be. He also focuses on the philosophies that undergird these essays, in order to attempt the relay of a conceptual understanding about the larger, yet still small world, he is microscoping.
Shaw writes about books that come in myriad forms: one, the shape of a head; one “about” clouds; one created “as” cage; one composed on a sewing machine; one as archive for trash; and more. Immediately, in the first essay, “Enfolded by Holes: A Diagram of Openings,” the reader is instructed to “put down this book a moment, place together the pinky sides of your right and left hands, your palms before your face, and just study your open hands a few seconds” (11). It is the 3-D action that can be likened to holding an open book, or the book itself. It is an image of reading without text. It is a start to understanding the leap artists’ books make and deliver. It is the first step to understanding what a small leap it actually may be.
In the titular essay, Shaw writes: “There is an ontological difference between something found through language and that which is found through visual attention. When you find something through language you sync up parallel to it. It’s a matching game—one word to another—and it’s atomic, meaning based on tiny parts, like a title, author…Finding through visual attention requires a weighing against, which is a problem of tension” (159). Though readers and viewers intuitively know this, do this, it’s a distinction that is hard to unpack and grasp, and harder yet to apply to the question of why there is often a preference for types of “reading.”
The most inclusive essay of the collection, “Phantoms: A Roundtable for Keith Smith,” presents the reader with an imaginary gathering of formidable thinkers—artists, architects, philosophers, media theorists. Shaw is moderator. It’s a brilliant way to set up metaphor about metaphor. Much of the essay is made up of pulled quotes, glued together by Shaw’s observations, explication, and connecting questions. He even has the “panelists” interrupting each other, in true discursive fashion: “’No text exists independent of its physical support,’ cuts in [Davide] Panagia,” thus interrupting [N. Katherine] Hayles, who is proclaiming, “’Materiality is content, and content is materiality!’” (34). Then, an interjection by Shaw, “’Are we not taking into consideration real bodies and concrete engagement with objects in our discourse about artists’ books?’ I complain” (37). This roundtable as essay brings to the fore the question of world as unpaginated space, the ergonomics and hapticity of books, and the metaphor of books as bodies. Shaw doubles the meaning of the essay title, when in the essay’s afterword, he notes that ever since a 2004 lecture, “Textual Prostheses,” by Craig Dworkin, he has thought of books as “phantom limbs or organs” (54).
In the essay “Rot’s Knot: A Paradox,” Shaw asks, “Why do complicated books leave you with nothing to say? What if it’s because you are unconsciously making the book, even as you read it? Obviously, if you are reading a book it’s been made in the physical sense. But books are metaphysical—beyond the physical—to begin with” (102). It is this transcendence, this transference, the trans-ness that is a book, that leads artists to extend the usual literary bound object into the world a bit farther and further, tackling concerns such as reading as prowling and book as place, intimacy and/or confinement. And central to that investigation is also the recognition that, “Despite a book’s finitude it can be read and interpreted many different ways, at many different times of life, by many different people” (133).
The spatiality and temporality of books is at the heart of why readers get “lost” inside a story. Narrative is not the only part of this rabbit hole; the dimensions of the book object, and the visuals that accompany any textual rendering of content, also create this hole into which one may crawl (in order to come out into an even more expansive place). In an age where digital readers and screens have made it seem anachronistic to hold a book and turn its pages—and with “internet, smartphones, [and] the cloud,” creating a “desire for constant connectivity”—Shaw points out that “[i]t’s easy to forget that everything in the world is connected already” (196).
In the book’s afterword, Shaw doesn’t give the reader more instructions, but does confess his hope for Blurred Library and the reader: “to provide some access to connections I’ve made and to collaborate and be connected to you, who in turn may find some creative connections of your own” (196). After all, as [Masumi] Shibata once told Shaw, “’a book is three hundred sixty degrees” (19). In the end, Shaw’s is a hope for the infinitude of the book.
Now, to you who are reading this review, one directive: read Blurred Library. And a few questions: What will you/they see, think, say, connect to next? Is it a screen or a page, and how do they translate back and forth? Will you print something out, and think about the undone or minimal verso/recto? And finally, a thought: perhaps the world is paginated, we just haven’t changed our “view” icon in the corner of our minds.
Michaela is a poet, editor, and art writer, who currently works with commercial and non-commercial arts organizations in Des Moines, Iowa. She curates the reading and performance series 1,000 Words or More. Michaela is currently working on her second collection of poetry, as well as her book, Phenomenon of the Dot: A New Monadology.