Blurred Library: Essays on Artists’ Books
(Cuneiform Press, 2016)
How do we enter a book? How do we move around in it and travel between its pages, chapters, and various corners and openings? These are some of the questions Tate Shaw asks in his collection, Blurred Library: Essays on Artists’ Books. At a time when the internet and digital publishing are redefining and questioning the boundaries of the space opened by a book, Shaw’s essays explore the physical and imaginative relationship of books to our bodies. He begins by proposing the book as a series of openings, boundaries, walls, and thresholds through which the experience of reading—an intensely intimate and private experience, as he notes—allows us to travel.
While the subjects of Shaw’s essays range from how to catalogue visual books to the inner workings of linked images in photo books, his rhetorical method remains the same, always returning to us, his readers, and our bodies and personal reading experiences. Shaw’s opening essay, “Enfolded by Holes—A Diagram of Openings,” begins with the instructions: “Before we get started in earnest, put down this book a moment, place together the pinky sides of your right and left hands, your pals before your face, and just study your open hands a few seconds.” This gesture, which Shaw calls “an image,” is of course likened to an open book, but also draws an immediate connection between this opening and our own bodies. “The V formation of two people holding hands,” Shaw notes, “is comparable to the angle of a book opening viewed from the head or tail.”
There is something beautifully naive in Shaw’s narration, which walks us through the physicality of reading—the relations of body and mind as each traverses the borders of the page. As Shaw writes in one such poetic passage, “Just as our bodies are made to fold and unfold with little effort, folding could be a way of thinking about connected movement.” Though many of his observations seem obvious, they strike with the force of observations rarely articulated. This strategy allows him to avoid sweeping claims about “the reader experience” and instead to cultivate a more specific analysis that relies on our personal reading histories, experienced and imprinted on our bodies and in our memories, as well as the reading experience of consuming his book.
Although Shaw does go to great efforts to provide criticism of specific books, including works by Keith Smith, Jen Bervin, Amber Hares, Chris Burnett, Lyons & Zimmermann, and Dieter Roth, all discussed in detail, this is not the strength of his writing. Rather, the strength of his essays lies in his non-traditional approach, his constant invocation of the imagination—his own and ours, so often a non-subject in traditional criticism. Remember that he began by asking us to imagine our hands joined together in a certain way, creating a relationship with his readers—the same sort of relationship he seeks to explore between books and bodies.
What, then, is this shared space like—that space which Shaw brings us into through the act of reading his book? The notion of a book as a particular type of space is nothing new. But when considered in relation to our bodies, these spaces do not just have the potential to be expansive, they can also be restrictive. “If books are places we enter into,” Shaw suggests, “then their quarters imply closeness.” Or, as he asks, “But what about how confining books can be?” This question brought to my mind the feeling of crouching on a couch reading a book into the late hours of the night, until the eyes burn and the head aches. Throughout the collection Shaw refers to this immersive quality of reading, a quality that makes reading an activity more commonly done in private. When we read, we seem to leave our bodies and enter the imaginary space of the page. And yet, our bodies still exist physically, vulnerable to outside impact even if our minds are elsewhere. Think of the start you feel when someone comes up to speak to you while you’re deep in a book. But for the most part, the space Shaw sketches for us is an open one, with the edges of the open book forming a “slight staircase stack on the right and left hand sides, and all of this framed somewhat by the cover.” Each side of the book represents the past and the future, respectively.
Despite Shaw’s exclusive focus on traditional, handmade artists’ books, his essays offer significant relevance for the electronic age. As he muses in his afterward, “I find it very easy, perhaps even my default position, to doubt a book’s totality; how finite and closed off it seems, how unconnected it can feel from the rest of the world.” While I don’t necessarily agree with these suggestions, they stem from Shaw’s interest in the embodied reading experience, which is insular. Shaw wonders what meaning his writings will have in a moment marked by more obvious connectivity, or in his words, that “which is digital, the internet, smartphones, the cloud, the desire for constant connectivity.” In fact, Shaw has created a work, a collection nonetheless, that is wholly about connectivity—between books on shelves, pages, spaces, bodies, and ourselves—all through the haptic and physical experience of reading. As he explains, “In my own book I now want each opening to feel the way the present moment does: passing, undecided. This, I think, leads to action, to reading.” All of us share this private reading experience, demonstrating another kind of opening as we each enter into the passing moments of the page separately but unified in our bodily connection to the book. Despite its insularity—or because of it—reading is what connects us all.