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Facts and Arguments Have books become something we’d rather look at than read?

FACTS & ARGUMENTS

The irony of the altered book

Have books become something we'd rather look at than read? Colin Brzezicki asks

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I had no idea what else could be done with a book until I discovered that "altering" them was already an art form. I learned this in a school library of all places.

Family, colleagues and alumni had gathered following a memorial service for a cherished teacher and friend. The display of intricately sculpted volumes caught my eye and I wandered off to view them more closely.

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That this curious collection of slivered, chopped and reconstructed books – whose shelf life had obviously expired – should appear in a library at all was remarkable enough.

It was even more ironic that the English teacher whose life we were celebrating was also an award-winning, internationally known writer of 14 novels and a memoir.

The exhibit, laid on by an art class, enthralled me at first. I couldn't but admire the imagination, patience and skill that went into altering each volume.

One book had been sculpted back into a tree. Its pages were surgically cut, pinched and braided into a spread of branches, with a trunk, a cluster of roots beneath and leaves that were made out of, well, leaves.

Another book had exploded into a mushroom cloud of random words, all linked together now, not in a sentence, but a filigree of paper.

A third opened itself into a secret garden, with delicate paper butterflies attached to silver filaments that suspended them above an intricate rosebush teased out of the pages. It was hard to believe that all this was once nothing more than a book.

A fourth book had been transformed into the Acropolis and a fifth stood on its end, its block of pages whittled into a faint silhouette of a snowy owl.

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Maybe it was the sombre occasion that led me to regard the exhibit as something of a memorial itself, its meticulously sculpted pieces a miscellany of little monuments – a requiem for the book, perhaps?

My deceased writer friend was himself fond of cemeteries and sometimes walked among gravestones in search of a name he might give to a fictional character. Bringing the dead back to life, you might say.

I wondered what he would have made of altered books. In his later years, he spoke unhopefully about the decline of books, and so he might have regarded this ingenious display with a mix of wonder and sadness.

I tried to keep an open mind as I surveyed the students' handiwork. But in a time when the traditional book is being replaced by electronic reading alternatives – especially among the young whose digital skills are nothing short of amazing and whose literacy of choice defaults to the computer kind – I could only imagine their artistic detachment as they went about reshaping books into other things.

As electronic devices increasingly provide our access to information and entertainment, is it unreasonable to suppose that one day books will be seen merely as objects – relics from another time, like the hour glass and the fountain pen, reduced to screen icons that indicate functions they themselves no longer perform?

Even in my last years of teaching, the school library's long rows of free-standing shelves were visited less frequently by the month – such is the speed of change – the volumes barely noticed and rarely signed out.

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Not that there was ever a time when the library was an adolescent's location of choice; in my own student days, books were altered, too, but more in the sense of vandalized than apotheosized.

Consider the alternative, the Daily Mail reported that 77 million remaindered books in the United Kingdom were sentenced to the pulping machine or the incinerator in 2008.

At least for altered books there's a kind of life after death. These creations were not just recycled, but up-cycled, transformed into works of art – albeit in a different way than their writers might have desired.

But who's to say what's art and what's not?

Maybe the altered book is an emblem of our time – something we'd rather look at than read. Any letters we can still make out are just random black marks, fragmented and meaningless. They aren't even words and that, too, is somehow fitting in a postmodern age.

There are no words we say now when we wish to express feelings that we consider unutterably profound. And there's always an emoji for that.

Yet, for writers of fiction, say, such as my deceased friend, language was all that was ever needed to articulate feelings and ideas, conjure up entire worlds, people them with real characters and tell their stories. Somehow, words never failed them.

When Marshall McLuhan pronounced that the medium was the message, I doubt even he envisaged a world where the medium of the book – its literal medium of paper and cloth binding – would one day provide the raw material for a wordless artifact.

My writer friend would likely not have been pleased to watch his own books go under the knife. Seeing the words he had found and exactly arranged to give meaning, resonance and life to his sentences, seeing them now sliced and torqued into a clever byproduct might have unsettled him a little.

Though, as a man of humour with an ironic turn, he would have smiled at a book being turned into a tree again.

Colin Brzezicki lives in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

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