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Review Round-up: More than Words

I'm always a fan of thinking about the value of books - the properties that they have, over and above containing stories about dragons - that make them objects of interest.

We spotted a few oddities at the Victoria & Albert over the weekend, and I thought they were excellent examples of books that still communicated a theme or story, but did so in non-traditional ways... yet while still being physical objects made (mostly) of paper.

Mishka Henner's Astronomical (2011) is simply one of the most beautiful objects I've ever seen, book or otherwise. It is composed of 12 volumes - 6,000 total pages - and was created as a limited edition of 130. Each page is a single photograph, spanning 1 million kilometres, and the complete set encompasses the entire Solar System - the Sun to Pluto. The design is stunning. A staggering encapsulation of astronomical scale - and the loneliness/insignificance/beauty of our place in the universe. And all done as a conventionally-formatted book.

3945980-e5ceb03bbb8995db9277753dc7849466-fp-1350314590Andreas Schmidt's The Time Machine (2011) is a bizarre one. Schmidt reads the entirety of Wells' classic novel on his Samsung, and photographs each page. You can see time passing on the phone's clock, but also in the background light, and perhaps most importantly, the battery. (Battery life being the new diurnal cycle.) The book ain't pretty, and, at £40, it ain't cheap. But it is a crafty combination of the new and the old, and a way of framing the text itself in a way that shows the continued relevance of its teleological message. If The Time Machine seems dated because of the technology involved (zomg his phone is so 2011), that only adds to the craft.

Agrippa: A Book of the Dead (1992) is by William Gibson and Dennis Ashbaugh, with publisher Kevin Begos Jr also deserving much credit for this bonkerness. Created as a study into the nature of memory, Agrippa is a self-destroying photography book, printed on a treated paper that faded as soon as it was exposed to light. The book was coupled with a poem (on floppy disk, naturally) that erased itself as soon as it was read. The quantity of the original, 'Deluxe' edition (involving kevlar binding and aquatint etching and all sorts of madness) is unknown - definitely fewer than 100, and one copy (also in the V&A, is numbered 4 of 10).

Agrippa comes in a rough-hewn black box adorned with a blinking green light and an LCD readout that flickers with an endless stream of decoded DNA. The top opens like a laptop computer, revealing a hologram of a circuit board. Inside is a battered volume, the pages of which are antique rag-paper, bound and singed by hand. - Details magazine, 1992

Anne and I saw a copy at a William Gibson signing at Forbidden Planet a few years ago - a gentleman (unknown) schlepped one along inside a massive perspex box. The queue actually collapsed, as we all gathered around and leered at it. (It was pretty damn cool.)

Agrippa is unlike the other two books because the physical nature of the book itself has been augmented - over and above the fancy binding and the accompanying 'software', the magical paper makes it more than a conventional object. Still, it is one of my favourite books - both physically and conceptually - and the explosion of myths about Agrippa only serve to further its theme. The nature of memory is, indeed, elusive, as even the facts about this book become 'singed' by rumour and storytelling.


S. (2013) by Doug Dorst and (kinda) J.J. Abrams is, uh, metatextual epistolary novel, if you'll excuse the layers of pretension. But, in fairness, this is an experiment in layered pretension. The central novel - Ship of Theseus - is there, but mostly as a playground for the 'real' S. - the conversational marginalia that documents a growing relationship between two college students. On top of that, there are various bits of ephemera tucked in to the book in key places.

S. has been called "a love letter to books" and "an argument for paying extra for physical books", with Abrams noting that "to physically hold it is kind of the point". All that said, it would probably be easier to enjoy S. as a text were it digital - with the references, cross-references, elaborate insertions, etc. But these reviews (and Abram's assertion) are based around the enjoyment of the reading experience as something over and above the text itself. Like the three other titles above, this a book that's about using a familiar physical format (that rectangular paper thing) as means of conveying some sort of experience or theme. Actually "reading it" is secondary.

As a side note, S. is also the only one of these four books that's really straddling the line between commercial and collectible. The Time Machine is currently print on demand, so, I suppose that's worth pouncing on before it goes off the market, but it is currently, technically, an infinite edition. Astronomical was limited to 130, all of which are long gone. And getting ahold of Agrippa just ain't going to happen. But S. is sold through ordinary, normal retail outlets, just like any other 'ordinary book'. But you've got to figure that this is a book that's more prone to 'degeneration' - bits go missing, or even get moved or shuffled about - making a pristine early printing all the more rare.