Innovation and literature have always been fellow travellers. As the great art movements of history rang the changes across the world writers took note. Viewpoints shifted. The religious tract gave way to the novel. The novel itself changed from serial to single volume. It took on board stream of consciousness, turned to pulp, abandoned its chains and left the library shelf. It got carried around in pockets. Books became easy. Dropped their hard covers. Took on the role of diversion as much as education. Became places for play as well as places for art. And, more significantly, became so much cheaper to make.
Innovation flourished. During the latter parts of the twentieth century books appeared in a myriad of forms. There were novels in boxes, famously B S Johnson’s The Unfortunates which had twenty-five chapters printed as pamphlets. The order they were read in was up to the reader. Opal L Nations published a volume of poetry with a coat-hanger bound into the spine. You could hang this in your wardrobe with your shirts. There were volumes with pieces of carpet as covers. The tiny books published by the Fluxus Movement came inside match-boxes. J L Carr’s series of pamphlets, were small enough to shove up your sleeve, ideal, he insisted, for reading during sermons. Wales’ Philip Jenkins produced a book that consisted of cleverly placed holes done with a punch. Llangollen’s Childe Roland had a novel that consisted of 300 bound blank pages. Bob Cobbing published anthologies in plastic bags. Tom Phillips made his masterwork out of the printed pages of another. A Humument (available now from Thames & Hudson) is a painted book made directly onto the pages of W. H. Mallock's Victorian novel, A Human Document.
The high water mark for all this activity seems to have been the mid-nineties. Innovation at this point shifted to the net. New ways of writing were created, forms and styles made possible by the digital revolution took over. The hand-made book in a tin, in a bag, or on rolls of wallpaper faded from view. More’s the pity. But not completely.
Former Welsh resident Stewart Brown has for the past thirty years been making the word visible. He paints and collages it in a kind of post-concrete, non-digital mêlée of colour and bending font. His masterwork, a seemingly endless series of morphing letterforms and wailing colour is called Babel. Pretty appropriately, I’d say. “Beautiful, unsayable, meaningless, profound” is how he describes it. Babel comes in large canvas form, on gallery walls and in frames. It also comes loose in book shaped boxes. Lovingly presented and a total delight to open. Investigate Catalyst Press on the web. Buy Babel as card or as box. Expect to be dazzled.
A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of 3rd April, 2010