Sculpted books: extended storytelling or mere vandalism?

As a booklover, you’d think I would be horrified when people take books and cut them up to make art.

You’d be wrong.

As always, though, that response is tempered with some ground rules.

Essentially, if an artist has taken an book (or even a new one!) and carved its pages to make new art, I don’t really find that offensive at all. In fact, I often find it magical or charming.

A book is a twofold thing, you see. It’s the object itself, and it’s the story it contains. When an artist takes the object and creates new art with it, in a sense I feel like it is taking both object and story and extending them jointly into a new form of story telling. I found a picture recently of an old Sherlock Holmes book, with a page cut to create a silhouette of the Great Detective, deerstalker, pipe and all. Light thrown onto that open page cast the detective’s shadow onto a page of His Last Bow. It’s a simple and evocative use of paper and light to emphasise the story by using the object. I think it’s pretty cool, especially since the story is by no means lost to us with this act of creative vandalism.

At the recent Clunes Back to Booktown Festival, I saw multiple volumes of old maths textbooks, way out of date nonfiction tomes on chemistry and the like, pierced through and threaded together to make flag stands. It’s a shame the content of those books was clearly past their use-by date, and I hope the material is available somewhere for historical interest and researchers. It made me a little uncomfortable, I guess, but in a way it was nice to see a book that might otherwise simply be trashed as useless repurposed to sign post the way to second hand and antiquarian booksellers.

And then there was the city hotel I recently visited. The bookshelves in its bar were lines with blue books, by which I mean all the covers were blue. Hardcovers stripped of dust jackets, mainly. I went to take one of the books from the shelf, idly attracted by the title and wanting to flick through the pages: only to find the whole row of books had been skewered and affixed in place on the shelf.

Four shelves of skewered books. Two bookshelves. Eight rows of stories that no-one could read. Eight rows of objects fastened, ugly, like butterflies under glass. Instead of being transformed from one kind of story telling to another, it felt like all of those books had just been killed and pinned down for the much less edifying purpose of mere decoration. Because they were blue. Honestly, if they’d been blue but you could still read them, it would have been interactive, at least. The books would still be alive to interpretation, as objects and as stories. It was having them transfixed by a metal pole that made it feel so awful to me.

Maybe it’s a fine line. Maybe one person’s shallow decorative choices are another person’s artistic expression. Maybe one person’s artistic expression is another person’s brutish vandalism. But if someone came to me with one of my books that they had made into a work of art which expressed something about what the story meant to them, I think I’d be pretty chuffed. It wouldn’t demean the object or the story, surely, to be transformed into a new expression?

Let me know what you think.

  • All of the sculpted book photographs I’ve seen are stunning, and often make me wish I had the talent to sculpt the pile of old text books floating around here. I’d much rather see books brought to life this way than sent off for recycling or – the ultimate horror, sacrificed like those poor things you saw at the hotel. That is as sad as a library full of leather bound books which have never been read. What a waste of words.

    • Indeed. Reading a book gives it life, and making it into art gives it a different kind of life. It’s odd that I feel so sorry for those books pinned into a shelf because they’re blue. But in a way, I guess, they used to be living and now they don’t have anything left to say but ‘the colour of my spine goes with the wallpaper’.