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To many the defacement of a book is sacrilege. Marginalia, that beautiful process of marking up a book, is often met with the worst of admonishments. But I’m with Toby Lichtig on this one:

Marking books is not heresy because literature does not happen in a vacuum”.

Indeed I am a completely unrepentant book scribbler. My little inscriptions map my thought process and engagement with a book. Is it not entirely natural that the imprint of a book on it’s reader should be reciprocated?

My copy of Alain de Botton’s “Essays in Love”, recently picked up from the Oxford Street Book Exchange, has contributions by no less that 5 sets of handwriting, charting 5 alternative love stories. I found that terribly beautiful. In many a second-hand book you can be treated to a previous owner’s illustrations. My favourite version of this was in an old copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The first picture of poor transformed Gregor Samsa had me drop the book, thinking a big cockroach had somehow crawled between the pages.

But some people go much further: Book Art.

In 1962 playwright Joe Orton and his partner Haliwell were imprisoned for 6months- each- for ‘defacing’ 72 books from their local library. Fifty years on Orton is dead- killed by no other than the aforementioned boyfriend- and these book sleeves have been put on display, as works of art.

One of the altered library dust jackets. Orton and Halliwell’s handiwork was a protest against the poor quality of library books 
Photo by Felix Clay

Throughout his school years my uncle was repeatedly punished for drawing faces along the sides of dictionaries and encyclopedias. Each one bore a striking resemblance to a penis. No one will be exhibiting these any time soon though. Where then, do we draw the line between art and vandalism?


Over the last couple of days Book Sculptures have been emerging across Edinburgh as part of Book Week Scotland. The artist is an anonymous female with an evident love of literature and a sharp wit (she must be Scottish). Through the imaginative shredding of pages this artist made an entirely new contribution to the lives of these books. James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner became “Lost (Albeit in a good book)”. Cracking on every level.

Lost (Albeit in a Good Book)

Her little works bring attention to the unique, creative celebration of reading that the Scottish Book Trust has pulled together for the Book Week. Some call her the ‘Book Bansky’. This seems to draw some pretty apt parallels- graffiti, like bookart can embellish or degrade its canvas,and there are some monuments and tomes we instinctively feel aren’t to be touched, no matter how brilliant the artist. Is this because some books, and some buildings are already works of art? What is untouchable? Perhaps a first edition of The Canterbury Tales, or a Guttenberg Bible- both listed amongst the 10 most valuable books in the world. Copies of Shakespeare’s FIrst Folio  are also worth over £5million, but they are hardly eye catching, could they not do with a splash of colour?…blasphemy.

Anyhow, here are just a few examples of Book Art I do believe evidence the beautiful interactions possible between books and art.

When encountering his art, Brian Dettmer, an American book-carver, wants his viewers “…to think about books. What they mean to them personally and what is happening today on a larger cultural scale to books and the information we consume, to think about the flexibility of authorship and authority and the benefits and risks that might impose, to think about the way we experience the internet and life in general, in small unrelated fragments that we are driven to construct into stories in order to extract meaning.” If any kind of art can provoke such positive introspection, then it’s a great idea in my book.

‘Modern Painters’ by Brian Dittmer

THOMAS ALLEN

This brilliant Book Photographer uses the covers of vintage books to bring their stories alive.

And the best for last:

TOM PHILLIPS

Tom has been a personal favourite of mine for years. In fact I spent my first ever paycheck on one of his prints. As with many of the Flowers Gallery artists, his work is intelligent and witty and utterly original.  What I love about these pieces is how Tom engages with the actual literature.  Words on the page are transformed into poetry of his own, though not stripped entirely of their origins.

The following are from A Humument.

Any other great pieces of BookArt to recommend?

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