Written works of art

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Authors and designers are coming together to turn novels into precious artefacts. Arifa Akbar handles with care

The way in which medieval readers regarded their books might best be compared, in today's terms, to the way in which the super-rich relate to their luxury items – the string of Chopard diamonds or Damien Hirst installation kept in the vaults and brought out to dazzle admiring onlookers.

One illuminated tome alone could take two years to make, with raw materials that included animal skin and burnished gold leaf, by an army of scribes that had mastered the art of calligraphic curlicues – and the end result was regarded as a precious artefact in its own right.

Thank God, we might say, for the democratising effects of printing, when the buying, selling and manufacture of books became a far cheaper, less elite business. In modern times, the book's "form" has come to be seen as an unimportant or irrelevant factor in comparison to its actual "content". Judging a book by its cover is deemed shallow, and the economy of the inexpensive, unostentatious paperback has dominated the 20th century.

Yet there are several contemporary writers who now argue that form is as important as content and that the outer configuration of a book has bearing on its textual meaning.

Last November, the American author Jonathan Safran Foer published Tree of Codes, whose integration of writing and design, as well as its strong tactile appeal, led reviewers to liken it to a "sculptural object".

Safran Foer is now working on a second book based on the same concept, while the novelist Adam Thirlwell has signed up with Visual Editions, the publisher that produced Tree of Codes, along with the illustrator Seonaid Mackay, who is writing and illustrating her first collection of stories. The company has also just created a new edition of the classic experimental novel, Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne.

Safran Foer's interest in the covers of his books dates back to the beautifully designed jackets of Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). His latest work, based on an older text, The Street of Crocodiles, by the hermitic Polish writer Bruno Schulz, goes further: its story unfolds with the use of cut-out pages and sentences visible only through windows. Speaking to The New York Times shortly after its publication, Safran Foer suggested that the form/content dichotomy was a false one as far as he was concerned. Authors, he believes, have always been interested in the way in which their words are presented.

"Why wouldn't – how couldn't – an author care about how his or her book looked?... [I was interested] in creating a book with a three-dimensional life. On the brink of the end of paper, I was attracted to the idea of a book that can't forget it has a body." Was he author or designer? "I see myself as someone who makes things. Definitions have never done anything but constrain."

When Anna Gerber co-founded (with Britt Iversen) Visual Editions two years ago, she wanted books to become as visually interesting as the stories they told, with this graphic aspect feeding into storytelling.

"We are exploring different ways of telling stories, and the question of how we can experience stories in the most exhilarating, exciting and fun way. Our starting point was a desire to publish 'visual writing' in a way where the visual aspects are not just decorative or embellishments, but are embedded within the narrative, where the writing can't be complete without the visuals," she says.

Building on the success of Safran Foer's endeavour, Visual Editions will re-issue the 1961 experiment novel, Composition No 1, written by Marc Saporta, which was the first book to be published loose-leaf in a box, and which gives readers the ability to read pages in whatever order they chose.

The recent body of novelists and writers redefining writers' relationships with book-covers leads to something different both to the medieval model, in which the book's carapace is adorned and prettified but still regarded as an outer shell, and also to the 1960s and 1970s post-modern counterparts that used trickery and playfulness – words falling off pages, unconventional typography, unbound sheaves to be rearranged and aberrant blank pages – to remind the reader of the façade of literature, of the book's status as a materially-based, artificial construct.

Safran Foer's venture appears less mischievous and more an attempt to bring closer together the roles of the visual artist and the writer. Leanne Shapton, a Canadian-born artist and graphic novelist, worked along similar lines in her 2009 novel, Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, which was an anatomy of a broken romance, written in the form of an auction catalogue, with discarded items being sold as "lots", including descriptions of their emotional histories alongside their images.

Shapton took the photographs herself, and the result not only blurred the line between art and literature but also that between fiction and memoir. The book was published by Bloomsbury in Britain after becoming an extraordinary word-of-mouth success in America, and it has since been optioned for a film adaptation starring Brad Pitt and Natalie Portman.

Speaking about the mixed media in Important Artifacts, Shapton says she saw it as an "experiment" in pairing together "plain images and very dry catalogue text to tell a relatively full story."

Her graphic novels and art design – which includes the hand-lettering for the cover of Chuck Palahniuk's 2003 novel Diary – illustrates the intersecting preoccupations with both the form and content of a book by its author.

"I am very interested in books in their form. I am a complete bibliophile and love all printed matter – catalogues, registers, you name it – as I love the subtleties of design and function. Form is very important to me, as I think it directs us to certain capacities of comprehension and the various visual languages we read in," she says.

An unfinished novel by Vladimir Nabokov, The Original of Laura, which was posthumously (and contentiously) published against the author's dying wishes last year, in the form of 138 perforated index cards which readers can shuffle around, inspired fierce critical debate on whether it could be defined as a "book" at all. Penguin Classics called it a novel "in fragments", and while some dismissed it as a distasteful marketing trick, others commended its innovative form, quite aside from the quality of the writing. The writer John Banville, for one, called the volume (designed by the acclaimed graphic designer Chip Kidd) a "triumph of the bookmaker's art".

Meanwhile, a recent BBC4 series, The Beauty of Books, discussing the importance of form and illustration in ancient texts and medieval illuminations, revisited the original notion of the book as a treasured and often high-premium object. Kathleen Doyle, curator of illuminated manuscripts at the British Library, says these sumptuously decorated books, such as Henry VIII's Psalter, with illustrations of the biblical King David resembling the British monarch, were highly personalised and regarded as high-end luxuries – the medieval equivalent of a Louis Vuitton handbag – she says.

"They were owned by the highest level of society. The illuminated manuscripts were made to look as beautiful as possible – it was a way of glorifying the word," she says.

This view of books as treasured personalised objects was so entrenched in the consciousnesses of readers that, long after the printing press had been invented around 1450, many were still beautifying their printed books by sticking illustrations into them and hand-colouring the printed images.

If contemporary books are produced as material objects to be admired for their beauty as much as their words, Doyle says, "in that sense they fit with the tradition of these notable medieval texts that were regarded as artefacts". There is, however, one vital difference between the contemporary works and manuscripts of old. "His [Safran Foer's] cut-out book appears fragile, while the medieval manuscript's intention was to be sturdy. Some of them have lasted one thousand years. The gold leaf was burnished with tooth or stone so that it would never tarnish, so when you open them up today, they are just as vibrant and as shiny as the day they left the studio."

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