Books

by craigepplin

I trekked out to Queens yesterday to the New York Art Book Fair, held at P.S. 1. It was a book fetishist’s heaven. A large tent and two museum floors played host to all manner of publishers whose books had something to do with art. The crowd was young, with lots of good eyewear. There was a band playing outside, and a small bar served drinks. I arrived at four, and I stayed until seven. I would have been happy to stick around even longer.

If there was something confusing about the gathering, it had to do with the category of the “art book.” The tent outside overflowed with zines and graphic novels and compilations of photos without text and other sorts of beautiful objects. My friend bought a pop-up edition of The Odyssey. I bought a cardboard box, spray-painted gold, that contained all twelve issues of the Internationale Situationniste from a French MFA student.

Inside there was a little card with a quote from Foucault that begins like this: “The imaginary now resides between the book and the lamp. The fantastic is no longer a property of the heart, nor is it found among the incongruities of nature….” I love the notion that everything lies outside of human subjectivity (“between the book and the lamp,” “no longer a property of the heart”); it seems to me a perfect crystallization of how knowledge, emotion, and experience in general actually happen.

I’m digressing. The point is that there seemed to be no consensus on what an “art book” is. Outside it meant multiple things; inside as well. On the first floor, Yale and M.I.T. University Presses were selling monographs about artists. One could buy issues of e-flux in a little van of sorts, and both Cabinet and Artforum were on hand. Many of the exhibitors-slash-vendors upstairs were simply small presses whose books are somewhat artistic. In sum, “art book” came to mean anything that wasn’t a run-of-the-mill paperback.

I have mixed feelings about this confusion. On the one hand, it makes sense to bring all these strands together. After all, someone who’s interested in a book that aspires to be a work of art might also be interested in books about artists. On the other hand, this vagueness seems to sap strength from one concern that, I think, guides many small press publishers: the question of what sort of thing a book is. This question is perhaps the most urgent one facing literary culture today, given the advent of digital formats and the consolidation of the book industry, but it’s one that is asked, generally speaking, more intensely by small and experimental presses than by most university-based publishers.

My current anti-project* is a short monograph about late book culture in Argentina. It’s an outgrowth of my doctoral dissertation. I became interested in the topic because of my direct contact with small press books in Buenos Aires. I discovered that the question of what sort of thing a book is was being asked by all sorts of writers and collectives who often worked in concert with these publishers. It’s an open question, of course, and what you find at a gathering like the NYABF are inroads towards an answer.

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* “Anti-project” is a term I steal from my friend Sam Steinberg. His definition: “something you’re working on when you’re supposed to be working on something else.”