I have one room devoted to books, I’m tempted to call it a library, but it’s a disordered clutter of all sorts of odds and sods. To make my life easier, I use an old ottoman to store my favourite, and most loved books. I am not ashamed to admit I am a fetishist. I collect, I adore, I store away.
The last item to be placed in this shrine was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. It’s Foer’s cut up and reassembled working of ‘The Street of Crocodiles’. In an interview before publication, the author refers to the inspiration behind his work, the grandfather of art-novels, Tom Phillips’ The Humument.
I have several copies The Humument and after reading Foer’s piece, pulled the oldest, a first edition, from its jiffy bag. I’d not thought about it for a while, and seeing its gorgeous pages made me shiver with delight. I won’t describe it, you can look for yourself.
Tom Phillips has been a great influence on me. As a student I could see how old texts could be used to create new ones, often with more startling results than something started from scratch.
What makes The Humument even more special to me however, is the pleasure of reading it is mixed with the memory of meeting Phillips a couple of years ago.
I’d written to him asking him one or two things, and, in his reply, he invited me to his house in Camberwell, where, one hot May afternoon, he showed me around his wonderful three-storey house, where every room is a different studio. In his tiny kitchen at the top of the house, Tom offered me a glass of orange juice, and as I drank, he sat down and unselfconsciously, but not without a hint of theatrics, continued working on one of the pages from revised version The Humument.
I think the beauty of this work, and the complexity of Safran Foer’s, point to one future of the book beyond the digital age: books as art objects, where the author is involved with design and manufacture as much as content, and the text is broken up, illustrated, rearranged, has limitless readings.
This is far from realistic for us all, I know. Tom Phillips, as well as a writer and academic, is a visual artist, and sells his work in the art market. But I am just not ready to accept that books must suffer reduction to nothing more than a computer file. I need the object: something meant to be grasped, smelt, given, accepted, or wrapped up and hidden away to be forgotten, and then savoured and held close once again on some dark winter day in the distant future.