Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Always Judge a Book by its Cover

Aspiring writers are advised to read. I’m lucky and cursed to be both writer and visual artist; lucky in that each discipline feeds into the other; cursed in that finding the time to be both kinds of artist is challenging. Recently, however, the two have drawn closer together in that I’ve become preoccupied with ‘the art of altering books’ and ‘the artist’s book’.

Broadly, the concept of the altered book is that the artist takes a book that is going to be discarded and ‘recycles’ it into a new, visual work of art; while the artist’s book is closer to sculpture in that it explores ‘book’ for its merit as an object in itself, more so than for its content.

The activity of ‘altering’ books has its protagonists and its antagonists. Those against say that it's wrong to destroy a book in this way is a sort of sacrilege. I have sympathies for both sides, which means that while I’m physically doing damage to someone’s carefully chosen words, by tearing, ripping, painting over, stamping and scrumpling them, I also feel guilty! Maybe this is why, when as sometimes happens, the book retaliates and instead of me altering it, it alters me.

In my defence, when I go hunting for books to ‘enhance’, nine times out of ten I can’t then ‘do the dirty’ on them. Often I'll buy a book with an attractive cover without even looking at its contents and then only afterwards find I’ve come into possession of a book that’s beautiful and in a subject area I'd not normally even browse. Choosing books solely in terms of their visual merit, broadens the range of my reading - instead of me altering the book, the book alters me.

A recent find turned out to be a limited edition collection of short stories by Rudyard Kipling exquisitely illustrated throughout with Indian paintings and drawings, some which fold out to more than double the width of the book. The acquisition of this book has drawn my attention to a gifted and prolific classic author who wrote everything from science fiction to horror and everything in between ( and to my shame, I've not much explored to date).

I snatched up my most recent purchase because of its vivid ‘painterly’ cover. I discovered it was a reproduction of a section of a painting. Inside, ahead of the text, there were page after page of brightly coloured illustrations. The artist illustrator was a French artist, Roger Bezombes, (1913-1974) and the book, entitled ‘Le Livre de San Michele’ was written by a Swedish doctor called Axel Munthe.

Research revealed that Munthe opened his first medical practice in France. He would treat the poor without charge, risked his life to help in times of war, disaster or plague and was an advocate of animal rights. His name is linked with that of such as Louis Pasteur, Henry James, Guy de Maupassant. ‘San Michele’ was his villa on the island of Capri.

But it was the first reproduction in the book that struck me: a townscape, of tomato red trees and the grass green coloured roofs. The scene depicted was oddly familiar. Above it on the page was written (in French): “In Paris, I lived in the Latin Quarter and every morning I went to Salpetriere”. Originally a gunpowder factory, today, most people around the world know Salpetriere as the hospital in Paris where Princess Diana was taken after her tragic accident in 1977. I know it as the hospital where my husband was taken in November 2007. L’hopital Pitie-Salpetriere is like a village, a vast complex consisting of a groupings of medical 'pavilions' situated round a central park area. It is dominated by its domed church - St Louis.

I was angry at Bezombes’ vibrant rendition of Salpetriere. During the weeks I trekked back and forth – twice daily for almost a month to visit my husband, Salpetriere was grey. It was a grey, wet, cold confusion. Or was it I who was grey?

I was angry that this artist could project onto this hospital his ‘superficial’ reds, yellows and pinks. Yet these colours are uplifting and they remind me that hospitals are not just grey places of suffering, but colourful places of healing.

I have acquired a good number of interesting books ‘judging by their covers’. The expression ‘Never Judge a Book by its Cover’ tells me I am not to judge people by their appearance. I’m saying ‘Always Judge a Book by its Cover’ to capture attention. It’s tongue in cheek. Choosing books only because of their outward appearance may seem a bizarre concept, but perhaps choosing a book solely for its ‘prettiness’ is a good way for a writer to ‘move out of the box’ of his or her normal reading range.

And maybe, because of the messages these serendipitous books seem to bring me, it is the books that choose me. Books sent to alter me.




  1. Thanks for sharing, Ann! My library has some of these 'enhanced' books (works of art) displayed on its endcaps. An interesting idea, for sure!

  2. I must admit I've never heard of "enhancing" books, although it seems somewhat like taking old quilts and refashioning them into clothing items, pillows, cuddly bears, etc. which I have done. It gives new life to an item that would otherwise be discarded.

    I enjoy your posts, Ann. You always have something interesting to say. Blessings!