We think of books not as commodities but as symbols of individuality. But centuries before the Industrial Revolution, printing presses were mass-producing books. In fact, books are the first item that we mass-produced as a species, and we’ve gotten really good at making sure that every copy of a specific book is exactly the same as every other copy.
Part of the reason Jeff Bezos chose books as the commodity on which to establish his online retailing venture was the fact that books, as products, are so uniform. There is no variation between copies of the same edition of, say, Octavia Butler’s Kindred. No size returns to worry about, no spoilage to fret over, no customers to be unhappy that the shipment didn’t resemble the listing on the website.
We imbue books with such personality and individuality that it’s nearly impossible to picture them as the mass-produced objects that they are. Try this: look at your bookshelves. Now ask yourself: aside from autographed editions and owner-introduced variations like marginalia or food stains or dog-eared pages, how many of these books are truly unique objects? How many hundreds — more likely, thousands — of copies of each of these books exist out there in the world? Perhaps this is why autographed copies of books and author readings are such an important part of literary culture: they help to imbue the object with its totemic individuality.
Sitting to my immediate right as I type this is an elegant hardcover first edition of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh. Published by Peter Pauper Press in 1903, Thinketh is notable because it’s basically the first modern self-help book. The book was a runaway bestseller because it soothed and ennobled the book-buying public, crammed as it was full of aphorisms about masculinity and spirituality and being a responsible member of society.
By itself, this edition’s age doesn’t make it especially noteworthy. There are plenty of copies of this book still in existence, and it has been published and republished in a consistent churn for over a hundred years. But this copy of Thinketh to my immediate right is unique. There is no other copy like it in the whole world. It lays out a narrative that no other book on the planet contains. It is special.
As part of a celebration for National Poetry Month, Seattle publisher Mount Analogue has commissioned five poets to create erasure poems from old books. (Mount Analogue supplied the Seattle Review of Books with three of the erasure texts for review purposes.) Starting with a big party on Sunday, April 9th, these five books will be on display in Wallingford bookseller Open Books for the month, and they are for sale at prices considerably higher than your typical book, but at prices considerably lower than your typical work of visual art. There will be no copies made of these books, no facsimile editions. They are unique.
Thinketh was transmogrified by Massachusetts poet Andrew S. McAlpine, and it is one of the more straightforward erasures of the five. Using white-out, McAlpine fastidiously erased the book line by line, leaving only a handful of words per page. Those remaining words tell a story that echoes the themes and stories of Thinketh, but which comments on the book and diverges from it in many interesting ways. Allen becomes McAlpine’s unwitting collaborator in a project that stretches across the years. The physical object is partly a found document, partly a book review, and partly a poem.
In person, this copy of Thinketh is impressive. You can see each line in each brushstroke that McAlpine made as he went through the book. That hand-crafted act — some would call it defacement — lends the book a special power of its own.
“This little / meditation / is / suggestive / — / the / mind is / circumstance / and / light,” McAlpine carves out of the first page of Allen’s text. “Thought / only / springs / from / thought,” he continues. It’s a statement on the reflexiveness of thought and its tenuous ties to corporeality. Throughout, McAlpine often excavates the “ink” out of the word “think” — the title page reads “ink / s / a / le,” which is kind of a brutish description of the idea of buying a book — and which leaves this Thinketh perched in the realm between thought and publication, between idea and print.
It’s impossible not to imagine McAlpine taking a liquid scalpel to the words, and commenting on his own process as he does it: “the / useless / perfection / of / this / process /reveals / racy / elements / shaping / a / harmonious / state.” If a printed book is a closed system, a harmonious state, the artist committing the erasure is tipping that harmony into dischord, upsetting the system in search of something more raw and jagged and personal.
Catherine Bresner’s remaking of Everyday Manners for American Boys and Girls, an etiquette guide for children published in 1923 “by the faculty of the South Philadelphia High School for Girls,” is much more unruly than McAlpine’s take on As a Man Thinketh. Bresner does not just delete from the text: she adds to it. On the cover, she has blacked out the title and sandiched a tiny “o” into some of the remaining letters, thereby retitling the book: EVERYDAY ERoS.
ERoS is a mess, in the best way: some pages are loose, and Bresner has glued additional materials into the book — a spray of glitter, a condom — which makes the spine feel unsteady and the book overstuffed. For a book once dedicated to etiquette, it’s now a sloppy ode to physicality. Bresner has remade an opening passage into an “Artist statement.” Most of the page is whited out except for a large chunk of uninterrupted text near the bottom:
For my part, I should like to make every man, woman, and child whom I meet, discontented with themselves, even as I am discontented with myself. I should like to awaken in them that divine discontent which is
…and then there is a gap of whited out text, followed by one more word:
Bresner is the raging id of the South Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1923, unleashed on the page. She has glued photographs of topless women riding horses and drawn giant phalluses over passages. She transforms the charm-school manners lectures into declarations of freedom: “Outsiders judge you / more than they / help.” She frees the individual from the crushing expectations of others: “with a stranger / you / may secretly feel / ashamed / Never allow any feeling of awkwardness to keep you from doing what you know to be correct.”
ERoS is a book that is exorcising itself. A reader can’t help but imagine the faculty of the high school tut-tutting their way through this Sharpied text, with Bresner’s illustrations of gushing vaginas and charges to “allow your curiosity to lead you” and “give / oral,” above a cartoon of two women in a science-fiction sex rig fellating a man as their own erogenous zones are plugged with what one assumes to be suction devices. It’s a bawdy, sexy explosion of hormones and enthusiasm and empowerment.
Mar, the story that Georgia poet Catherine Crew has pulled from Laura E. Richards’s 1894 novel for children, Marie, hews much closer to the original text. Crew has erased the text with beautiful copper, gold, and silver ink, leaving the story of a willful young girl named Mar who “knew all about the things that children think. What was she but a child herself?” Mar lived “no safe / earthly life,” instead “wearing / religion with a difference / as / a dreadful / worship.”
But Mar is not an angel. “she would not be admitted into the other world,” Crew tells us using Richards’s words, “where everything was gold and silver.” “She did not know / the saints.” Mar observes marriages that fall apart. She sees injustices and lies, and she is never content: “a witch / cannot / have / peace.”
In her notes on the novel supplied by Mount Analogue, Crew calls her act of erasure “an act of violence, but also an act of agency.” In the original novel, Marie is a violinist who is “tamed” by a willful man who believes her music makes her a “heathen.” In Crew’s telling, there is no violin, but also no man. There is just Marie, stripped down to Mar, given her own free choice between heaven and hell.
While Bresner joyfully tears apart her book and reconstructs it as an act of liberation, Crew finds the heart of her book and exposes it to the world. It’s as though you’re listening to an orchestral piece and every instrument is silenced save one soloist. In that one isolated instrument, you can hear the heart of the piece and the themes of the larger piece. It’s a single voice, amplified and clarified.These books, these stories, will be on display for one month at Open Books, and then they’ll be in the hands of their buyers. Those buyers will decide to jealousy guard the books, to keep them for themselves, or to share the books with the world somehow — say, donating them to a library or displaying it in a collection.
But it seems unlikely that they’ll ever be mass-produced, that more than one copy will ever exist. And even then, even if they were to manufacture facsimiles, those simulated versions will never be the originals — they’ll never have the confident brushstroke of McAlpine, the ink pressed into the page where Bresner doodled an erect penis or Crew boxed in a phrase for emphasis. That kind of tactile information exists only in one place in the world: between those covers, in that copy, on this world, in this universe.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant