Archive for the '(boring shit)' Category

Luigi Serafini – Storie Naturali Photo Gallery

It was recently pointed out to me by my very astute wife that my clever titles, while endearing, probably hurt my blog’s googleability (as does the fact that I almost always refer to “Serafini” and “The Codex” rather than “Luigi Serafini” and “The Codex Seraphinianus”).  So, this post’s title is boring for a reason – I’m flirting with search bots ever-so-delicately.

So, it’s an exciting day for this Serafini enthusiast.  After only a week of waiting, I received Serafini’s new book – an illustrated deluxe edition of Jules Renard’s Storie Naturali in the mail today.  Untrue to form, I will post a bunch of pictures first and then offer my extraneous commentary below.

Cardboard shipping box

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

Front cover, with original "Storie Naturali" cover as a pastedown

The case-binding

Title Page

Interior spread

Leaves in pockets (20 die-cut leaves are removable)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (it wouldn't be Serafini without eggs somewhere)

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread

Interior spread (King Botto makes an appearance)

Colophon page (with Serafinian writing, including the Serafinian signature)

Serafini's signature and seal (note King Botto in the seal)

Some of the removable leaves

So, it is obvious from the above pictures that this is a remarkable book – just the amount of die-cutting to make those leaves on its own is impressive, as is the effort it must have taken to insert twenty leaves into each copy.  The quality of the materials is very nice as well – the paper is very heavy with a nice texture, and the boards are extra-thick, which makes the book feel very substantial.  Like the best FMR books, it is obvious that you are holding a deluxe book before you even open the cover.  The printing, while not on the same level as the original editions of the Codex Seraphinianus, is very vibrant as well (better than the current Rizzoli editions).  And, in a neat tip of the hat to history, the front and rear cover have pastedowns showing the original covers of Storie Naturali as published by BUR in 1959.

So – a couple thoughts, now that I have had a full day to look through and absorb this book.  First, although value and prices are of course subjective, I had no problem with the 300-Euro price tag on this book, if for no other reason than the fact that it is signed by Serafini.  The only other signed Serafini edition is the FMR first-edition of the Codex, which sells in the thousands.  Plus, the limitation on this book – 660 copies – is smaller than any edition of the Codex, leading me to believe that this one might not be around for very long.  It’s never easy to predict what will happen to a book like this, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was around for a couple years before it sold out from the publisher, especially since BUR is doing almost no promotion outside of Italy (as far as I know, I was the first person to blog about it, except for a line in Serafini’s Wikipedia entry added in January – and I didn’t find out about it until 4 months after it was published).  None of the other European online bookstores I look at are carrying it – only Italian stores.  So, it takes some doing to track it down, and then you have to have a spare 300 Euros laying around (or a credit card, in my case).  But, I am pretty sure there won’t be a trade edition of this book, since it is a special edition of a book by Jules Renard – the trade edition is the paperback you can get for $10.  For Serafini fans, it would make sense to make a trade edition, but this isn’t a Serafini book, per se – it is catalogued under Renard’s name, with Serafini as the illustrator.

That being said, this is very much a Serafini “A” item, on the same level as the Codex Seraphinianus and the Pulcinellopedia Piccola.  Although the text belongs to Renard, the world inside the book is Renard as interpreted through Serafini’s worldview.  He isn’t just illustrating the book as much as he is providing a view into the world of a reader (himself) of Renard’s world.  And, as we’re already well aware, Serafini’s world is dominated by its own logic, a logic that mirrors ours but also brings its idiosyncracies into neon-lit relief.  Here, we have a multitude of leaves, but each leaf plays off the conventional biological blueprint of a leaf by introducing characteristically bizarre inhabitants or states.  One leaf features a microscopic tennis game being played on its surface, while another one hosts a familiar collection of characters from the Codex.  Some incorporate processions of characters, while others incorporate familiar Serafinian themes, such as eggs or the “King Botto” character.  That Serafini brings signifiers of the world he has developed and illuminated over the course of his career only drives home the point that this isn’t a mere illustration job, but a cohabitation of his world and Renard’s world.

One thing still unclear to me is the limitation – 660 copies.  Everything I had read about the book initially noted 600 copies, although the colophon mentions 660 (600 numbered in standard numbers and 60 in Roman numerals).  I’m wondering if the gray clothbound copy pictured in my first post – with the stand-up leaves and the giant fox – is actually one of the 60 super-special editions, or if that one was just an advance photo before final production specifications had been finalized.  I haven’t seen a word about one of those 60 copies anywhere, with none showing up for sale on any website.  I emailed BUR about it, but aside from the language barrier, a specialized question like this doesn’t usually elicit much help from the publisher (anyone tried emailing Abbeville lately?).  So, like everything Serafini-related, there’s still a little mystery.

Finally, a few words about the idea of meaning in Serafini’s work.  It occurred to me while looking at this book that the meaning behind Serafini’s other work was becoming clearer in its deliberate unclarity.  In other words – the Codex, and to a lesser extent, the Pulcinellopedia, aggressively goad the reader into trying to make sense of them.  The Codex – with its invented language and encyclopedic scope – seems like it should be understood, which has led most readers at some point or another to try to figure it out.  Most people get hung up on deciphering the text, assuming that if the code were cracked, everything in the pictures would all of a sudden make perfect sense, and the strange machines and sex-people-alligatorization would no longer be so vexing.  Now, by contrast, we have Storie Naturali, an actual book by an actual author who wrote stories that people were actually able to read.  And alongside this totally decipherable text is a series of window’s into Serafini’s world, and guess what: it doesn’t make any more sense here than it did there.  Serafini’s world has always been one that operates with its own set of logic, and no rational-textual explanation is going to lay bare its inner workings in terms we can easily understand.  Just like each page of the Codex, each leaf in Storie Naturali needs to be taken on its own terms, even though we know exactly what Serafini’s project is, what he’s illustrating, why he’s doing it, etc.  There’s no romantic genesis myth about this book – he wasn’t holed up in an apartment furiously creating this book with no discernible objective – he was approached by a publisher and he did a job for which I’m assuming he got paid.  But the end result in both cases – an illumination of his world – isn’t something that conventional Western logic enables us to comprehend.

Those that can’t wait to decipher the Codex should take note that the cover of this book shows Serafini’s signature written in Serafinian (with the translation, “Luigi Serafini,” written beneath).  Start there guys, and let me know when you get to the epilogue page with the skeleton hand in the Codex.  In the meantime, I’m excited to be able to refute the scholar (I can’t remember her name, but she’s interviewed in Justin Taylor’s essay about the Codex) who says that the Codex will lose its power the instant it is translated.  The more you see into Serafini’s world, the more it becomes clear that its power comes from its uniquely Serafinian logical foundation, of which the text is merely an outgrowth, and not the only thing shrouding it from our own methods of comprehension.  Otherwise, as soon as you paired his illustrations with a “real” alphabet, all of that mystery would disappear – and in Storie Naturali, that very clearly is not the case.

One note: this blog doesn’t get many comments, but I’m especially curious what Serafini fans think of this new work, so I encourage you to leave a comment with your impressions of it.

Tardi is Really, Really, Really, Really Rad

The title pretty much says it all, but I’m still going to wax eloquent about Jacques Tardi for a while, since brevity fits me about as well as jeans with a 32″ waist (eg: LOL I’m fat).  As I’ve written elsewhere, although I’m totally obsessed with comics now, they haven’t been a lifelong obsession (with the exception of Tintin).  However, Tardi has been a part of my bookshelf for a long time, in the form of his incredible “collaborations” with Louis Ferdinand Celine.  To recap – Gallimard (major French publisher – think Penguin or Random House) has a comics imprint named Futuropolis, and in the late 80’s/early 90’s, Gallimard pulled classic texts from its canon and put out Gallimard/Futuropolis combo editions pairing the text up with extensive internal illustrations by well-known cartoonists.  They’re really unparalleled, essential editions for any comics fan, because the books are collaborations in the literal sense of the word, even though many of the original authors were dead at time the books were released.  Forget the traditional idea of an illustrated book (page after page of text, with an occasional full page plate, and some 1/4 page spot drawings sprinkled throughout).  Although the words in these editions are typeset rather than hand lettered (so no speech balloons), the text is fit around the illustrations – and not the other way around –  in a way that enables the illustrations to push the text in directions the original books never anticipated.  This isn’t “the classics – illustrated,” because the entire text is present, and the illustrations challenge and engage the text, instead of merely showing what happens on each page.  I can’t think of anything similar in American publishing (maybe it’s out there and some well-read comics enthusiast would like to suggest it in the comments?)… here we think it’s a great step forward when Penguin solicits covers for classic books from well-known cartoonists.  And hey, those books are cool, but they don’t offer anything for the comics fan beyond the cover.  By contrast, the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions are designed to look like Gallimard’s classic NRF series, with their cream-colored covers and red/black lettering, instead of a typical European comics album.  In other words, cartooning is folded into Gallimard’s literary canon instead of simply being window dressing for canonical texts.

Right, and so Tardi did three of these babies – all books by Celine.  When I discovered them for the first time, I didn’t know who Tardi was, but I was obsessed with Journey to the End of the Night, and the Tardi-illustrated version was a great way for me to read portions of the French text without getting too lost, thanks to the illustrations situating me along the way.  Of course, as I’ve written about earlier, it only took me flipping through the book a few times to realize Tardi’s masterful skill, and as I’ve become more familiar with his work over the years, it has become more and more clear that Tardi-Celine was a pairing that was too perfect to not happen.  I can’t think of another creator with the ability to capture the grotesque and gritty aspect of Celine’s writing in a way that also plays off of how Celine – with his pacing and rhythm, his slang, and his theatricality – creates a cartoon of the modern society he detests.  A strictly realist style wouldn’t fit Celine at all, but no one balances “cartoony”  imagery with an earth-shattering realism like Tardi.   (Sorry I don’t have a better word than “cartoony;” this is why I write my own blog and not for Comics Comics.)

So I came back from France in 2001 with the Gallimard/Futuropolis editions of Journey to the End of the Night and Death on Credit, and over time, they became two of my favorite books in my collection.  What never occurred to me, however, was that Tardi might have another body of work – you know, normal comics – that I should seek out.  And so I dove into the rabbit hole of graduate school and critical theory and all that, and then I dropped out and never felt like reading again, and then I started reading for fun, and then I discovered alternative comics, and since then I’ve been receiving a way more fun education that shows no sign of ending any time soon.  Cue Fantagraphics announcing last year that they were going to start releasing classic Tardi works in English in handsome hardcover editions.  I read the first two they released and saw the genius I saw in the Celine books in full bloom, with 100% of the page at its disposal.  (I should note that much of Tardi’s best work involves collaborations with other authors, although these are rendered as true comics, with the text as part of each panel, rather than typeset separately.)  While waiting for the third Fantagraphics release, it occurred to me that I could dig deeper into Tardi’s back-catalogue without the wait if I tried to read some of the books in French – even Le der des ders, a title whose translation completely escapes me (Google Translation helpfully provides “The Der of Ders”).

I went to my favorite site to buy French books – – and spent some extra disposable income on 5 Tardi books, including Casse-Pipe, the much less common Gallimard/Futuropolis edition of Celine’s unfinished World War I novel.  Now, this was a find for me, since I’ve been looking for it for years… it’s available on used book sites, but usually costs in the $100 range, and the condition is often suspect.  But, and this is why I love, it just happened to be available from a particular seller for 12 euros, even though the original edition has been out of print for years and is never found for so cheap (this isn’t uncommon with Chapitre – see my last post about the mysterious French website selling the Codex Seraphinianus for around $140).  One delayed FedEx shipment later, my Tardi collection has grown exponentially.   Now, I just need Fantagraphics to get him to appear at Comic-con so I can get these things signed, and I’ll be good to go.

So, like I said 950 words ago, the title says it all.  But in case you needed a little extra convincing, there’s the rest too.

Jordan in Wonderland – The Intro

So, I’ve been off work the past few days attending book-related events surrounding and including the Calfornia Antiquarian Book Fair (actually, that’s not the exact name, although it gets the point across, which is the goal).  Truly a wonderland of shit I never thought I’d see, and what will be the subject of one of my trademark long, rambling diatribes.  My eyes are going blurry staring at the computer screen right now, so here’s a little teaser of what you’ll get.

Topics to be covered: Rare Shit and Expensive Shit that put the previous rare and expensive shit discussed herein to shame; exclusive behind-the-scenes, no-holds-barred guerilla reporting on the book business; my ongoing effort to cope with the fact that I have to operate within a reasonable budget; so many handmade books that your hands hurt just thinking about making them; a report and in-depth discussion of my wisely-chosen purchases, and finally, my crushing insecurity and desire to fit in among people who I assume secretly hate me.

Stay tuned for more!

Critical Massin and Other Observations about Book Collecting

This is an essay about random connections that pop up when I start really digging in and researching books. These connections are what make book collecting so great: it’s not just finding a book you want, buying it, and then staring at it occasionally as it sits on your shelf. It’s about realizing that a book you’ve wanted for years is only the tip of the iceberg, and that there are tons of interesting tendrils hanging off of that book, dipping into the vast ocean of everything else that’s ever been published… and about finding that things you’ve never known about aren’t actually that far removed from books you’ve had for years.

This particular adventure started, as it often does, with regret; the one that got away, the book with the pretty face that I always thought I’d see again but never did. When I lived in France, I bought as many cool French books as I could, constrained by my college-life means, but helped by the weakness of the Franc before the transition to the Euro and the strength of the dollar before the transition to GWBush. Still, there are some books that I never got around to buying, and others that I visited over and over again in rare bookstores but knew I’d never be able to afford. Two particular books come to mind: the NRF publication of Raymond Queneau’s Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes and Une Version Inédite du Premier Chapitre de Voyage au Bout de la Nuit de L.-F. Céline. And of course, these books are connected by more than just being sites of regret in my book collecting past.

First the Queneau: he was a mathematician in addition to being a writer and poet, and he is probably most famous for co-founding the literary workshop “Oulipo” (the workshop of potential literature) and writing Zazie dans le Métro, a novel about labor strikes, trains, and transvestites. When I first heard about the Oulipo, it sounded like a bunch of pretentious wankery, until I realized how bizarrely fantastic its approach to literature is. The basic precept is that creativity can be focused and harnessed by applying specific, often mathematical constraints to the creative process (see for example, La Disparition by Georges Perec, an entire novel written without the letter “e”). There are a couple good books on Oulipo that can be had for fairly cheap that explain the concept much better than I can, but suffice it to say that a constraint generates “potential” literature that wouldn’t exist if the creative process were left to operate unfettered.

Cent Mille Millards de Poèmes is generally regarded to be the foundational text of the Oulipo: the potential here is derived from the constraint of the sonnet. Queneau wrote ten sonnets, each line of which interchanges syllabically with the same line in the nine other poems. Even more, the lines have the same general intonation and cadence, such that any one of them could be substituted in a different poem to create a new poem. The result, taking into account a 14-line sonnet is, as the title suggests, 100,000,000,000,000 poems, or, the longest work of poetry ever written. To facilitate the potential creation of all quadrillion of them, the NRF published an edition in which the 14 lines are cut into 14 separate strips, enabling the reader to generate sonnets at will. It was released in a limited edition of 2200 in 1961 and then reprinted fairly regularly. I came across it in bookstores a number of times, but I never bought it, favoring a couple other Queneau titles instead.

One of those titles, and probably my favorite book that I brought home from France, is NRF’s deluxe publication of Queneau’s Exercices de Style. Here, the idea is to tell the same banal story 99 different ways… On a hot day, a man with a long neck and a hat with a cord around it instead of a ribbon boards a bus, yells at another passenger for jostling him, and takes an open seat. Later, the narrator sees the same man in front of a train station talking to another man who points at a button on the first man’s coat. That Queneau was able to retell this story in 99 different voices, to me, speaks volumes about his genius as a writer. It surpasses a mere student’s exercise (to which its detractors have compared it) by its sheer inventiveness, and it does things with the French language the likes of which hadn’t been tried in a literary format since Céline and Journey to the End of the Night (there they are, connected again). In this particular edition, Queneau’s exercises are accompanied by typographical exercises by Massin and 45 visual interpretations by Jacques Carelman (a board game, a Rorschach test, a rebus, etc.), in a cornucopia of artistic output generated by this one little story.

As much as I like this book, and as many times as I’ve flipped through it, I had never really followed up on either Massin or Carelman until recently. It turns out that Massin is a legendary French typesetter and designer, having designed some of the most well-known series in French literary history (primarily the Gallimard Folio collection, which you’ve probably seen if you’ve ever seen a French book). I had no idea, until I picked up Phaidon’s handsomely published retrospective of his career at Moe’s a few months ago. Looking through the book and getting a handle on Massin’s incredible contribution to French literature in the 20th century stimulated my collector’s itch, and I decided to start looking up some of Massin’s more famous books… which I learned, of course, included Queneau’s Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes. Also of interest was his rendition of Ionesco’s absurdist play La Cantatrice Chauve, in which he set out to make the type another character in the play, as well as his more recently published edition of Cocteau’s Les Mariés sur la Tour Eiffel, a culmination of over thirty years of effort. (The fact that this book took so long to produce has the added bonus of demonstrating the evolution of his technique, moving from text pasted down manually to digital layouts.) Take a look at the pictures at the bottom of this article to see what it really means for Massin to “typeset” another author’s work… It’s not just a mere decision of font; rather, he totally reinvents the text and creates a totally new reading experience in which the type on the page plays as much of a role to the reader as the words themselves. It turns out Massin also wrote a book, Lettre et Image, which is a survey of type’s role in culture from pre-history up through present day. It is a big, heavy book, and while I haven’t yet read it, the illustrations alone are an incomparable sourcebook for anyone interested in type (such as, oh I don’t know, someone who has recently started a small press). And, in the course of digging up these books, I learned that Cent Mille Milliards is still in print, so after 7 years, I finally own a copy.

However, all this Massin-mania had me looking at my copy of Exercices, wishing it were a first edition, that the binding were a little tighter, and that the boards didn’t have those little imperfections… and so I started digging, and I found out that this particular edition has some interesting variants. In its first state (published in 1961), it featured 33 (not 45) illustrations by Carelman, meaning the book I brought back from France was a revised edition, with additional and revised illustrations. Interestingly, both collections of illustrations are unique, with a good number of the original 33 not appearing in the revised edition. The first edition is printed on heavy, matte paper, and many of the illustrations are on fold-out panels, whereas the second edition is printed on thinner, glossy paper (such that, with the same amount of pages, it is about half as thick as the first edition), with two-page spreads rather than fold-out panels. While the second edition was never issued as a limited edition (to my knowledge), the first edition was split into 3 versions: numbers 1-150 contained an original woodcut illustration numbered and signed by Carelman, and they were housed in a box covered in shirt fabric, secured by a button. Numbers 152-10000 (evens) were published under the Club Francais du Livre imprint bound in green semi-hardcover boards, and numbers 151-9999 (odds) were published under the NRF imprint, with the same cover as the special edition sans the box. (Another Massin tangent: before working as the design director of Gallimard (the French publishing giant one of whose many imprints is the NRF), he cut his teeth working for the French book clubs, meaning that a Massin-typeset book published simultaneously by the NRF and the CFL really covered all the bases.) With impeccable timing, an affordable copy of the special edition showed up on eBay in VG condition but lacking the box (an Abebooks search found one copy in the box for a cool $840), and I put in the first and only bid on it. My Massin collection was growing like a bamboo shoot, and I was really excited to have a piece of art signed by Carelman, an artist who I liked very much.

The weekend the auction ended, I was in Chicago, and, of course, a trip to Chicago isn’t complete without a visit to the rare book room at Powell’s Chicago Bookstore. After perusing a while, I was about to leave empty handed when I spotted a couple cases behind the counter and asked if I could look through them. I reached for a nondescript white book in a black slipcase, simply because it looked interesting… I pulled the book out of the case and noticed it was covered with signatures, and my mind got about as far as, “Is this….???” before I opened it and realized that yes, it was in fact the elusive 100-copy limited edition of the Atlas Press’s Oulipo Compendium, the ultimate English-language resource for the Oulipo. This book had been on my radar for years, but the only way to get it is to order directly from the UK for around $400. This copy was much more reasonably priced, and, while still technically an irresponsible purchase, I jumped at the chance to grab this rarity, especially since it was more impressive in person (as books of this nature often are). The interior is the same, save for the addition of a colophon page, and the book is bound in plain white wrappers, rather than the pictorial wrappers of the trade edition. The real bonus is the dustjacket made from handmade Rives paper, stamped with Atlas Press’s symbols and signed by twenty-six members of the Oulipo (and its poetry and visual art offshoots, the Oupopo and Oupeinpo, respectively).

It shouldn’t have surprised me, looking through the section on the Oupeinpo, that Jacques Carelman was a founding member of the group, just as Queneau had been for the Oulipo. Their collaboration on Exercices suggests as much, and the laws of book collecting coincidences would seem to pre-ordain such a connection. After reading about Carelman’s contributions to the Oupeinpo, my attention turned to the dustjacket to see if I could decipher his signature among the European scrawls… I had to wait for the woodcut to arrive from France before I could confirm it, but yes, there it was on the back, and even reasonably legible. Two Carelman signatures acquired in one weekend… not bad for an amateur book collector, and all thanks to picking up that Massin retrospective that got the ball rolling.

Of course, this was not the finishing point. In the months after the Oulipo Compendium find, I continued to look into books by/about Massin, in order to gain as comprehensive a view as possible of his body of work. Without too much more digging, I found a two-volume pictorial catalog published in French by Librairie Nicaise in Paris. While the books were a little expensive for me to buy sight-unseen (although I was certainly tempted), the name jumped out at me. First: “librairie” in French means “bookstore,” not “library.” Bookstore catalogs are not especially rare, but these books were comprehensive retrospectives/reference books, not catalogs of items for sale. Why would a Parisian bookstore be in the business of publishing books, and of all the hundreds upon hundreds of bookstores in that city, what were the odds that it was a bookstore I had emailed two days prior about an unrelated matter?

Paris is full of a staggering number and variety of bookstores. Bookstores and places to eat – if I think back on my time wandering around Paris, almost my entire memory is composed of looking among the shelves at a bookstore or eating something. As for the variety, there are the booksellers selling everything from cheap paperbacks to rare items out of painted green stands that line the Seine, multi-story emporiums like Gibert-Jeune, corner shops, and more rare book dealers than you can count. The last type was of the most interest to me- there’s really nothing like them in the US. There are plenty of rare bookstores, but almost all of them have a section of cheap paperbacks or standard fiction books, with the real “A” items under glass or in a separate room entirely. The Parisian rare bookstores, on the other hand, house the types of collections you usually only see here in appointment-only dealers. Even getting in the stores can be a challenge- most of the doors are locked, requiring you to ring a bell and subject yourself to the studious gaze of the proprietor. More than one time, I was refused entry to the store, probably because I looked like I didn’t have any money (mostly true, anyway). But there was one store I could reliably count on to admit me- the Librairie Nicaise. This was my favorite bookstore anyway- instead of floor-to-ceiling shelves, it was organized more like a little art gallery or museum, with waist-high bookcases displaying unique and rare items on top of them. Down the center of the shop was a long table, and more than once the owner invited me to sit and take as much time as I needed to peruse whatever interested me that day.

Most of the books at the Librairie Nicaise were limited-edition fine press books housed in clamshell boxes. I often felt a little guilty opening box after box to see what was inside, wondering when I would finally wear out my welcome – especially as it became clear that I would never be able to afford anything there. During that time, I had three authors on my watch list: Queneau, Jacques Prevert, and Céline. One day, I asked the proprietor if he had anything by any of these three, and he showed me a volume of Céline that I would return to look upon multiple times before I finally moved back home. It was a private press volume – published by Balbec, about whom I haven’t been able to find any additional information whatsoever – housed in a gray cloth clamshell case. The book itself was unbound, consisting of signatures loosely laid into the box, printed letterpress on Rives paper. It was illustrated by Thomas Gosebruch, an artist who is about as mysterious to me as the publisher. The text is simply the first chapter of Céline’s Journey to the end of the Night (a piece of text that holds up surprisingly well by itself), although it is printed alongside the original text from Celine’s manuscript.

The original manuscript is what threw me – in all the reading I have done about Céline (who was a primary focus of mine in college as well as in graduate school), I have never uncovered another printing of the original manuscript. Céline dictated his books, rather than writing or typing them himself, and so the original manuscript represents the closest that this text ever was to Céline’s mouth. After all the time I have spent reading poststructuralists work to set the text free from its author figure, the idea of Céline sitting at a desk actually speaking the words that became Journey while a dactylographer dutifully records them is too neat for a romantic like me to discount. That this text is reproduced in one of the single most luxurious books I have ever held just makes it that much more incredible.

The problem was, the book was priced at about $400, which was more than I could ever imagine spending on a book back then. I thought about trying to save up for it, but I knew that I’d fail and just get frustrated, so I wrote it off as something I’d never end up owning. I actually said good-bye to it in my head when I visited the Librairie Nicaise the last time before I left France, and I all but forgot about it when my book collecting habits went on hiatus in my mid 20’s. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I started trying to find it again… at which point I realized that I didn’t remember any of the identifying details about it. Eventually, my frustration at not being able to find it converged with my desire to own it, and I decided to spend as much time as necessary finding it again.

I started on Add-all, a website that amalgamates the listings of 30-odd used book sites. I searched “Céline” and “toile grise” (meaning “gray cloth”), hoping I’d catch a mention of the clamshell box in one of the listings. Eventually, it popped up – limited to 100 copies, no wonder I had never seen it anywhere else. And, surprisingly, that one copy was the same one I had seen all those years ago back in Paris at the Librairie Nicaise. I sold off a few books and used the money to buy it off of ILAB, an antiquarian book site that lists a lot of European dealer catalogs. A few weeks went by, I didn’t hear anything, and my emails asking for order confirmation went unanswered. I finally worked up the nerve to place a call overseas, and in my best French and his best English, Mr. Librairie Nicaise told me that he couldn’t find the book, and thus, he couldn’t sell it to me. He said he was going to spend one more week looking and then cancel my order. After a week of not hearing anything further, I assumed the book wasn’t available. The one that got away, indeed.

Still, tying up all of the above with the Librairie Nicaise as the center, all neat and trim, isn’t quite accurate.  The whole point is that the connections spew forth such that there is no center at all, just points of interest that sometimes intersect unexpectedly, sometimes over and over again.

Note: the preceding theme will be continued in the upcoming entry: “Quelquechose in the Water: More Observations about Book Collecting.”

Pictures (please excuse the low photo quality – I’m a bad photographer using a worse camera, so hopefully you came here for the brilliant writing, rather than the photos):

Phaidons Massin book

Phaidon's Massin book

The cover of Massins rendition of Ionescos The Bald Soprano

The cover of Massin's rendition of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from The Bald Soprano

Interior spread from Letter & Image

Interior spread from Letter & Image

Another interior spread from Letter and Image

Another interior spread from Letter and Image

Cover of Massins rendition of Cocteaus Les Maries

Cover of Massin's rendition of Cocteau's Les Maries

Interior spread from Les Maries

Interior spread from Les Maries

Cover of Cent Milles Millards

Cover of Cent Milles Millards

The separated strips

The separated strips

The original and reissued deluxe editions of Exercices de Style

The original and reissued deluxe editions of Exercices de Style

The story, typeset as a telegram

The story, typeset as a telegram

Fold-out panel of Carelmans interpretation of the story as a board game

Fold-out panel of Carelman's interpretation of the story as a board game

Carelmans interpretation of the story as a Surrealist collage

Carelman's interpretation of the story as a Surrealist collage

Carelmans signed print - Danse Macabre

Carelman's signed print - "Danse Macabre"

Dustjacket of the deluxe Oulipo Compendium

Dustjacket of the deluxe Oulipo Compendium

Jordan and the Lost Illustrations of Etimologiario

A while back, I posted a blog about a book I had found that contained illustrations by Serafini (here is the link, if you’re really that bored: Etimologiario Post #1 ).  Due to my laziness, I never got around to adding the promised follow-up post with all of the illustrations in it.  A quick recap: the book is called Etimologiario by Maria Sebregondi and published by Longanesi, the same publisher who put out the Pulcinellopeida (Piccola).  It was originally published in 1988, and it was reprinted by a different publisher in 2003, although I don’t know if that new edition has the Serafini illustrations or not.  The book is a small 16mo paperback, a far cry from the deluxe publication of the Codex or even the large-format Pulcinellopedia.  I have sent a couple excerpts to an Italian-speaking friend of a friend, although I haven’t heard anything back, so I still have very little idea what this book is about.  This is familiar Serafini territory, however, since nothing he has ever done has ever had any sort of text to explain the image.  And, in typical Serafini fashion, these illustrations speak for themselves with the same tortured internal logic his fans would expect.

They are recognizable as Serafini illustrations at first glance, using the same pencil technique as the Pulcinellopedia, with only the cover illustration being in color.  It is interesting that this book and his other illustration work has pretty much been swept under the rug, while all the other facets of his artistic output have been chronicled in various design anthologies and the Luna-PAC Serafini book.  I’m still holding out for a copy of In the Penal Colony, but that’s not something I expect to find anytime soon.

Anyway, enough rambling… here are the illustrations, which – to my knowledge – are making their grand debut on the internet.  Enjoy!

My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner Volume 4: Is That a Billboard? No, it’s Kramers Ergot 7

Many of my favorite books are ones that I’ve wanted to own for a long time, but struggled to find… others are unique items I stumbled upon unexpectedly and happily picked up… but this one doesn’t fit into either of those categories. I had seen Kramers Ergot 6 (an anthology of modern comics and comic art) in bookstores, although I never felt motivated enough to buy it, and I never had much interest in the series overall – not because I disliked it, more that I just hadn’t taken the time to digest it. With Kramers Ergot 7, I feel like I stepped in at the last mile of a marathon and cruised blissfully across the finish line… Not being knowledgeable about the series, I was unaware that this volume had been in the works since before #6 was even finished, and that message boards around the web had been buzzing with advance praise and advance scorn for years before the release date. I had no crescendo of anticipation as the release date approached, no high expectations, no preconceptions… I had about as much of a blank slate as one can have regarding a book with this much baggage.

Here’s how it started: as anyone who reads my blog knows (meaning, as two or three people know), I am a fan of graphic novels, and I also research book topics pretty obsessively. However, I haven’t really spent much time digging and digging in the world of comics and graphic novels. I will admit to having a limited knowledge of comics that, aside from some Bay Area mini-comics here or there, pretty much starts and ends at what Drawn and Quarterly or Fantagraphics is publishing… I hadn’t even heard of Buenaventura press (the publisher of Kramers Ergot 7) until I stumbled onto their webpage looking for this new Charles Burns book I had heard about. (For reference, that book is called Permagel, it’s fucking mind-blowing, and it is published by United Dead Artists in France. At 11” x 16”, it was the largest book in my collection for about two weeks, as you’ll soon see.)

So, about two weeks ago, I got an email blast from Drawn and Quarterly announcing a comics show in San Francisco (the Alternative Press Expo), where Chris Ware would be signing books. This caught my attention, since Ware is one of my favorite graphic novelists, and he doesn’t do signings very often. Then, a couple days after that, I got an email from Amazon suggesting a book I might like. I almost always ignore these emails, but I happened to open this one, and there was Amazon’s pre-order information for Kramers Ergot 7, a gigantic 16” x 21” hardcover comics anthology, featuring many of my favorite comic book artists (Chris Ware, Kevin Huizenga, Dan Clowes, Jaime Hernandez, etc). Gigantic, too, was the price: $125 retail (although significantly discounted by Amazon).

After I read Amazon’s little announcement for the book, I decided that I would probably get it at some point, just not right away. I checked out Buenaventura’s website to see what they had to say about the book, and of course, I saw their announcement about the Alternative Press Expo, where this book would be making its grand debut. To top it off, 16 of the artists featured in the book would be signing copies throughout the show (including Matt Groening, if you can believe that), AND the first 200 copies they sold would come with a limited edition (there goes Jordan’s Book Boner #1) letterpress print (Book Boner #2), numbered and signed by Sammy Harkham, the book’s editor, co-publisher, contributor, and cover artist.

Turns out, in a lot of the pre-release discussion of this book (and boy, was there a lot of that, given that information started leaking out about it in early 2007), the price has taken center stage. I think it’s a shame that so much attention has been paid to the price (with some people even claiming that the price is intentionally inflated so as to garner publicity), but I guess the easy counterargument to that is that if the book were priced more economically, no one would talk about it. In a nutshell, here’s how I feel about the price: anyone who knows anything about manufacturing knows that this book wasn’t cheap to make. Without having any insider information, I’d guess that the landed cost of this book, including the rolled-up cost of the R&D (which apparently included a trip to Singapore and Malaysia for a factory check) and contributor payments, is around $50-$60 per piece. This includes ultra-premium paper, hand-binding, a low print run, container shipping, and a shitload of book-board, plus payment for 50 artists… but it doesn’t include ongoing expenses like warehousing and the overhead required to market and sell the book. My educated guess would be that they’re breaking even or making a slim profit on books sold wholesale and making that up via direct sales off their website. Plus, they had to air-freight the first 200 advance copies to get them in time for APE, which probably tacked on at least $25 per book, if not more. The idea that anyone is getting rich off of this book at $125 retail is absurd if you stop to think about what went into it from a production standpoint.

Holding the book, it just bleeds quality. It is truly a deluxe production with no expense spared, and I’m glad that Buenaventura Press and Sammy Harkham had the guts and tenacity to put this book out. Regardless of how one feels about the book or the price or the size, the drive to see this project through every hurdle has to be admired. I honestly don’t know how it will do in the marketplace, but I sure am glad to own one… as a book collector, book design nut, and comics fan, this book really hits every base for me. When I showed up at APE and saw the stack of copies sitting at the end of Buenavetura’s table, it took me all of five seconds to decide I had to have one. Now, admittedly, I’m not the average book consumer (to me, $125 doesn’t seem like that much for a book in the first place, given some of the rare books I have purchased), and I spend more of my disposable income on books than is probably healthy. Of course, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with someone who doesn’t think this book (or any book, for that matter) is worth the money. Rather, I think that, in me, the publishers of this book found their absolute ideal customer: a comics nerd who spends stupid amounts of money on beautiful books. And that’s probably why the price is such a non-issue for me: as someone who feels targeted by the book and not deliberately left out in the cold, I don’t think there’s anything arrogant or presumptuous (or stupid or elitist or pretentious, or any of the other accusations that have been lobbed around) about pricing a book in this range.

So, out of all the hundreds of books I own, how does this one access that rarefied realm of my favorites? The size certainly helps, that’s for sure. According to Harkham, the genesis of the book came from the size of the Sunday comics pages from the early 20th century, something with which I don’t have an intimate familiarity or nostalgia for. When another of my favorite comic book artists, Joe Matt, told me about the similarly sized Gasoline Alley book, I didn’t rush out to get it, because I am not all that into the history of comics, and these old strips don’t seduce me the way modern comics do (this is a taste issue, like so many things I write about in this blog, so please don’t rake me over the coals for this viewpoint). But, the opportunity to read my favorite artists (as well as a whole host of fantastic artists whom I had never heard of) in this format is a real treat. Some of the strips, such as the ones by Dan Clowes or Jaime Hernandez simply pack the page full of similarly-sized panels (although the large title panel of Clowes’s strip is pretty powerful), which leads to the fairly unique reading experience of spending 5-10 minutes reading one page. (To jump back to the price issue really quickly: one of the criticisms is that the book is “only” 96 pages for $125… but shit, when one page here would be 6 pages in another book, the value increases pretty quickly.) Other strips, like Kevin Huizenga’s or Adrian Tomine’s feature standard-sized panels interspersed with very large panels that really let the pages breathe while showcasing the artists’ talent in a much more expansive format. Some artists abandon the panel format altogether and let the comic loose across the entire page. It brings me back to my grad school papers about the materiality of the text dictating the sensory experience (well, back then I called it the “phenomenological experience,” but let’s call a spade a spade)… I expected the size to be cool and unique, but I didn’t expect it to mediate my reading process so dramatically. To tie it back to an earlier post, it almost reminds me of my response to books typeset by Massin in that the presentation of the text so affects the content that the experience of reading this content cannot be separated from the book itself. My conclusion after actually reading the book is that the size isn’t just a gimmick or a publicity stunt by Harkham or a way to justify charging an arm and a leg for the book- it really does play a critical role in making the book what it is.

And let’s not forget that I toiled for an entire weekend to get this book signed by 16 different authors. It started with Kevin Huizenga, who graciously signed and sketched the book as well as the accompanying print (which was ingeniously designed by Harkham with several “pages” littering the ground – each one perfect for a signature and doodle). Other authors followed suit (some reluctantly), and by the end of the weekend, I had a limited edition print and a gigantic book signed with sketches by Chris Ware, Ted May, John Pham, Eric Haven, Jonathan Bennett, J. Bradley Johnson, Johnny Ryan, Matt Groening, Matt Furie, Souther Salazar, Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga, Tim Hensley, Dan Clowes, Chris Cilla, and Jaime Hernandez. They were not at the signing table all at once, however, and so I carried this heavy book around the expo for two days (well, my girlfriend carried it some of the time too), returning periodically each time a new groups of authors sat down with pens in hand. Not that I would have rather bought the book already signed- seeing comic book artists sketching in person is one of my favorite things about collecting books –Chris Ware drawing Jimmy Corrigan or Matt Groening drawing Homer Simpson is too cool for words.

Now, I just hope that the book holds up over time. The boards are so heavy that I’m kind of worried that after a few years of being read, they’ll start to strain the spine joints and eventually detach… and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t come with a warranty. But again, that’s a risk that the publishers (and me as the buyer) were willing to take in order to bring this book to market (and for me to bring it home to my bookshelves). I view it as this enormous labor of love on all parts – from the publisher actually producing it, to the artists who struggled with an unfamiliar format, to the editor who had to pick and choose to produce a cogent anthology, and even to me getting all the signatures individually. It’s totally irreplaceable, to the point that even my ridiculous anal retentiveness about book condition has allowed me to overlook the bump to the top board that forever renders the book “Near Fine” and love it for what it is.

Pictures below:

Kramers 7 on my bookshelf, dwarfing some other fairly large books

Kramers 7 on my bookshelf, dwarfing some other fairly large books

The limited edition letterpress print

The limited edition letterpress print

Detail of Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Matt Groening signatures on the print

Detail of Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Matt Groening signatures on the print

Endpapers of the book, signed 16 times.

Endpapers of the book, signed 16 times.

Detail of sketches by Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes

Detail of sketches by Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes

Detail of sketches by Matt Furie, Jonathan Bennett, Souther Salazar, Chris Ware, Sammy Harkham, Johnny Ryan, and Matt Groening

Detail of sketches by Matt Furie, Jonathan Bennett, Souther Salazar, Chris Ware, Sammy Harkham, Johnny Ryan, and Matt Groening

Daniel Clowess page

Daniel Clowes's page

Kim Dietchs page

Kim Dietch's page

Tintin, Your Flipped up Tuft of Hair is the Least Curious Thing About You


I first heard of Tintin through my friend Trevor. Trevor was pale and chubby (I was chubbier, but less pale), and the kids at school called him “Albamster,” which was short for Albino Hamster. I was at Trevor’s house, and he showed me these comic books (it may be fair to call them graphic novels) starring Tintin, a teenage reporter who goes on adventures and solves various crimes and mysteries. I thought Tintin was really cool, so I started reading voraciously, and I still go back and read Tintin now and then, because the stories bring a comforting sort of entertainment. Not in the way that I can identify with any of the characters, but because the stories are so engaging in their own ridiculous way. When I was in France and feeling lost and alone, I bought French versions of Tintin…. since I knew the stories so well, they were really easy to read, and I had the added benefit of being able to read the not-imported-into-the-US volume entitled “Tintin au Congo,” in which Tintin goes to Africa and befirends the natives, who are drawn as hairless monkeys. At the end, they decide Tintin is their god and they build a totem pole with his face on top. It’s pretty much the most pro-colonialist thing I’ve ever read. At least Herge, Tintin’s creator, apologized about it later in his life. Anyway, this blog will chronicle the weird things about Tintin, some of which didn’t hit me until much, much later in my life. If this sounds boring to you, go reread one of my older blogs (because that will be more boring, and then this one will seem better).

1. Unlike the famous comic book heroes, Tintin is not a meek guy who transforms into a super hero. He’s completely comfortable with his place in life as the most talented reporter in history, and he’s totally undaunted by anyone bullying him around. He faces evil mobsters, evil Native Americans, evil Peruvian indigenous folks, evil millionaires, evil South American rebels, and more, and he never really gets scared. In times of dire darkness, he plots totally implausible ways to escape, and then he sees them through to fruition with a calm coolness. There is never any mention of Tintin’s parents, although he is only supposed to be around 15. Who were these people who raised a brilliant, unflappable son and then totally disappeared from his life? It’s the ultimate contrast to something like Spiderman, where you know about Peter Parker’s life when he’s not Spidey… Tintin is and has always been Tintin (“reporter,” as he is always identified, although he almost never does anything remotely close to writing or researching news stories), and you just need to accept that and keep reading.

2. Tintin’s companions are his dog Snowy, Captain Haddock (an alocoholic sailor who loses a considerable amount of weight over the course of the series), and Professor Calculus (called “Professor Sunflower” in the French version, he’s an insane professor who has a knack for developing devices that get him kidnapped by people). Tintin never seems lonely, and I suppose one reason is that his dog (who is also an alocholic and drinks at every opportunity) is always around. But really, does he have that much in common with a sea captain and a mad scientist? I suppose this is part of a larger perplexing issue, which is that Tintin relates to every person he meets with a polite detachment that suggests profound sadness underneath his surface. He never associates with anyone his age, and he has no problem engaging professors, heads of state, military generals, and other such figures in polite conversation.

3. Tintin never gets mad at his own destiny. Many of the books start with a declaration that he’s taking a vacation, at which point something un-vacationy happens, and he is thrust into a new, dangerous adventure (sometimes so complex that it requires two issues to resolve). Interestingly, he never seems to mind… the most irritated he gets is when he says something like, “Here we go again, Snowy!” But, he says it with a smile, not at all in a grumpy way. Honestly, I can’t really imagine what Tintin’s vacation would be like… probably just relating to people with polite detachment, but with less scheming and intrigue. Or maybe he’d finally crack.

4. In German, Tintin is called “Tim.” Why do they have to be so efficient?

5. Tintin is totally asexual. I don’t think he’s gay (although he may be), I just don’t think his adventures involve him with women at all (save for the elegant Italian opera singer Bianca Castafiore, who is more interested in the alcoholic sea captain than in Tintin). He sometimes befirends young boys, but it doesn’t seem like he does anything funny with them. I mean, the time he saves his friend Chang from the Yeti’s cave, he doesn’t even hug him when they reunite at the end. There is a novel about Tintin coming to terms with his sexual side (obviously not written by Herge), although I could never get into it. Great subject though. I wish at some point Tintin would meet a girl his age, just to see what would happen. Obviously, he would greet her with polite detachment and go about his scheming, but maybe then he’d notice her pert breasts and well-shaped behind and feel something he hadn’t previously felt. I guess the world may never know. But seriously, is there any 15-year old in the world who is never, not one time, occupied with the thought of sex? Oh Tintin, you curious boy.

6. Tintin doesn’t age, but his fashion evolves with the times. By the end of the series, he’s stopped tucking his calf-length pants into his socks and has donned bellbottoms, as was the fashion in the 70’s. The bellbottoms look weird at first… you can’t tell what’s different about him, and then you realize. Boy’s got some style. The kind of style you need to help a drunken guerilla army in South America kick the liquor and mobilize to overthrow the despotic General Tapioca, reclaiming Tapiocapolis for the people. Oh man, that’s a great adventure. At the end, they surprise General Tapioca at the big carnival by dressing up as the “Jolly Follies,” a group of dancers in interesting costumes. You never really learn what the real Jolly Follies were going to do, but in those costumes, you knew it was going to be good.

7. Tintin is supposed to live in the real world, yet he does things that are clearly impossible. In one adventure, he’s stranded in the jungle with only elephants as his company (elephants to whom he relates with polite detachment). To communicate with them, he picks up a tree branch and handily uses a pocketknife to carve it into a giant trumpet that he then uses to approximate the sound of elephant speech. (Aside from the impossibility of approximating elephant speech, there is also the obvious difficulty of hollowing out a 4-foot solid branch of wood using a two inch pocketknife.) The scene where he asks the elephant to spout water out of its trunk so he can shower under it has to be seen to be believed. Also, he showers in his boxers, presumably because Herge didn’t want to show nudity. But is there a bigger secret being hidden here? In another episode, he kills an ape, cuts off its head, and puts its skin on like a suit in order to blend in with the other apes. And it’s not supposed to be gross at all. Gross.

8. Tintin is totally unfazed by incredible violence. This is the part that most leads me to believe something dark is going on beneath his sheen of polite detachment. I mean, he still expresses emotion, but mostly it’s the emotion of being mad at bad guys for not respecting the law. But he has no problem doing things that cause immeasurable pain or death to people that are out to get him. Yeah, he’s acting in self-defense, but he doesn’t even flinch. He’s like Leon in The Professional, but that guy is a grizzled old French hitman who wears his rough life in the wrinkles on his face. Tintin is a fresh-faced teenager who watches people die without it really seeming to affect him at all. Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this happens when Tintin and the crew make the first manned journey to the moon, where they find water (see #7). On this extremely dangerous journey, a member of the crew helps some hijackers stow away in the rocket. After the hijackers are found out and then killed, Tintin and the Captain tie their accomplice in the hold and wonder how they will get back to Earth without enough oxygen. Wracked with guilt, the accomplice writes an apologetic suicide note and jumps out of the spaceship. Tintin is moved by this show of sacrifice, but not that much. And by the time the rocket lands, the guy is an afterthought. All I can say is that when I was 15, if I were on a mission to the moon and a member of my crew who had aided hijackers committed suicide by jumping out into space, just so I would have enough air to breathe to get back to Earth alive, I’m pretty sure I would have needed at least a little therapy afterward.

9. No one questions Tintin in any way, and everyone takes him completely seriously. If Tintin were a normal comic book, his main struggle would be getting the world to take him seriously. But when he meets the President of Peru and tells the President that he’s going to rescue Professor Calculus from the crazy People of the Sun, the President of Peru acts as if nothing at all bizarre is going on. (He even offers the Captain and Tintin a round of the Peruvian national liquor, which is far too strong for the Captain, who prefers Loch Lomond whiskey). Or, when Tintin faces the evil mobsters in Chicago, they never make any remarks to the effect of: “What, this guy’s just a KID, and he killed Mugsy?!” In fact, offing Tintin is their top priority, because the recognize how difficult he’s going to make their lives when he decides to come to Chicago to clean up the town and free it from Capone’s (yes, that Capone) iron grip.

10. Tintin gets gassed all the time. Seriously, it seems like at least once per adventure, he ends up in a closed room where he gets gassed.

11. There’s the hair. I’m going to sign off on this totally irrelevant and probably mind-numbingly boring blog by commenting on the hair, which just doesn’t make sense. Even if I understood everything else about Tintin, there’d still be the hair.

Yes I Died a Little Inside when Juno Coined “Nerdy Chicks who Read McSweeney’s” as a Cultural Trope

The idea of McSweeney’s as a hipster staple is pretty well worn… if the tightness of the pants clinging to the patrons of 826 Valencia didn’t drive this point home, the scene in the movie Juno when the main character cites “nerdy chicks who read McSweeney’s” as an identifiable “type” of person certainly did. When I saw that scene in the movie, I got a little sinking feeling, but not because I felt like I was about to lose some obscure pet interest to the mainstream. I just felt a little uneasy with the idea of McSweeney’s being pigeon-holed as an image accessory, kind of like when the main character in a movie is shown reading Sartre in order to establish that said character has more depth than his gruff exterior might suggest. Why do I even care about this in the first place? McSweeney’s has been criticized almost from the start as a self-indulgent, navel-gazing exercise, perfect for people in their mid-20’s to early-30’s who have $24 to spend on books they may read 10-15 pages of in between listening to emo music and sorting their vintage ringer t-shirts. However, I guess I didn’t realize until Juno quite how empty McSweeney’s is perceived to be.

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I didn’t think this reputation was undeserved. I don’t love everything that shows up in McSweeney’s, and I think a lot of the stories are garbage, but there have also been some brilliant pieces of writing (one of my favorites, in case you were interested, is the hoax excerpt from Nabokov’s lost last novel that appears in #8). Nor does much of the writing necessarily connote false edginess more than any other literature that lies just barely within what could be considered countercultural. But that’s not what bothers me either. My biggest problem is that McSweeney’s is the most visible and daring source of unconventional book design in contemporary mid-to-large scale publishing, and it frustrates me that a publishing house that regularly advances the concept of book design like they do gets relegated to the hipster trash bin so easily.

At one point or another, I have had a full set of McSweeney’s issues in my possession, although I’ve always ended up selling the early ones, because, rare and valuable as they are, they don’t interest me as much as the later issues, which really push the envelope in terms of design. The first three issues are fairly modest paperbacks- all white wraps with an abundance of text on the front. They are fairly difficult to find clean, although it is possible (the last copies of #1 and #2 I sold were in such good condition that I argued with a couple booksellers over whether or not they were first editions or reprints). It is easy to turn a profit on these early issues under the right circumstances… as it often happens on eBay, one will show up and fetch a high price, and then a few more will pop up, temporarily driving down the price. I picked up a copy of #1 for $70 this way, and even more surprisingly, and absolutely pristine copy of #2 for $15. With issue #4, they started to break the mold a little bit, issuing a suite of chapbooks (most stapled, although one or two are perfect-bound) in a printed cardboard box. Issue 5 is a standard hardcover, although there are multiple variants of the book itself, as well as multiple dustjackets. This started (well, I can’t say for sure if it started it, but it represents it pretty well) McSweeney’s trend of deliberately frustrating collectors by making books all of whose variants are difficult to collect, or – even worse – next to impossible to keep in good condition. Issue 7 is a good example of this- it’s another collection of chapbooks, this time housed in a hardcover wrap-around sleeve, all held together with a giant rubber band. The boards of the hardcover are uncovered, untreated cardboard, making them susceptible to bumps and smudges. Of course, the rubber band decays over time (especially if it is actually used to hold the book together) and eventually breaks, yielding a less desirable copy. Issue 11 introduces multiple variants once again with printings in 4 colors (for reference: blue is the rarest, followed by yellow, brown, and then black).

And then there are the issues that defy categorization. Issue 16 features panels that fold out in every direction, opening to display a softcover book, an oversize deck of cards with a story printed on it, and a comb. Issue 17 looks like a bundle of mail. Issue 19 is a bunch of ephemera in a cardboard cigar box, along with a “literary supplement” (the actual McSweeney’s issue). Issue 22 has a magnetic binding with three detachable softcover books within it. Issue 23 has an enormous fold-out dustjacket with a volville by Dave Eggers printed on the reverse. Issue 24 has a Z-binding that opens from both sides. Issue 26 is broken down into small books that look like Armed Forces Edition books. And finally, issue 27 houses three books in a slipcase with widows cut into the sides so that the art on the outside of the case changes based on which books are facing out.

As a collector, I’m more interested in the early editions, because they are rarer and much more valuable. However, it’s telling that I don’t own any issues before #5… as a book nut, I’m way more interested in the recent issues, even though their resale value will be nil for at least 20 years. Even then, I don’t know how much they will appreciate. In 1998, when McSweeney’s was young, I imagine that their print runs were only 1000 to 2000 copies, while now, I have a feeling they print 10,000 to 20,000 of each issue. A full set would certainly be worth investing in from a collector’s perspective, but individual issues after #8 often have a hard time getting half their cover price in the marketplace. (Of course, there are always exceptions to this when buyers get overzealous, but it will be a good long time before any issue of McSweeney’s besides the first 3 can legitimately be called “rare.”)

I am ambivalent about book-as-art endeavors. I have seen books that are just plain unreadable (especially comically oversized ones – books that not surprisingly are also ridiculously expensive), and I think those books are pretty worthless, even if they are attractive sculptures. But, for the most part, I like it when books break out of the standard although very efficient format of housing pages within a front and back cover. Any book that requires CAD drawings or 3D mockups is worth a look, and McSweeney’s has done a fantastic job being inventive while continuing to put out commercially viable book objects. I just wish that that commercial success did more to push other publishers to take chances with their book designs, rather than being reflected back on the stereotypical McSweeney’s reader as someone who cares more about appearances than literature.

Any high-end publisher knows that the materiality of a book is a prime factor in whether or not collectors will pay a premium for its merchandise. I think it’s a shame that when McSweeney’s demonstrates this focus on materiality, they are criticized for being superficial and putting more effort into the exterior while passing off the actual printed pages as an afterthought. Instead, I see them bringing a type of book that is almost exclusively the domain of highly limited, uber-expensive editions to a price point that any bookstore patron can afford. For all the guff they give collectors with their multiple variants and fragile covers, I think McSweeney’s is really innovative in how they encourage readers to be interested not just in literature, but also in books themselves.

And, really, should I be complaining if the core readership of McSweeney’s is an army of girls in plaid skirts and horn-rimmed glasses?

My Favorite Books, Explained in a Verbose Manner Vol. 3: Chagall in the Lines

I’m not much of a fan of Cubism… as art movements go, Cubism for me occupies the sphere of “I know what the artists were after intellectually, but the aesthetic experience of viewing this art is largely empty to me.” Still, there are a lot of artists who dabbled (or more) in Cubism that I really like, and Marc Chagall is chief among them. Unlike artists like Braque, Chagall doesn’t so much espouse or exemplify Cubism as much as he makes it his own and employs it as but one tactic in his depiction of his world. I can’t imagine Chagall’s world without hard-angled shapes, just as I can’t imagine it without emerald green-faced violinists.

When I was bookhunting in France, I simultaneously uncovered two additional sides of Chagall beyond what I had known from his paintings. In a fairly upscale (yet uncharacteristically friendly) bookstore near the river, my eye caught a plain white volume in a blue slipcase entitled, “Chagall: Poemes.” I pulled it out and gave it a look- it’s a collection of Chagall’s poems, along with a bunch of line-drawing illustrations. I bought it for around $40 (this was back when the Euro was worth $.70 on the dollar), since I was curious to sit down and read Chagall’s poetry. The poems are okay- there is a reason Chagall is known as a painter rather than a poet, but it’s always interesting to see how someone famous for expressing himself in a particular way does so in a different art form. (As an aside, this is why I like Bukowski’s art and drawings… as art, they do almost nothing for me (although as a comic book fan, his drawings and cartoons interest me more than his watercolors and oil paintings). In these types of cross-medium examinations, interesting patterns emerge, such as Bukowski’s uncompromisingly plain writing style juxtapozed (ha) with his bizarrely abstract oil paintings.) More engaging than Chagall’s poems, however, are his line drawings – one of the reasons I like Chagall so much is his vibrant use of color, so I was kind of surprised at first that I was so drawn to such simple drawings. However, Chagall has a striking talent for evoking extremely complex images and scenes (even emotions) with only a few well placed lines.

chagallI’m sure the decision to illustrate his book with line drawings was one of economy as much as it was an artistic choice, since creating an equivalent number of oil paintings probably would have demanded more effort both to produce and to publish than the monochrome illustrations he came up with. However, the drawings do complement poetry’s capacity to suggest a scene via small observations, and in this way, they fit with the text really well. Moreover, they suggest a confidence on the artist’s part to leave the reader to his/her own devices in fleshing out the scene. As a poet, I would later find via an interesting coincidence, Chagall didn’t have the same confidence to do more with less. Reading the book’s colophon page, I found that this was actually the second French edition of Chagall’s poems (originally written-but never published-in Russian), representing a revision of Moshe Lazar’s original French translations. My eyes lit up at the name… Moshe Lazar is a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California, and I had just taken a class on Jewish literature after the Holocaust with him the previous semester. When I returned to school the next fall, I stopped by his office and showed him the book.

Moshe Lazar is worth an entire story by himself- he has studied and published on a staggering array of topics, from early Talmudic studies to modernist Irish literature, and when I left school, he was working on translating an 11-volume medieval Spanish Biblical interpretation. He is fluent in 13 languages, survived a Belgian concentration camp as a 9-year old boy, and is one of the most approachable of the “rockstar” professors that I met. Like many professors, his office is a pile of paper, he forgets to hand back assignments, and his lectures are free-form discussions of the texts at hand (leading some students to wonder if he is descending into senility). Still, the last time I saw him, three years after graduating from USC, he remembered my name, my seminar paper on Beckett’s Malone Dies, and then asked me how graduate school at UC Irvine was going.

When I showed him the Chagall book, he got an excited look, like he hadn’t thought of Chagall or his poetry in years. Apparently, through academic excellence and the street cred that withstanding a starvation camp gets you, he had a lot of cachet among Jewish artists (after all, we’re talking about the guy who helped Elie Wiesel trim Night down from a 600+ page rant against the Holocaust and those who let it happen to a slim, devastating, perfect volume on what happens when humans lose sight of humanity), leading Chagall to get in touch with him about translating his poetry from Russian into French, where it was to be published. According to Lazar, Chagall was unhappy with the first round of translations, since the poems seemed flat and unpoetic. He asked Lazar to embellish on his stark lines, leading to a not-so-faithful-to-the-original first publication of the poems. The version I had had been corrected by another translator to strip away some of Lazar’s interventions, although whether or not the new translations represent a return to the original or yet another intervention by yet another translator is unclear.

Like any good literature student, I pull the book out from time to time intending to read the poems, but I always end up looking at the pictures. In a book full of hacked-up poetry, the black lines on the bright white pages evoke a purity that Chagall just couldn’t produce with words.

I’ve Never Been More Excited About a Book I Won’t be Able to Understand

I’m happy to see that the Serafini article I wrote is the most-viewed page on this blog… I worked hard enough on it, so it’s pretty gratifying that people are taking the time to read it (well, I’m sure people aren’t reading ALL of it, but still). Anyway, for those that didn’t make it to the end (or for those who skipped to the pictures), I ended by mentioning an edition of Kafka’s In the Penal Colony illustrated by Serafini that I don’t expect ever to find. Well, since I finished that article, I’ve been spending a lot of time researching books that Serafini appears in, in hopes of assembling a wide-ranging collection of his work. His art has appeared in a handful of Italian art books (books that are available on Abebooks, although they’re pretty expensive to have shipped from Europe, especially with the Euro so frustratingly strong right now), and I think I even found a collection of short stories that he contributed to… also, various compilations of modern interior designers feature Serafini (I picked up one published in the US for $6 on Amazon the other day).

If I were going to separate Serafini books into tiers (as collectors often do), I’d classify “A” items as those written and illustrated by Serafini (such as the Codex and the Pulcinellopedia) or books dedicated to him (such as the Luna-Pac book), “B” items as books featuring his illustrations throughout (such as the vaporous In the Penal Colony), and “C” items as anthologies in which he appears. I’m fairly certain that I’ve collected all the “A” items, but a recent discovery thickened the plot significantly as to the “B” items… (As for “C” items, I’m sure there are a bunch of Italian books I’ve never heard of that he appears in… if I could find something pre-Codex, however, I’d be ecstatic.) An unfamous author (at least to English-speakers) named Maria Sebregondi published a book called Etimologiario in 1988, and it features a bunch of Serafini illustrations. The book is on its way to me from Italy, and I’ll post more about it when I get it in a couple weeks. From what I’ve seen, the illustrations are in pencil, similar to the Pulcinellopedia. Really interesting, however, is that the book is apparently a deconstrution of written language, which is a subject about which Serafini would seem to have a lot to say.

Like the title says, I’m in the dark until I find a friendly Italian person who can translate some of the book for me, but I’m still pretty damn excited about it. I mean, I’ve spent hours researching Serafini, and I had no idea this book existed. It’s listed at various websites, but never with Serafini as the illustrator, which is why I was never aware of it. Anyway, stay tuned for more, including as many pictures as I have the patience to upload to Flickr.

January 2022