Susan Johanknecht

The Symbolic Book: A Travelogue


Just inside the main entrance to the British Museum is the ‘Grenville Shop of Silk & Replicas’. Glass-fronted cupboards line its walls and in them are panels of fake book spines, carefully moulded and painted to look like leather. Behind this ‘library’ is hidden storage space for the stocks of replica objects. At the rear of the shop, through a doorway, are high ceiling spaces lined with empty bookshelves where the King’s Library and manuscript rooms once were.

The King’s Library moved in 1998 to St. Pancras and it is now displayed there like a large glassed-in book sculpture at the centre of the British Library. Viewed from the café, the red leather spines glint with gold, inaccessible and tantalising. Downstairs in the foyer, a bronze bench in the form of an open book is chained to the floor, where tired visitors sit on a page. Absence and replica.

During summer 2003 I made a discontinuous and inconclusive search through London and museums for the symbolic book.

In the National Gallery the book appears primarily in portrait paintings as an accoutrement or accessory, a prop for the arm of an ambassador or aristocrat. It is either a closed codex which can only be ‘read’ in terms of what it signifies – contained knowledge and cultural authority – or an open one, signifying the activity of reading and the powers of literacy which accrues learning, wealth and power, both religious and secular.

Through the galleries a good many St. Jeromes study in the wilderness, books piled beside him, sometimes a finger pointing to a relevant passage in an open book. Saints and Sibyl’s are painted poised to turn a page or look up with their fingers inserted in a closed book, as if just interrupted. There are numerous images of the Virgin teaching her child to read, with open book and small baby balanced on her lap. In Holbein’s ‘Portrait of Erasmus’ (1523) the great man with a satisfied smile rests both his hands on a book clearly inscribed ‘The Labours of Hercules of Erasmus of Rotterdam’. Scholarship and authority.

I am drawn to a painting I have never seen before, ‘Parisian Novels’ (1887) by Vincent Van Gogh. It is a still life of around twenty yellow-backed books strewn across a tabletop. The label indicates this is homage to French naturalistic novels such as those of Zola, which were sold in yellow wrappers. From a distance the table-landscape of books reads as a colour study; small amounts of red and green on a ground of yellows, dull pink and grey. The repeated book form is abstracted and closed, functioning as a metaphor for inaccessible memories or narrative.


In my memory are clasped and jewelled books in glass vitrines at the V&A and Wallace Collection.


Another day, walking along the river, I noticed that Paul McCarthy’s giant inflatable ‘Blockhead’ sits on top of three chunky book shapes forming a plinth of (children’s?) books to support the sad, big-nosed character. Inside Tate Modern, I searched in vain for an example of John Latham’s charred and painted books attached to canvas. In the ‘Landscape/Matter/Environment’ section I find Anselm Kiefer’s ‘The Rhine’ (1981) a massive book of woodcuts on a rough metal stand. Viewers are kept well away (“even clean hands leave marks and damage surfaces”) and the stand is tall, placing the book at picture-on-the-wall height. As with Kiefer’s ‘High Priestess’ curved-bookcase sculpture, scale and weight physically intimidate the viewer into thoughts of nationalistic, authoritarian, and potentially destructive uses of the book.

The ‘Still-Life/Object/Real Life’ section begins with ‘Inattentive Reader’ (1919) by Matisse. A woman stares out from a grey and pink room with a forgotten book at her elbow. Further along is Daniel Spoerri’s ‘Prose Poems’ (1959-1960) a vertically hung table-top with the remains of a meal, empty crockery, full ash tray, and a poetry book, literally glued onto it. Several books were spotted within Cornelia Parker’s ‘Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View’ but these are just part of the ‘everyday flotsam’ she refers to – the book as another ‘thing’ within material culture.

The final room of this section displays ‘Still-Life with a Volume of Wither’s ‘Emblemes’’ (1696) a vanitas painting which includes a trompe-l’oeil book with a readable poem. The emphasis here is on contemplation and text. Near to it is Picasso’s lithograph ‘Still Life with Black Jug and Skull’ (1946) where the skull literally bites down on an open book. No text now, the book consists of rows of white marks on a dark ground – and angry, speechless, post-war vanitas. I remember the John Latham burnt books I had initially come looking for.

In the last fifty years, many things have been done to the book. Dieter Roth created books of found printed material such as the Daily Mirror, comics, or colouring books, which were fragmented, rebound, drilled into. He made ‘Literaturwurst’ (1961) from chopped up publications mixed with lard and spices. In 1964, Marcel Broodthaers exhibited the remaining copies of his poetry book ‘Pense-Bete’ embedded into a plaster base. John Latham famously initiated an event in 1965 wherein a group of people chewed a copy of Clement Greenberg’s ‘Art & Culture’, spitting it into a bottle to ferment his piece ‘Still and Chew’. Buzz Spector built room-sized sculptures of stacked books. Les Bicknell used chainsaws to make iconic wooden books in the 1980’s, and now applies the concept of the book to footpaths and town centres. Tom Phillips over-painted a Victorian novel to build a new narrative in ‘A Humument’. Denise Hawrysio cut all the faces from an acting agency book to create a lacy ghost-filled directory, ‘Cut-Out’ (1993). Raphael Vella reduced books to pulp which he spilled from bookshelves and library furniture.

As this partial list indicates, it is the process or ritual of transformation, whether in addition or erasure, which is important in these pieces – the what-is-done-to-it and how. Transformed books are often found in libraries or special collections, rather than the gallery. This setting widens their symbolic function, reflecting on the library and the collection as institutions, as well as critiquing the book itself as a mass-produced commodity. Abundance and preservation, fragments of a whole in the place of memory.


On a very hot day I walk down a suburban street in Peckham to see John Latham’s ‘Flat Time Ho’, completed in spring 2003. Even though I know what I’m likely to see, the two giant interleaved books horizontally protruding from a 15’ shop window are an incongruous surprise. Their thick card pages bow like gills of a mushroom, glued and bolted in place. One spine reads: “How the Univoics Still Unheard”, the other cover is not attached but suspended within the glass. Both books have been pushed midway through the window (monitor screen?) to be part inside, part outside, poised to share their content only with each other. A book-event frozen in time.

My itinerary of symbolic books ends in Southwark on my iBook. I wonder, as the cultural arena of knowledge shifts to ongoing information sited on the computer, whether a new visual symbol will be needed for what are now called ‘domains of content’? The examples I found suggest not. Just as the King’s Library becomes a more culturally/socially complex monument each time it is moved, so too can the symbol of the book incorporate loss, nostalgia, and change as eloquently in the twenty-first century as it did in the sixteenth.


A version of this essay originally appeared in the catalogue for ‘The Book Show’ published by Utopia Press with The Nunnery and The Wordsworth Trust.


Susan Johanknecht is an artist and writer who works under the imprint of Gefn Press. Recent books include Modern (Laundry) Production and Subsequent Drainage on Folding Rocks. She is currently Subject Leader of MA Book Arts at Camberwell College of Arts. Her forthcoming project, Cunning Chapters, co- curated with Katharine Meynell, will be launched at the British Library in 2007.

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