Thomas Girst

Cultural Manager; Writer / Product Design / Germany / BMW Group

Thomas Girst’s Book List

The existence of books is one of the greatest achievements of mankind. The things we think about—the things that matter (life, love, death, eros, logos, thanatos)—have already been thought of thousands of years before. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants. It is through books that we can communicate with the past, like lighthouses along the shoreline, as Baudelaire once said. It is through books that we can delve into any culture on the planet at any time. Books need not to have anything to do with morals, but besides knowledge they have a lot to do with empathy and experience.

Books require solitude but with them we are never alone. Books are as important as friends. And your library reveals more about you than your public persona. If only it would support my lifestyle and family, I would be happiest spending my days doing research in libraries and archives all over the world, writing books within rooms upon rooms filled with books from floor to ceiling.

8 books
Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann must be the most sought-after illustrator on the planet. His book Abstract City, published last year, includes his great visual work for the New York Times blog of the same name. The book’s epilogue is the bonus track to the 16 chapters that precede it. These illustrated thoughts on the “creative process” should be mandatory reading—and not only for those working in the cultural or artistic spheres. Sophistication and smiles do go together.

The BMW Group celebrated 40 years of cultural commitment in 2011. To mark this occasion, Stefan Sagmeister designed the publication CULTURE, featuring our cultural partnerships. The concept is unconventional: CULTURE is not only a book to browse through, but as it also features an integrated, remote-controlled car, it is a book that can be driven around. A limited edition, it was not available for sale. Each of the 1,488 copies is hand-signed and a unique specimen. Arranged together as a whole, all the book covers would create a 7 x 7-meter square depicting a graphically abstracted image of the legendary BMW “four cylinder” building—the company headquarters in Munich built by Karl Schwanzer in 1972—from a bird’s-eye view. It was all jolly good fun to work with Stefan. The book was awarded many international design prizes and we loved the subtlety as well as the humor of the entire approach. Corporate publications usually only last a few moments, from opening the envelope to throwing them in the dustbin. Our book is a unique work of design that no one who has received it ever wants to part with.

Marcel Proust

Between the ages of 14 and 16, reading Proust was my greatest reading experience ever. I wanted to hold off until retirement to reread In Search of Lost Time but am rereading this 4,000-plus-page novel now. Proust gave his life to his writing and in the end had to leave his greatest achievement unfinished after working on it daily for over a decade, barely leaving his room—or bed, for that matter. There are those who have read him and those who haven’t. Just as an orchestra may play Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 in B minor in front thousands of spellbound listeners in a huge concert hall, or just as every single feeling everyone on earth has had, or will be experiencing, is already contained within the lines of Shakespeare, so Proust’s magnum opus and the tremendous scope of thought that went into it constitute an almost otherworldly, beautiful reminder that humankind’s existence on this planet is not entirely in vain. Radiant intelligence, intellect, and an inspiring vision transmitted through literature are able to reinforce our fleeting trust in the true achievements of our species.

Though the original book was published in many subsequent parts by Gallimard in Paris, with its standard, forever unequaled typographic cover design, the 1979 German edition I am currently rereading is lovely to hold and look at as it is so poetically basic. Its design (the title appears only on the spine—horizontally, as Theodor W. Adorno preferred) harks back to that of the 18th and 19th centuries and thus ever so subtly underlines Proust’s absolute timelessness. There are entire books written on Proust and painting and how much the visual world meant to him and what a keen observer he was. I would recommend to anyone to start off with Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997)—because he will, forever.

Robert Musil

The cover of the first edition of the first part of Robert Musil’s amazing literary undertaking that is The Man Without Qualities was devised by E.R. Weiss in 1930 for the publisher Rowohlt of Hamburg. Bauhaus and Russian constructivism come to mind. Simplicity and beauty.

Like many great things, the novel remained unfinished as Musil passed away in 1942 before its completion. Its scope and ambition is as breathtaking as it is beautiful. Musil could not let go. If it weren’t for the polite insistence of his publisher throughout the years, no installment of his major work would have seen the light of day during the writer’s lifetime. A reminder that books as well as the creative process behind them are a shared effort, engaging many, in constant need of passion and professionalism. Poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Wordsworth once said, while according to Blake, “only the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Both exercises are no solitary endeavors.

Also see The Man Without Qualities.


Robert Walser

Robert Walser (1878–1956) loved to take long walks. One day, coming down a hill in the forest surrounding the small Swiss village Herisau, he sank onto the ground, into the soft snow, never got up again and thus passed away. For almost the last three decades of his life, Walser had been confined to mental homes. While many thought he had stopped writing altogether, Walser composed entire novels in tiny letters (no larger than five millimeters or one-seventh of an inch) written by hand with a pencil. Deciphered only after his death, most of the prose and poetry contained on hundreds of single sheets of paper was published posthumously, 30 years later.

Walser, his works brimming with child-like wonderment, is the wildest, most subtly erotic, humorous, and intelligently confusing writer one can think of—a contemporary of Kafka with whom he shares a sense of alienation and a fascination for slightly altered realities. Certainly not intentionally, his “micrograms” are a visual testimony to the possibilities at the faraway outskirts of the written language.

James Joyce

The 1972 German edition of Joyce’s 1916 novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is an example of the great book design by Willy Fleckhaus for the Frankfurt-based publisher Suhrkamp. Fleckhaus also art-directed Twen magazine together with Heinz Edelmann and his visual language for Suhrkamp continued for almost half a century. Out of the thousands of books he designed (where, as for Bibliothek Suhrkamp, only the color of the cover and that of the horizontal line under the title would change in countless variations), I picked a most inspiring read by James Joyce as he is almost as dear to me as Proust, certainly on a par with Walser and Musil.

Also see A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

William Gaddis

The Recognitions, the first novel by one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, went almost completely unrecognized upon its publication in 1955. Apparently, the only prize it won was for its jacket design, according to Jonathan Franzen, one of many contemporary writers to whom Gaddis is a great source of inspiration. A small vertical signature at the cover’s lower right corner reveals the typographic design to be by Janet Halverson, who went on to create many book designs for novels by Joan Didion and Maya Angelou, among others. As for Gaddis, despite his first novel’s failure to attract the critics (or an audience), he went on to be celebrated as a great force in literature.

Gaddis is a demanding and challenging writer. Just as Bach can hardly be enjoyed without giving in to him entirely, without concentration and devoting our time, so William Gaddis, at least in the first two of his total of only five novels, demands our full attention. This is a lesson to be learned, as reading him can be of great benefit to our many ways of life. The Recognitions, besides many other things, is about forgery, the original versus the fake, the genuine versus the facsimile, the origins and urges of creativity—in regard to art as well as our human interrelationships. It is an incomparable source of recognition for so many things going on in our daily lives today. Once we have allowed Gaddis to lead the way through his universe, there is laughter, and humor abounds.

Marcel Duchamp

My library contains over 200 books on or by Marcel Duchamp, including many of his original designs. For Designers & Books I singled out the 1945 issue of View magazine (bound as a book in a special edition of 100 copies), with its cover by Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp also designed many book covers throughout his career.

The influence of View’s publisher, Charles Henri Ford, and his importance for European as well as American art of the 20th century, is not to be underestimated. Already at the age of 16, Ford was the publisher of the literary journal Blues, highly praised by Gertrude Stein. Among all the amazing things he accomplished until he passed away in 2002 was View, which introduced many international modernist and avant-garde poets and artists to an English-speaking audience.

Marcel Duchamp was not only one of the greatest and most intelligent minds of the 20th century, he was also a truly innovative graphic designer. Milton Glaser based his famous Bob Dylan poster of 1966 on Duchamp’s Self-Portrait in Profile (1958). He also hailed the artist’s 1953 typographical poster for Sidney Janis’s exhibition New York Dada as a source of inspiration to the entire field. As Steven Heller noted in an e-mail exchange with me, “Marcel Duchamp's magazines, Rongwrong, The Blind Man, and New York Dada prefigured the underground press punk and fanzine cultures that emerged in the U.S. Since these publications were ‘un-designed,’ they gave credence to the idea of anti-design. What Duchamp hath wrought, many in my generation continued.”

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