Warren Lehrer

Graphic Designer / United States / EarSay Inc.

Warren Lehrer’s Book List

I suppose it’s better to be addicted to books than a lot of other objects of desire and consumption. Still, when the walls of your home and your office are lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled to capacity—two books deep on a shelf—it can be a sign of problems lurking. Among other hazards of being a polyamorous bibliophile—choosing favorites is nearly impossible.

For this list, I decided to focus on works of visual literature: books (mostly fiction, some non-fiction, a few hybrids) whose visual composition is an integral part of the writing. The authors of these books employ a wide range of visual, typographic, and structural strategies. They seek to discover the shape of thought, give form to metaphors, reflect different kinds of relationships, syntax, rhythms of speech, qualities of character, and ways of reading. Most of these titles also incorporate images as a part of the storytelling. In some, the text becomes image, and images are part of the text. One book on this list uses only images to tell the story. Many of these authors take advantage of the physical properties of the book as a medium. Some put it all together themselves; others collaborate with designers and artists.

Stéphane Mallarmé’s vision (from over a century ago) of a radically new kind of book never really took hold beyond the “lunatic fringes” of the literary, art, or book-reading worlds. Although, now that the second wave of the digital revolution threatens the book (as we have known it), and writers have all kinds of writing machines at their disposal, a greater number of odd-looking novels and works of visual literature are finding their way into the hands of readers. It may not be a revolution, but in light of these interesting times for “vis lit,” here is my list of a few landmark or notable (modern and contemporary) works, and some comments. I also include three scholarly books that chronicle the field.

22 books
Eugene Ionesco
Robert Massin

Just as the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco was dissatisfied with the naturalistic theater conventions of his day when he wrote his 1948 “anti-play” The Bald Soprano, the French graphic designer Robert Massin sought to break open the traditions of play scripts in his 1964 page staging of the absurdist work. High-contrast photographs of the cast/actors confront the reader from the very first page, and are used throughout to indicate who is speaking (à la comic books). Each character is set in a different typeface. Instead of a banal setting of monotonous line after line of text, Massin’s layouts of Ionesco’s turned-upside-down scenarios throb with energy, change with the nature of the dialogue, and reflect the whispers, shouts, revelations, and simultaneous talking that take place on stage. Sentences bend around the corner of a napkin, words wobble and warp between the lips of a man and woman who come to realize that they are married to each other, and hell breaks loose in a layered argument that careens across the page at different angles—all done decades before Adobe software and Apple computers became tools of the trade.

Paul Zelevansky

This modern-day illuminated manuscript is the third in a trilogy of books (published from 1981 to 1991) depicting the known world according to the Hegemonians, a desert people from somewhere in the Middle East. Drawing on a wealth of knowledge—about ancient cultures and literary references from the Old Testament to Moby Dick—writer/artist Paul Zelevansky invents his own mythological people (their history and lore) using rubber stamps, typewriter, hand lettering, drawings, found photography, and a host of invented hieroglyphs. Many of the pages in this book (and the accompanying set of stamps that come with it) stand on their own as works of word/image art, but it is the book in its entirety, and its case for a parallel reality, that I keep coming back to.

Michael Snow

This pioneering book (1975) by the Canadian filmmaker, photographer, sculptor, musician, and book artist Michael Snow helped prove that you can read pictures—and that a book can be a movie, or at least an alternative medium for a cinematic experience. In fact, an architecture student recently filmed the book, making a kind of out-of-print trailer: vimeo.com/15938335 (it’s wonderful, but don’t judge the book by its movie).

Cover to Cover can be read forward or backward, and is presented entirely through a sequence of photographs—parallax views of the book itself (the front and back covers depict the front and back of a door, respectively); and of Michael Snow walking through the door of a studio (from both sides); placing a record on a turntable (from his vantage point and the turntable’s); and driving (under an overpass) to a gallery, whereupon he picks up the very book you are holding in your hands.

Marjane Satrapi

Following in the tradition of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel/memoir Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (1 and 2) is a coming-of-age story of a girl and her family whose lives are forever affected (but not stopped) by tyrannical, geopolitical events playing out in Iran. Both Spiegeleman’s and Satrapi’s two-volume nonfiction masterworks read like novels. Each transcends comic caricatures by portraying intimate, complex relationships and personal stories against a backdrop of upheaval, war, and living in exile. Those are important, moving, must-reads books. But I really love Satrapi’s follow-up book, Embroideries. It depicts a multi-generational gathering of Iranian women sitting around a table, drinking tea and talking candidly about their lives as women, sex, relationships with men, arranged marriages, faking virginity; sharing all kinds of advice and stories, funny and sad. In Embroideries, Satrapi dispenses with traditional story structure as well as panel frames, allowing the reader to eavesdrop on a layered, “real-time” conversation, and roam more freely within the many embroidered approaches to the page.

Jonathan Safran Foer

This book lives both on my top ten list of novels and as a very credible work of visual literature that broke through to a mass audience. The typography of this beautifully written book is used to distinguish the voices and emotional states of the three narrators: a nine-year-old boy devastated (in his own peculiar way) over the loss of his father on 9/11, and his two grandparents, also grieving over their loss (and a whole legacy of losses). In one climactic section, as the grandfather comes to realize—in a series of unparagraphed pages—that his son perished in a fiery hell, the interline spacing gets tighter and tighter, and the two towers of text on facing pages darken. This comes in stark contrast to an earlier section in which the grandfather is mute, marked by just a few words per page. And one of the most impactful endings I have ever read or seen in a novel (spoiler alert) is expressed only in pictures when the young Oskar Schell reverses the order of newspaper photos of a figure falling from one of the World Trade Towers. The man (perhaps Oskar’s father) rises up, defies gravity, reverses time, and undoes a tragedy, for a moment. Some notable literary critics (including one well-known novelist) have dismissed Foer’s typographic choices and use of images in this book as “gimmicks.”* (They also criticized the boy as being too smart for a nine-year-old, and the plot as being unrealistic.) Their loss. To me, this is a powerfully emotional yet joyfully playful book, and a fine example of typo/graphic form following the function of a text; not by being transparent and clean, but by being in tune with the characters’ inner rhythms and states of being.

*See Zoe Sadokierski’s word cloud analysis of the critical reviews of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in her excellent Ph.D. thesis on visual writing: epress.lib.uts.edu.au/research/handle/10453/20267

Mark Danielewski

Like a Russian Matryoshka doll, this “experimental” novel contains a novel within a novel. It includes an account of a film; has extensive footnotes; and is set in four typefaces that distinguish the four narratives, which are juxtaposed in different columns that sometimes bend at 90-degree angles around the page. It is printed in three colors (or two or one, depending on the edition you have), and was first published as an online novel. Dizzy yet? This is a book people either love madly, or find infuriating, or buy because they like the way it looks, but never read. Once you’re ten pages in, I think it’s hard not to keep reading—because you really want to know what happens next; also the typography helps keep the pace moving. The book is Stephen King spooky too, as much as it also aspires to be Nabokov and David Foster Wallace. The best of House of Leaves revolves around the film narrative of a house that turns out to be bigger on the inside than the outside. Readers, beware the labyrinth within.

Ruth Laxson

Divided into three parts, this stunning volume by book artist Ruth Laxson spans one hundred years of human activity (1900 to 2000). It pairs a timeline of factoids about technological innovations and historical events with a more vernacular (southern American) narrative of personal experiences and reflections. Materials used in making this book (Laxson’s first offset-printed book, I believe, after decades of letterpress printing) evoke technological shifts within the century: the text is handwritten, letterpressed, typewritten, and digitally generated; the images are hand-drawn, cut from paper, photographed, collaged, processed digitally, and printed. Text and image are nearly inseparable. A reader needs to engage the narrative whose lines can cascade, flow, collide, and disperse. It is a completely legible read—you just need to be game to traverse time and story on Laxson’s terms—a suspension I think most readers yearn for in a good book. (A similar juxtaposition of historical timeline and personal narrative shows up in Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel Only Revolutions, published four years later. His book spans 200 years, and features two narrators who remain 16 years old throughout as they progress toward each other from opposite ends of the book.)

Robert Massin

First published in 1970, this comprehensive, profusely illustrated overview of how letters and images have intermingled in art and literature through history and around the world is still the best book ever made on the origins of what I’m calling visual literature. It chronicles the history of how letters and images were pretty much one and the same early on. Though they were separated into distinct fields (art and writing), the impulse to bring them back together continued as evidenced in letterforms intertwined with humans, foliage, and animals; pattern poetry, figured verse, calligrams, shaped poetry and prose; the use of letters in fine art; and modernist movements up to concrete poetry and other text-art of the 1960s. As a practitioner, Robert Massin is mostly known for being an innovator and experimentalist, but he was also a scholar who felt a compulsion to better understand the roots of a tradition he was extending.

Clifton Meador

Clifton Meador is a writer, photographer, typographer, and printer—a book artist whose career and evolution has a long, slow (fascinating) march of its own. This 1996 reflection on the legacy of slavery and the struggle for civil rights in America begins with a Talmudic structure (which places a passage from the Bible between opposing commentaries). Here it is used to pair slave narratives with slave owners’ rationalizations for slavery. The next section takes up most of this slow, rhythmic book. It is paced, spread by spread, by full-bleed photographs that Meador took every mile along the route of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr. After a while, title pages from slave narratives superimpose the roadscapes, floating like ghostly witnesses across the monochromatic Alabama sky. As the book travels toward Montgomery, racist newspaper articles hover in the air, KKK pictograms are knocked out of documentary photographs of the ‘65 march, and the book’s color scheme evolves from black-and-white with a yellow cast, to a greenish duotone, to black and blood/rust red as the arc of time bends toward progress, but only through struggle and a confrontation of competing narratives. Meador grew up in the South, in the 1950s and ’60s, and his own memory and conscience shepherds us through this exquisite, haunting book. Melding the traditions of auteur and Renaissance person, Meador did the photography, designed the typefaces, wrote, compiled, offset-printed, and published this work.

Karen Blixen
Photography and Design by Peter Beard

In this 1975 book about the friendship between Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and her cook Kamante, photographer/collagist Peter Beard creates a mashup of his own astonishing photographs, Blixen’s photographs and writings, and Kamante’s side of the story told through his lyrical watercolors and writings (translated from Swahili). The three perspectives come together in a groundbreaking work that transgresses the (nearly) sacred traditions of photography books and memoirs—into something uniquely sacred and fresh. The original 1975 edition is the one to behold, if you can find it.

Marshall McLuhan
Quentin Fiore

In his movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen—while standing on line to see a movie—gets into an argument with an overly pontificating college professor about the meaning of Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media. To settle the argument, Allen gets the real McLuhan (who happens to be in the lobby) to tell the guy that he knows nothing of his work. This scene was/is so funny partially because McLuhan’s writings were once seen as incomprehensible. In real life, the graphic designer Quentin Fiore initiated the idea to make a book of McLuhan’s writings that would look and feel more like what he was saying. The resulting Medium is the Massage superimposed text and image in ways that parallel the transition of text-based media to “bard” media (radio) and image-based movies and television. The book visualized notions of hot versus cool mediums, how technologies from the wheel to the telephone are extensions of our bodies and create a sense of comfort as well as anxiety. Some pages were printed backward and were meant to be read in a mirror; others were left completely blank. This “experimental” paperback published by Bantam became a best seller and helped popularize McLuhan’s ideas.

Joe Sacco

Despite my evangelizing of visual literature, I have to admit that I’m not a huge reader of graphic novels. Generally, I find the boxes too confining, and the relationship between the images and the text too predictable. But the graphic novel (and the comic strip) has been pried opened in recent decades, both in content and form by some phenomenal artists and storytellers—most notably, Art Spiegelman, Julie Doucet, Harvey Pekar, Alison Bechdel, R. Crumb, Marjane Satrapi, Chris Ware, and Emmanuel Guibert—and their work has brought me in. The “comic book” author/artist I follow the most is war reporter/cartoonist Joe Sacco. He travels to conflict zones throughout the world and reports on the people he meets and conditions he finds, placing himself in the scene as the perpetual self-effacing but curious outsider looking for character and truth. In The Fixer, Safe Area Gorazde, and War’s End, he’s in Bosnia. In Palestine and Footnotes In Gaza, he’s in the occupied territories. In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, he teams up with “recovering war reporter” Chris Hedges to report on areas in America left destitute by profit, progress, and technological advancement (ending in the promise and wackiness of Occupiers in Zuccotti Park). Sacco’s books are not polemical—they are works of on-the-ground, bottom-up journalism. Published in 1996, Palestine is powerfully drawn and written, deeply moving, funny, and heartbreaking. Structurally, Sacco really breaks open the comic book form in the way he shifts point of view, scale, and sequencing of frames, and plays with text as part of his compositions.

I cherish everything Maira Kalman illuminates, from Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (also made into a small opera), to Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, to her children’s books (made with and without her late husband and partner, Tibor). I’m so glad she let us into her heart and head even more with her New York Times journal columns, and even more glad they were compiled into this book. A lot of deserved praise has already been heaped on Principles; I’ll just say that it’s a marvel how seamlessly Kalman bridges word and image, everydayness with big questions, joy with dread, satire and affection.

Reif Larsen

Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the protagonist of this novel is a precocious kid (all of 12 years old). He is traumatized by the death of a family member, goes on a long journey, meets many interesting people, and discovers unexpected things along the way. The young T. S. Spivet travels solo by train from Montana to Washington, D.C. to receive a prestigious award from the Smithsonian given to him for his unusual brand of cartography. The squarish book pairs the primary narrative of the road trip with side columns that annotate Spivet’s inquisitive mind and his archaeological dig into his (heretofore secret) family history. His elaborate maps have little to do with geography and more with diagramming experience and speculation—from cross-talk at the dinner table, and the pleasures of McDonalds, to mythical wormholes in the Midwest. Sometimes the difference between the primary narrative and the marginalia seems arbitrary, but it is worth the trip.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein is one of those very influential, barely read writers. This anthology has a lot of gorgeous writing, including “portraits,” plays (open to much interpretation for dramatists), poems, and selected passages of Stein’s history of everyone—The Making of Americans. My advice: don’t worry about what Stein means at first. Enjoy the music, and the playfully searching,  hermetic cubism of her writing. Once you’re in the deep waters, you can see how really truly funny she is. Stein is not just heady and abstract, but heartfelt, tender, and descriptive. From what I know, she didn’t really care what her pages looked like, but I like looking at them because of their patterns, and her control of the line breaks, which is testament to the poetry of her prose. Gertrude Stein spawned generations of sound poets, pattern poets, minimalist and feminist writers and artists, but it’s worth going back to the source every now and again, even if, at first, it (still) seems shockingly new and strange.

Janet Zweig
Holly Anderson

This 1988 reconsideration of the Sheherezade story from One Thousand and One Nights also reconsiders the notion and experience of a flipbook. A more traditional flipbook, made of drawings of a woman repeatedly putting on a cape, takes place on the lefthand page. The text part takes place on the recto side beginning with the name Sheherezade, which gets larger and larger (and more and more degraded—as in bad photocopy enlargement) until the first of Holly Anderson’s texts emerges from within one of the negative spaces inside the letter e. That text enlarges until another text emerges from inside one of its letters, etc, etc. Although you can fan through this thick volume and enjoy the flip, the reader needs to change the pace in order to read the stories that are told—must be told—as a means of staying alive.

Keith Smith

Keith Smith has written and produced over 200 “artists’ books.” Some are one-of-a-kind, some are published in limited and not-so-limited editions. His textbooks include several bookbinding manuals for artists, and the more methodological “Text in the Book Format” and “The Structure of the Visual Book.” The latter two are a combination of theory, how-to, and illustrated surveys of the field. Both of these titles are based on the premise that books have distinct physical properties and inherent structural qualities worthy of study and exploration, like filmmaking, theater, and songwriting. For the most part, commercial publishing has approached books as convenient vessels for containing texts. Now that iPads and Kindles and other e-tablets challenge that presumption, Smith’s existential considerations of the book as a medium seem all the more relevant. 

Avital Ronell

This 1991 book, published by the University of Nebraska Press, is a breakthrough work within the universe of academic publications. In The Telephone Book, Avital Ronell uses a switchboard as a metaphor for connecting different fields of knowledge. Her interdisciplinary approach in this book (written before the I-word was all the rage in academia) resulted in a philosophical, technological, literary, psychoanalytic, and political history of the telephone. It raises questions about self and other, the impact and use of the telephone in shaping the modern era, and its connection to deeper human yearnings and disorders. Ronell’s daring approach can also be seen in her open-minded collaboration with designer Richard Eckersley (designer of Derrida’s polyvalent Glas). Together, Ronell and Eckersley created a book whose agitated pages, like “the electronic impulses” described within are “flooded with signals.” Interline, interword, and interletter spacing are continuously changing. Words swell and ebb, go in and out of focus, and create the kind of interferences that people with schizophrenia experience when unwanted voices interfere with their own, much like trying to have a conversation on lines whose signals are crossed with others. In the words of Rick Poynor, “The Telephone Book’s lasting impact derives from the playful intelligence and systematic critical purpose with which it puts ‘under erasure’ every rule in the book.”

F. T. Marinetti

I bought this facsimile of F.T. Marinetti’s manifestoes (including Words in Freedom), political writings, and novellas, in a bookshop in Verona, Italy. I had read (and taught) English translations of Marinetti’s writings, and seen reproductions of individual pages, but holding this 1,256-page volume in my hands, leafing through the continuum of its richly inventive pages, left me with a new appreciation. I can’t read Italian, but Marinetti’s contrapuntal settings and full-palette use of hand-drawn, typographic/alphanumeric marks, his “flux and reflux” of weight, size, directional, and rhythmic changes, made for a kind of visceral musical and poetic experience. For such radical work, there is much craft, delicacy, and care. Showing it to students always made me feel like Mary Poppins because of the awe and fascination it solicited. But then it walked, and I miss it. Of course, Marinetti had close ties to the Fascists, and a complex relationship with Mussolini, so maybe it’s okay that I have less opportunity to linger admiringly over his pages.

Steve Tomasula
Stephen Farrell

If the term “graphic novel” wasn’t already taken, and very clearly defined, this could be a good example of what such a thing might look and read like. Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell’s 2003 novel situates the geometric protagonists of Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novel Flatland in a 21st-century post-biological world. Father Square is considering whether to have a vasectomy, while mother Circle and daughter Oval want another child/sibling. The family story double-helixes down vertical staff lines, punctuated by genetic sequences, pedigree charts, and historical arguments for eugenics, cloning perfect babies, and denying “defective persons the right to reproduce. Farrell’s elastic and meticulously articulated design—which also references the language of comic books, big data, and a new-music score—could be accused of overpowering Tomasula’s writing. But no doubt, this is an interesting and ambitious example of an author and designer collaborating as co-equals on a fascinating read. Tomasula and Farrell’s next collaboration, TOC: A New Media Novel, is an interactive DVD that lives at the intersection of book, film, and game.

Johanna Drucker

Johanna Drucker, an important practitioner/scholar, has been mining the territory between literature and art for over two decades in a bevy of books that include The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination; The Century of Artists’ Books; Graphic Design History: A Critical Approach (with Emily McVarish); Figuring the Word: Essays on Books, Writing, and Visual Poetics; and The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art. The latter two titles are especially relevant to this list because of their insightful and careful deconstruction of visual/literary texts. In The Visible Word, after defining a vocabulary and framing a context for a critical analysis of this field of activity, Drucker focuses in on specific works of Apollinaire, Marinetti, Zdanevich, and Tzara. If you are interested in getting beyond how awesome these early 20th-century typographic masterworks look (written in French, Italian, Russian, Dada), and want to understand what they are about—their metaphorical underpinnings, how the form and content come together—get a copy of this book. The reproductions are not great, but you can find them elsewhere.

Graham Rawle

This is one of the most surprising, enjoyable, couldn’t-put-it-down books I have read in years. It’s surprising in a number of ways. First, it’s important to know that this book was assembled (written/composed, pick your verb here) from 40,000 fragments of text snipped from 1960s British women’s magazines. (Rawle apparently wrote a draft of this pulp-noir, gender-bending story, then rewrote it like a mosaic using all these found snidbits.) So, the first thing that is surprising is how unfragmented the writing is. The second surprise is how fabulously scrumptious the sentences are, particularly Rawle’s descriptions, in large part because of his peculiar, painstaking process that produces wildly unexpected (and often funny) phrasings that wouldn’t otherwise come to a writer’s mind. The lion’s share of good Dada poems have numerous bizarrely fantastic lines in them, but the poems remain absurd, for the most part. In Woman’s World, every sentence has meaning and helps move the story forward. The third and perhaps most revelatory surprise is how downright breezy a read this book is, considering that nearly every word or phrase-chunk is a different size and typeface, aligned by hand with glue and exacto knife along wobbly baselines—which flies in the face of (probably) every study ever made about legibility. Ph.D. candidates, this is the basis of a doctorate in waiting.

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