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.

7 books
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.)

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.

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.

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.

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