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.

5 books
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.

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.

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.)

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.

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. 

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