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
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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