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.

4 books
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.

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.

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.

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.

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