And so books entered our lives ...

Books radiate imagination. Marked and creased, buckled by the heat of the sun, fluted by damp, they gather associations and furnish our intimate lives. Bookshelves: an array of ed spines, muted colours, sheer and stratified, fusty with neglect, darkening a room; they bear down, greedy for attention.

The corpus of culture and its corpse, books carry our dreams and bear the deadweight of convention. Rational thought, ed communication and liminal imagination are entangled in the book’s paradoxical properties as the formality of the library threatens to smother the flames and generosities of the imagination.

The book is a precise technology, with an intrinsic propriety, a formal logic that requires only to be unfolded, page-by-page - an object seemingly inimical to the imagination. But the true meaning that books have for us eludes this logical framework. We pick books up and set them down, begin reading, as we wish; read them partially, or not at all; neglect and give them away. Reading is not constant: the way we read, as a culture and as individuals, alters with time.

It is in the use we make of them, not only in reading but in the reassuring and inspiring presence that they have, that books discover their full meaning. We need a new proprioception of the book.

In the modern era, writing, reading and the book have been transformed and the rationalism of print challenged. Successive generations of the avant-garde have developed new models of consciousness and new conceptions of the structure of visual and written language. These have in turn re-shaped book design and typography - an obvious example being Concrete poetry. The process is symbiotic: Thought cannot be separated from Imagination. The philosophy of the book - of Jakobson, Blanchot or Barthes - cannot be separated from the poetry of the book - of Khlebnikov, Olson or Jabes.

Small presses and poet and artist publishers effected a revolution with their wilful, adventurous and untutored approach to publishing. They took possession of all of the possibilities that print technology offered ? from offset litho, letterpress, photocopiers, mimeo printers, to typewriters, letraset and rubber-stamps. The attitude of this disparate community is summed up by Robert Creeley: For me, and the other writers who came to be involved, it was a place defined by our own activity and accomplished altogether by ourselves ...

Whether in the mass editions of Mayakovsky and El Lizzitsky, small poetry presses and magazines, or in artists books, however catalogued and shelved, the vivid investigative energy of these publications illuminates an entire era. These individuals worked with little expectation of audience or profit and established a model that was repeated in the self-publishing strategies of experimental composers, musicians, and film-makers, Punk being a prime example.

I grew up in a cottage heated by heavy storage heaters and insulated by book-lined walls. New books arrived daily, in parcels addressed to my father, covered with exotic stamps: Kyoto, Mexico City, New York, Vienna. Books were the common currency of friendship. Books were the news. Exploring this poet’s library I discovered City Lights Pocketbooks, Cape Editions, Something Else Press; Coracle, Trigram and Moschatel; Poor.Old.Tired.Horse, Aggie Weston’s, Roy Rodgers, Chocolate News; books by Gertrude Stein, Jackson Mac Low, Louis Zukofsky, the Noigrandres poets and Wien Gruppe.

I immediately wanted to belong to this community of itinerants, enthusiasts and eccentrics. I began by selling a few of the rarer titles to poetry dealers such as Alan Halsey and Peter Riley, who continue to play such a key role. They are part of a great circulatory system - poets, artists, publishers, booksellers and collectors who together form an economy, quite separate from the established book trade. Despite being a community apart which, as Creeley suggests, was self-defined, many of those involved became acutely sensitive to the conventions and idioms of publication and book distribution. Their work pioneered new models of consciousness but it also showed an enthusiasm for how the work found its way in the world. John Calder’s involvement in the Paperback Bookshop in Edinburgh, or Sol LeWitt’s in Printed Matter Bookstore in New York being two examples. The most exciting and enduring practitioners presented their work as a library, offering their audience the opportunity to subscribe to a new vision of the world.

For me the book revolution is the great adventure of the Modern era.

Alec Finlay
2001, slightly revised 2002

Selections from the editor’s preface to The Libraries of Thought and Imagination

Alec Finlay (ed): The Libraries of Thought and Imagination,pocketbooks (pb12): Edinburgh 2001,
ISBN 0 7486 6300 2
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