Poetry News

Four Exemplars of the Illustrated Book

By Harriet Staff


At Literary Hub, Buzz Poole looks at "four great examples of the genre" of the illustrated book! The piece highlights Rebecca Solnit's Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas; Dear Data, with designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec; Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart; and Tom Phillips's A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. A glimpse into this last one (read about all of these beauties here):

Considering Shakespeare and Company’s history, it’s not outlandish to speculate that at some point in time a tattered copy of W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document might have been found on the shelves. Tom Phillips, however, found his copy in an antiques market on Peckham Rye in south London. It was 1966 and the novel cost three pence. Inspired by William Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique, Phillips had been looking for a cheap volume in order “to push these devices into more ambitious service,” as he wrote in the fourth edition of A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. Burroughs didn’t invent cut-up writing, he’d just furthered the notion of expression through Dadaist chance operations championed by the likes of Tristan Tzara. Phillips, on the other hand, worked randomly but left nothing to chance. And as the multiple editions of A Humument bear witness, he revels in the idea of limitless possibility. Now, 50 years since the project’s inception, the final edition demonstrates how stories can be equally organic and contrived, like topiaries. From the outset of this project, Phillips found in each page of Mallock’s staid novel story after story emerging in illustrative conversions of the text that isolated words to convey new meaning. There are even characters, including Bill Toge—a protagonist whose appearance only occurs on pages that include the word “together” or “altogether”—and Irma, “who haunted the courtyard of womanhood a wistful mirage constantly coming back to touch his verse.” A Joycean riverrun love story flows. Over the more recent editions some page treatments have remained unchanged. But others have evolved, like page four, which addresses September 11 in no uncertain terms. No longer are there cracked pavement shapes obscuring all the text but for “See, it is feminine / this was broken by / poetry, / read on, / emotions.” The page now reads: “Pasted on the / present / see, it is / nine / eleven / the time singular / which / broke down / illusion”; a roman numeral 9/11 anchors two panels of water-color chaos and two World Trade Center images that also feature Dante and Goya, evoking myth that is ancient and sinister, as well as King Kong-hokey. It is a profound book of ideas culled from the work of another author, who never would have believed that his novel contained multiple other narratives, involving art world farce and charged sexual innuendo.