Recently, the new fad of book sculpting was brought to my attention. In this process, old books are cut up or torn apart, reshaped, recolored, and generally gutted to make fascinating new pieces. It took a moment to recover from my horror that these books were being cut up, which appears to be a common reaction amongst bibliophiles. How could they harm these poor, defenseless books for the sake of “art”? Once I stopped clutching my pearls, though, I started to reevaluate that position. Yes, some books were harmed in the making, but isn’t that a better fate than being boxed up and sent to a final resting place on a shelf in someone’s attic/garage/used bookstore, to gather dust? In some ways these books are being rescued and brought to new life.
The artists take painstaking efforts to create their pieces. I can barely draw a stick figure, so I can’t even come close to imagining the (frustrating, I’m sure) precision required. On her website, Su Blackwell admits that she even takes the time to read through the book once or twice before starting, letting its meaning soak in before moving forward. Fellow book sculptor Brian Dettmer uses surgical tools to reshape the books he chooses, dissecting them to create new meaning from old forms. I think what I was initially misunderstanding as disrespect for books is actually just a different kind of reverence.
So, while I can’t fathom attempting this myself, I think that these artists should be admired, not chastised. For what is a book’s purpose but to constantly be reworked, reinterpreted, and given new meaning by its readers? These artists clearly have a respect for what the book once was and are just giving us a new way of seeing the text.