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Books as Art: Special Collections’ Unique Art of the Book Collection

"True to Life" by Julie Chen
"True to Life" by Julie Chen

Date: October 29, 2010

Contact: Special Collections


A Special Collections Highlight: The Art of the Book Collection

Originally banned in Britain and the U.S., the first edition of James Joyce’s masterwork, Ulysses, was published privately in Paris, in 1922. Only 1,000 copies were printed. In 1981, the University Libraries purchased an original edition of Ulysses for the bargain price of $8,000. The university then commissioned Philip Smith, an internationally-acclaimed, London-based artisan bookbinder, to rework the book’s tattered binding. The project took four years to complete. Smith—who read the work prior to designing its new façade—quipped that just the initial reading took the first two years.

Coming in at almost 1,000 pages (depending on the edition), and featuring a lexicon of 30,030 words (Shakespeare’s oeuvre features a lexicon of around 31,500 words), Ulysses is a book of truly mythological proportions. Fittingly, Smith’s new binding and the case he created for the work—his “book sculpture”—has been described as dark and brooding. As Smith delivered the book to the University Libraries, one viewer in the crowd remarked that the façade looked “as impenetrable as the novel itself.”

The commercial value of the Smith-bound Ulysses has been estimated at upwards of $40,000. In truth, no one knows how much it’s worth. This artist-bound book is now a one of a kind artifact, like a Frank Lloyd Wright house, or a Picasso. We may as well think of it as priceless.

This singular edition of Ulysses is part of Special Collections expansive Art of the Book Collection. The collection consists of limited editions by small presses, miniature books, special volumes created by notable binders (such as Philip Smith), pop-up books, as well as thousands of artists’ books, which come in all different shapes and sizes. With this collection, the Libraries strive to represent the vast array of artistry that falls under the unequivocally ambiguous label of Book Arts.

It’s safe to say, every book in the collection is unique. Consider these examples:

•    Art is a simple, hand-lettered book by Charles Bukowski, and is roughly the size of a silver dollar.
•    In contrast, Al Aaraaf features a poem by Edgar Allen Poe, and is described as a trapezoidal octavo decorated with embossing, pasted-on fibers and color prints from handmade paper plates, all of which is built within a case resembling a truncated, mirrored pyramid, framed in paper boards and backed in blue morocco leather.
•    Keith Christie’s book, Jumping Cholla, features a slipcase weighted with a small bronze sculpture of an old workhorse saddle.

The idea of books as art stretches back in time at least as far as Gutenberg, and his elaborate series of exquisitely rendered Bibles, the text of which was the first to be printed using a movable type printing press. After printing, copies were rubricated by hand, and then decorated, more or less, depending on how much the purchaser was willing to pay. Today, surviving Gutenberg Bibles are renowned for their artistry.

Of course, the printing press also allowed for the mass production of simple texts, and as publishers began to emphasize quantity over quality, the art of the book suffered. Even Shakespeare’s First Folio, although somewhat haphazardly published in 1623 and of significant value today, offered nothing particularly interesting to look at—besides the language itself of course. Books—then, as now—were about words, and nothing else mattered much. Until the advent of the Artist Book.

William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, 1789, was written, printed, engraved and bound by the artist himself, and is one of the earliest examples of a contemporary-styled Artist Book, a book in which words are only one aspect of the whole. In the last century, book artists have continued to build on Blake’s work, thinking of the book itself as an artful object and a playful form, rather than as a mere collection of words. 

Ironically, David Jury—the head of graphic media at the Colchester Institute, School of Art and Design, UK—credits the dawning of the digital age with the current explosion of the book arts scene. As publishing moved towards the digitization of text, traditional letterpresses became obsolete, and many of them ended up in the hands of universities. As Jury says, “With printing equipment thus liberated … the letterpress was discovered by a new generation of artists.” Give artists access to ideas and tools, and “rules of style, method, and content will be willfully, gleefully broken, rediscovered, and rewritten.”

Universities put these tools into the hands of artists, and these artists have used this old technology to revitalize the book arts. The mission behind Special Collections’ Art of the Book Collection is to give University of Arizona (UA) students access to these progressive artistic ideas, in the form of something they can look at, and hold – books. These books are often expensive, and are often printed as very limited editions. This collection gives UA students and faculty access to art and ideas that might otherwise be out of reach.
Special Collections’ latest artist book acquisition is The Lost Journals of Sacajewea, poems by Debra Magpie Earling, illustrated by Peter Rutledge Koch. This large book features an 18th century-style Fells typeface, the book’s text and photo images are printed on handmade paper, bound at the press, and the book’s distinctive folding cover derives from “smoked buffalo rawhide cover paper,” designed and handmade specifically for this project. The book’s spine features beadwork, and two small-caliber bullet casings. This book is a work of art, certainly, and only 70 copies were printed. Special Collections has number 4.

Students interested in letterpress printing, papermaking and binding, should visit the UA’s Book Art Collective for more information on how to get involved in the book arts scene.

Book arts enthusiasts might be interested to know that Julie Chen, internationally-known book artist and art educator, will be speaking at the UA’s Poetry Center, on November 5, at 4:00 p.m. Founder of Flying Fish Press, Chen’s work emphasizes the idea of the book as a physical object and a time-based medium. Her artist book, True to Life is available for viewing in Special Collections.

All books – including those in Special Collections Art of the Book Collection and a selection of photography-related artist books at the Center for Creative Photography – can be located via the Libraries’ catalog and are available for viewing upon request.