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Reading Between the (Nonexistent) Lines

Library of Congress’s Mark Dimunation on interpreting meaning from artistic book forms and formats.

Mark Dimunation

November 18, 2014—In many volumes, the meaning of a book comes solely from the ideas conveyed by the printed text it contains, but other tomes invite more interpretation from the reader. Pages in Keith Smith’s Book 91 are punched with holes and woven with string; Jen Bervin’s Dickinson Fascicles features Emily Dickinson’s unconventional and expressive punctuation marks, but omits the poet’s words.

Drawing meaning from just these kinds of books was the topic of Wednesday’s Philip and Frances Hofer Lecture, delivered by Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress. “Form and content comment and reflect on each other,” Dimunation explained, creating a dialogue between object, text and reader.

Using examples from the collection of the Library of Congress, Dimunation provided a detailed history of the modern artist’s book to an audience of artists, bibliophiles and letterpress enthusiasts at Lamont Library. Examples included a broad spectrum of handmade books: artisanal editions of works authored by James Joyce and Franz Kafka display their artistry in the care taken with typesetting and binding, while other books express their meaning through form or interaction with the reader.

Random Thoughts on Hope by Boston-based artist Laura Davidson is one such example. It consists of a mahogany box lined with painted paper and containing a set of nested circles that, when turned, form various four-word poems on the theme of hope. Works like these call on readers and critics to forge a new conceptualization of the book as a conduit of meaning, according to Dimunation.

“It is by observing, reading, and interacting with these books that we will move to a new understanding” of what books are and how we interpret their meaning, he said.

The Philip and Frances Hofer Lecture series is dedicated to subjects of special interest to students, scholars and practitioners of printing and book arts. The series honors the late Philip Hofer, a Harvard librarian and book collector who founded the Department of Printing and Graphic Arts at Houghton Library and served as its first curator.