Endpaper Pradeep Sebastian

A real story about imaginary books

A life in Books  

A Life in Books is an illuminated novel written and designed by Warren Lehrer. What attracted me straightaway to the book was the splendour of colour across the book: printed in four colours, it invents text and graphic art in a way that will entertain and provoke readers interested in visual literature.

I have in mind one marvellous aspect of the novel:  it features jacket designs, catalogue descriptions, and actual excerpts for 101 books that don’t exist (except in the world of its creator, Bleu Mobley, the novel’s hero). Page after page you encounter cover designs for physical books invented by Lehrer, along with text that uses at least 60 different typefaces.

Blue Mobley — journalist, college professor, experimental novelist and pop-culture pundit — is in jail for refusing to reveal the name of a confidential source. Finally, he breaks his silence and records his life story in a micro-cassette recorder, tracing his career in the form of a confessional illustrated with a retrospective of all his 101 books with their first edition covers.  

A Life in Books (Goff Books, 2014) has won several awards for what it accomplishes in the genre of Visual Literature. I spoke to the author about some aspects of his work. “My novel belongs to a long tradition of Visual Literature,” Lehrer told me, “that dates back to ancient forms of pattern poetry and illuminated manuscripts, which exploded in the revolutionary ‘experiments’ at the turn of the 20th century by Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Marinetti, and continues today with other artist book practitioners and contemporary authors like Mark Danielewski, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Amaranth Borsuk who are mindful of the visual composition of their texts and of the book as a visual and evolving medium.”

Lehrer also drew inspiration from another long tradition of literary works made up of stories within stories and books within books like The Decameron, 1001 Arabian Nights, Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler, Thomas Bernhard’s collection of 104 short-short stories The Voice Imitator, and several Paul Auster novels. His use of the number 101 is, in part, a tip of the hat to 1001 Arabian Nights, not just numerically, but because Scheherazade kept telling stories in order to survive. In his own way, Bleu Mobley tells his story as a means of survival.  

What I wanted to know most from Lehrer was what it had been like to typographically ‘imagine up’ so many different cover designs for unpublished books. “Designing the covers was great fun for me,” he said. “They came hand in hand with coming up with titles and book ideas. And since Bleu ends up writing books in so many different genres, over the course of five decades, the cover designs had to fit each genre and time period. While I was working on A Life In Books, my mother said it was a shame that I put so much time and energy into making covers that are all contained within a single book when I could have made a lot more money designing real book covers for other people, or coming out with the books myself, one at a time. Now that it’s out and she’s read it, she sees that the book covers are really an integral part of the novel’s text. That’s the main reason I call this an illuminated novel — Bleu’s books (and book covers) help illuminate his story (and vice versa).”

You can read Lehrer’s book in different ways — I kept going back and forth between the stories within the stories of Blue Mobley’s work and his confessional, but more often not reading but just taking in the cover designs. Here is a sample of the kind of stories, concept and design wise, Lehrer invents for Mobley (and these also happen to be some of the author’s own favourites): in ‘Riveted in the Word’, a scholar struggles to regain language after a massive stroke; ‘The Sitter’ is about a 101-year-old woman in a wheelchair, considered by most to have lost her marbles, but still pretty sharp and philosophical and ‘Illuminated Manuscripts’ shows Bleu’s line of book lamps, which can light up a table and give it a warm literary feeling.

Warren Lehrer lectures on Visual Literature and teaches courses in ‘the marriage of writing and visual art as an integrated experience’ in various art and design schools. One of his classes is titled ‘Writing and Designing the Visual Book’. He is working on developing an enhanced book app edition of A Life In Books, which will include animations, short films, breakout galleries, and interactive components. He is also working on a travelling exhibition that will present itself as a Bleu Mobley retrospective. And for fans, who are curious about how some of Bleu’s books develop, he is crowd-sourcing the completion of a different Bleu Mobley book through the website: >www.alifeinbooks.net .

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 9:43:42 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/pradeep_sebastian/endpaper-column-by-pradeep-sebastian-writes-about-a-life-in-books/article6471256.ece

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