Saturday, January 30, 2010

A special book

The book comes in a convincing faux-tin slip case, representing the real tin box in which Dreyfus stored his journals to protect them from the paper-ravaging conditions on the island.

I was lucky enough to get a close look at a very special limited edition book, recently acquired by my father for a great sum. Cahiers de l'isle du Diable presents the journals of Alfred Dreyfus written while on Devil's Island. The book is in French, so I can't say anything much about its content, but Editions Artulis/Pierette Turlais have made a beautiful book object as a limited edition of 30o (published in 2009).

One of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me is the exposed spine, visible even when the book is in its slipcase. Usually a book's spine is only deliberately exposed to show off fancy hand-stitching. This book appears to have machine sewn signatures with a slight sticky memory of book glue, the sort of spine that is inevitably hidden inside a cover.

The practical advantage of this kind of spine exposure is that the book can easily be opened flat, without any damage to the cover.

I'm guessing that the designer included this feature as another representation of the original conditions which Dreyfus was writing in 1898. Was it usual then for blank notebooks to have an exposed spine? Although the spine does not conform with popular book arts ideas of a spine worth exposing, it appeals to my post-modernist sensibility, and in combination with the faux-tin slipcase, offers a strong, edgy, industrial first impression.

Easing Cahiers de l'isle du Diable out of the slipcase, my industrial first impression of was immediately countered by the soft faux-vellum cover of the book itself. The front pages are also transluscent paper, allowing multiple pages to be perceived simultaneously from the outside, inviting one into the book. The paper's transparency is deceptive, as my father tells me that the contents of the journals are opaque, enigmatic and contested by scholars (not unlike the life of Dreyfus himself).

The cover, and the first section of the book are fascimile, photographic reproductions of Dreyfus's actual journal pages. These are heavily decorated with repetitive images, doodles mostly based around an X, embellished with more or less symmetrical lobes and curves to seem organic: as in pictures of brains or intestines or other organs/organisms.

Even the edges of the pages, on all three sides, have been printed with the doodles.

Some pages are entirely filled with these doodles, while others have Dreyfus's neat copperplate handwriting and occasionally an engineering or mathematical diagram. Dreyfys was imprisoned on Devil's Island for five years, and filled thirty-odd journals during that time, but only three of them survived to be included in this book.

Dad invested in this book as reseach towards a book he is writing about how the Dreyfus Affair transformed the collective imagination at the turn of the twentieth century. Early in the twenty-first century, this publication exemplifies a contemporary phenomena transforming our ideas of books from neutral technologies for storing/dispersing words and images, into art objects which embody imaginative technologies for sharing complex experiences, memories and projections.

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