The Thing The Book: A Monument to the Book as Object

Miranda July and Jonathan Lethem discuss their contributions to the conceptual subscription service's interpretation of an art book

Writers aren’t the only ones who turn to paper pages as a creative canvas—George Maciunas’ Fluxus Editions, Tom Phillip’s Humument’s “A Humument,” and Tauba Auerbach’s “RGB Colorspace Atlas” are all examples of artists who have explored the infinite potential of the book form. The Thing Quarterly’s interpretation of an “art book” or even “book as object” is unlike anything you’ve ever let collect dust on your coffee table—and has a good dose of saucy humor, too. The object-based periodical’s founders Jonn Herschend and Will Rogan convinced some major names in the contemporary art and design worlds to each contribute a little something, resulting in a part-anthology and part-found-object called “The Thing The Book“—literally leaving no part of the book untouched, from the endpapers to the ribbon bookmarks to the index.

Parts of bookmaking that have become forgotten—an epigraph by conceptual artist John Baldessari, a bookplate from the aforementioned Ed Ruscha himself, a colophon by Guinness World Records-obsessed documentary filmmaker Sam Green—are supported by essays, photographs, drawings and even a flip-book and reading guide. It’s as if Herschend and Rogan have invited a diverse group of more than 30 people over for a potluck dinner, at which guests—inspired by one another—entertain and inform for a memorable night. In her essay “The Artist as Bookmaker,” professor of art history Gwen Allen sums up the The Thing’s endeavor well: “…we can’t be satisfied with fetishizing books as collectors’ items or antiquated curios; we need to think about how the activities of editors, designers, artists, writers, and—not least—readers create meaningful and worthwhile experiences, whether on or off the page or screen.”

“We think of The Thing as a publication. We publish objects and the book is an object, so it just seemed like a natural progression,” co-founder Herschend tells CH. (The Thing Quarterly isn’t taking even a short break from its conceptual subscription service; the super top secret Issue 24, created by fashion designer duo Rodarte with some help from Todd Cole and No Age, will be released this Thursday). “It’s also important to note that both Will and I come from a background where books played an essential role. He was a librarian at SFAI for five years, and I taught high school English Lit in SF for five years. We see The Thing as a physical conversation with literature and art, and the book for us is the ultimate delivery vehicle for both. We also like the fact that the physical book carries history with it. I have a bookshelf at home that sometimes feels like the way a tree is supposed to work when you count its rings. It’s a physical history of my life in books.”

This book is very conscious of the fact that it’s more than just reading material, and takes up physical space in the real world. A humorous video highlights its multiple different functions: cheese plate, beer coaster, even an eye mask to block out the light. Whether you start reading from the back or use a page as some kindling to start a fire, there’s no right or wrong way to read THE BOOK.

I don’t know how the author of the original text feels about the “swelling clit” stuffed between pages 44 and 45, I’m sure I’ll meet him at some point and we’ll discuss it.

Two recognizable contributors are Miranda July and writer Jonathan Lethem, who embraced their specific assignments and took advantage of their physical (and theoretical) limitations. “I had a kind of deferred, but embarrassed excitement about footnotes. I’d always wanted to do something with them, but they just belonged too completely to Baker and Wallace. So I needed an assignment to free me,” Lethem tells us. “I just liked the idea of an erratum—meant to correct a mistake—that was itself a mistake,” July says. “And then it was fun to think of what the most egregious correction might be—perhaps an erratum that insisted that perfectly tame text was meant to be pornographic. I don’t know how the author of the original text feels about the ‘swelling clit’ stuffed between pages 44 and 45, I’m sure I’ll meet him at some point and we’ll discuss it.”

I’ve always responded to books as prosthetic extensions of my body, and my sense of wanting to spend so much time around them—and to create them—is intensely physical.

We spoke further with Lethem as he was in the midst of unpacking his office after nine months of sabbatical and travel—trying to fit his newly acquired books onto his already-bursting shelves and deciding which others to rearrange or purge. “I’ve always responded to books as prosthetic extensions of my body, and my sense of wanting to spend so much time around them—and to create them—is intensely physical,” he muses to CH. “This might be rooted in my life as a painter’s son and as an art student, before I began writing: culture as object-oriented. Thinking about a book I want to write often has a lot to do with an intuition about proportion: how much do I want it to weigh? Should it be a short- or a tall-trim volume? The short disquisitions on ‘Fear of Music’ and ‘They Live’ were also absolutely grounded in their tiny proportion and their fate as paperback originals. Back-pocket objects.”

“My unpacking work today also reminds me that I think the overlooked conversation, when people talk about the change in the physical reality of books, is less the paper-and-cloth object versus the reading device than it is the room full of books versus the room that lacks them. At 50, I still feel the weight of my parents’ bookshelves looming over me, with their power of mystery and implication. And I’ve spent my entire life in a charged relationship to these environments—libraries, bookstores, great private collections—and, for me, especially, used bookstores—which seem like collective brains, energizing chambers I compulsively seek out. And then there are the thousands of hours I’ve spent tending my own accumulations, an activity more like meditation, and masturbation, than it is ever given credit for. Rooms of books are the larger prosthetic, the exoskeleton—the internet of intertext.”

“The Thing The Book” is available today, 23 September 2014, for $40 from the website as well as Amazon. Cool Hunting is happy to invite readers to the book’s official NYC launch party (we’re a proud co-sponsor) on 26 September 2014 at Story, 144 10th Ave New York, NY. The Thing will also have a booth (F03) at the NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 that weekend; a massive signing party will take place at 1:00 PM on 27 September, featuring Starlee Kine, Rick Moody, Laurel Nakadate, Matthew Higgs, Andrew Hultkrans, Gwen Allen and more.

First two and last images courtesy of The Thing, all others by Cool Hunting