It is a happy accident that Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Tree of Codes should appear, from British publishers Visual Editions, just as Britain’s own Tom Phillips should release a new edition of his on-going art book project, A Humument, as an iPad app, no less.
Both pieces start from the same premise – that by selecting occasional words from a pre-existing text, you can discover (or, more fancifully, excavate) a new narrative from inside the old – but their means of execution are intriguingly different.
Foer cuts out the unwanted text – literally so, making holes in the pages – while Phillips paints over it. The one emphasizes the elimination of the edited material, the other overcompensates for its absence with a rich visual layer that moves between the figurative and the abstract, the obviously illustrational and the joyously arbitrary. The same germ of an idea results in two vastly different reading experiences.
That germ began its progress with the selection of a book to deface. Whereas Phillips picked his at random (walking into a secondhand bookshop in 1966 and picking the first Victorian novel he came across costing 3p), Foer claims to have settled, after some time pondering the possibility of making a die-cut book, on a longstanding personal favourite: Bruno Schulz’s set of linked short stories Street Of Crocodiles. (You can learn more from the horses’ mouths in these two pieces: Phillips in The Independent, Foer in The Guardian – Foer’s piece is more or less his Afterword to the actual book. He also provided a Foreword to the Penguin US edition of Schulz’s book.)
Foer’s act of erasure, in cutting out the vast bulk of Schulz’s text, has a definite political dimension. The missing portion represents the huge amount of Schulz’s work lost to the chaos of the Second World War, despite his best efforts: Schulz, a Jew living in what was Poland, left various unpublished works with gentile friends; none survived. And it represents the holes that the Holocaust left both in Jewish culture and in its population: Schulz was assassinated by a Nazi in a particularly callous manner – if it’s possible to call any act of murder petty, this is it.
To this extent the missing text functions rather like the missing letter ‘e’ in George Perec’s La Disparation (A Void, in Gilbert Adair’s translation) – although in that book the absence is subtle, almost insidious, a mark of forgetting; in Tree of Codes it is blatantly obvious on every page, which are chopped almost to ribbons – holding the book put me in mind of children’s fold-out paper chains of linked human figures, dangerously fragile.
Opening Foer’s book is likely to elicit sighs or wows of surprise and appreciation, but how is it to read? Well, bluntly, it is hard to read, but it gets easier as you become acclimatised to its particular challenges. By contrast, Phillips aids the reader by linking his phrases together on the page with cute little white splodges; they spatter across the page like semen stains. Reading the iPad app is almost too easy, you turn pages quicker than you would in one of its physical manifestations, and find yourself gliding through the book. Tree of Codes slows you down.
The difficulty, with Tree of Codes, is part and parcel of its beauty: the holes in the pages let the pages behind show through, giving a three-dimensional layering of text, with words we won’t encounter until later sneaking into sentences now. The reader has to learn to lift the words s/he needs from this thicket (or cloud – it almost works like a tag cloud.) With text four or five pages away, the shadows cast by the cut edges help, but a word on the next page is very hard to tell from one on this one. You learn how to read the book as you read it; it helps to hold each page slightly away from the codex.
The thought occurs, though: how essential is this radical surgery of the book as physical entity necessary for Foer’s idea to come across? Could he, for instance, have blacked out the unwanted portion, in the manner of censored FBI reports? Well, yes, and arguably that would have worked equally well as a memorial to the Holocaust.
The wondrousness of the die-cut technique is in a side-effect, though Foer alludes to it in his title: it shows how to read is to decode. The found text, diced into layers, creates its own chaos, its own white noise, from which you must pull the sense. Reading the book becomes a heightened experience, almost a meditation, like sorting coins, or picking one colour of Smartie from a mixed pool of them: I was reminded of studies showing how the eye reads not linearly, following the trimp-tramp of sense from word to word, but by jumping around the page, taking minute pecks of perception from every square centimetre, returning and returning to the point of ‘reading’. (When I get to the last page of a book, or story, I often find myself covering up the last paragraph with my hand, for fear of inadvertently catching a glimpse of what is to come.)
The difference here is that the scattergun reading works across more than the single page: it works in three dimensions, with the book forming a sculpture of its own reading.
An example: The words “presence of […] mother” first become visible on page 86 of the book, and expand slightly into the phrase “in the presence of […] mother” on page 92, but are not read on their own terms, until page 97. These subliminal flash forwards are clearly not engineered, but become an integral part of the reading experience.
Indeed, you could argue that they form a central part of Tree of Codes. You have to ask yourself: if someone took Foer’s excavated text and published it, as a straightforward narrative, all gaps closed up, would it hold your interest? Probably not. Like the Perec (in English at least) and like, too, A Humument, it is poetic, but clumsy; it glows, but it does not flow. The artefact, removed from the archaeological dig, buffed and polished and put behind glass, is diminished.
There are other side-effects, too: The fact that Visual Editions were only able to print text on the front, recto pages of the book (otherwise half the text would have been mangled before it could be scalpeled) means that the verso pages are left blank – showing the same relief map of excision as the right-hand pages, but without the decoration. In a way these left-hand pages are as eloquent as their printed partners: an instrumental b-side to the verbal a-side. They’re like something Rachel Whiteread would have come up with if asked to make a book. (Rachel Whiteread, whose Holocaust Memorial, a library with the book spines turned inwards, stands in the Judenplatz in Vienna.)
Finally, writing this blog reminded me of my own excursion into the art of treated books: I went through a brief phase, in and out of university, of writing letters to people on books, simply scrawling over the pages in thick marker pen, only a few words to the page. I think I gave up because I used white-board pens, and leaning over the books scribbling away for half an hour tended to made me feel sick.
Sometimes I bought cheap secondhand paperbacks. Once, I used a Ladybird children’s book and, as it happens, this one is saved for posterity. On one Sunday of a long London weekend I had to return home to do my laundry before going out again the Sunday evening. I wrote a diary of the weekend while my washing went round and gave it to my friend Joel, who later used a page from it as the back cover of a single (vinyl and CD) from his and his brother’s band, Candidate.