Approaching a book from the perspective of its use, we realize it is not only what books we read, but also how we read them, that shape the ideas we understand and the stories that we imagine. Similarly, in looking at an image, both what we look at imageand how we look influence our interpretation.
By reading and looking at a book from a range of perspectives, we can identity the different patterns and cues in which it communicates its contexts. The ability to use multiple strategies of reading lead to deeper interpretation: they enable us to question how and why a book or image is composed in a particular way, and offers avenues for alternative interpretations.image
Ways of Reading focuses on Glenn Ligon’s artist’s book, “A People on THE CoveR” (London: Ridinghouse 2015), imagewith readings contributed by artist Moyra Davey, literary critic Tobi Haslett, designer Joseph Logan, artist Byron Kim, and educator Wendy Tronrud. Each introduce a distinct perspective and strategy that readers can use to decode the many texts and images they encounter.
When a book contains pictures I almost always look at these first, for the sheer pleasure of the visual stimulus (as is the case with Glenn Ligon’s book), but also to get an overview, a quick first impression of the drift and content, the trajectory of the unfolding material.
In viewing A People On The Cover I was immediately struck by the project of a book containing books, specifically old and well-thumbed copies of volumes that exhibit the traces of their histories in the hands of readers. The excellent reproductions in Ligon’s collection are a lush treat affording us a wealth of detail and information. Hardback, paperback, dust jacket — I love these words and I love the innate ability of photography to transform wear and tear into something beautiful and captivating.
But I am getting ahead of myself: what I first noticed was the bold typography and design of the covers — ingenious, color-rich combinations of photographs and words. I was struck by how daringly minimal some of the design are, and how by contrast many mass-market books tend to overload covers with information. I spent quite a bit of time just gazing at the typefaces, the colors, the striking interplay of image and text.
Then I went back and looked at how Ligon has sectioned the book into five parts with beguiling and sometimes cryptic headings: ‘Beauty,’ ‘Synecdoche,’ ‘The revolution will not be televised,’ ‘Graphic’ and ‘Post.’ I read each of the short texts under the headings, then looked again at the sequence of book covers. In some cases the categorizations are clear, in others I was compelled to reflect and speculate on what Ligon was trying to tell us through his choice of specific epigraphs (there is one by Proust) and his rational for placing a book in one grouping over another.
I read ‘Synecdoche’ three or four times, where Ligon quotes Stuart Hall on the “cultural capital” of the black body, then brings up the history of slavery which valued “bodies, not minds” and how this complicates any celebration of the black body in culture. I am familiar with part of this argument, but I’ve never heard it stated quite so bluntly and it left no doubt in my mind as to why Ligon has invested so passionately in text over image to make his work.
Lastly I read Ligon’s introductory text on reading which is autobiographical and extremely generous in the way it shares his personal history, especially the role of his mother who went to great lengths to ensure he had books and received a good education.
To answer your final question: my work as an artist drives me to read all kinds of things: the newspaper, novels, essays, memoir. It’s a constant back and forth between what I make and write, and what I read. Most recently a footnote in an introduction to Homer’s Iliad led me to Simone Weil’s stupendous essay “The Iliad or the Poem of Force” and now I am writing about her writing for what will hopefully become my next film.
I love that picture of a young James Baldwin on the front of Notes of a Native Son because his face is like his prose: a Sphinx-like riddle of elegance and force. Look at the sullen, bulging eyes. And here they all are, Black faces and fists, grins and scowls, Black pride and fury and yearning—for dignity, revolution, and fat, impressive sales. A book cover should be a lot of things: smart and pretty, but coated in the glaze of commerce.
Baldwin scoffs, in The Fire Next Time, that Black people “didn’t even read.” Well, the poor ones didn’t—but even the rich “merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes.” I wince at the way he spits that insult, and I hate to think of those words printed first in the New Yorker for the delectation of the “liberal conscience” to which that essay is such a caustic rebuke.
“Attitudes” are vital—history forms and demands them. Attitudes are the glinting, buried resource of the oppressed, like the “courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude” that Benjamin speaks of when he chides us for leaving the “spoils to the victors” and forsaking all hope. So I’m grateful to Glenn Ligon for giving us this catalogue of attitudes, this salute to struggle and the struck pose. My instinct was to start from the beginning, to turn the pages of this book of books in perfect sequence. Baldwin—then more Baldwin—then LeRoi Jones. His eyes don’t bulge, I notice—they’re narrowed to a lordly squint.
Funny to see all these careworn dust jackets embalmed in art book gloss, rescued from the past by these sturdy, shiny pages. I’m gripped by the covers themselves because they resuscitate that past, conjuring the boldness of protest literature, the quandaries of multiculturalism, and the “problem” of the Black portrait, with its infinitesimal political calculus and jacked-up stakes. Also: the belief, wrapped in romance, in the improving, elevating power of books. This romance soothes and intoxicates. That books seem like alien, world-shifting talismans won’t surprise anyone who has ever felt shredded by the machinery of race or class. Hence the presence, in Ligon’s childhood home, of the Encyclopaedia Britannica—a household god to be honored, appeased.
But as a “writer,” I should be circumspect, here, about my own feelings, suspicious of my lunge to identify with the stony look of Toni Morrison, say, or Malcolm’s clamped, serious lips. A Black book cover is a bit like Black skin—lustrous and sensuous, sometimes, but subject to preemptive condescension and the carelessness of bias. I come back to the question of “attitude”: is it, like style, just the valve between inside and outside? The way content folds into form? Maybe it’s like Freud’s dream-work: the traffic between latent and manifest, making this book dream-like in how it gratifies, distorts, gives voice to mangled, stifled wishes.
When I look at A People on the Cover, my first thought is that I am glad that we decided to leave the cover blank. I had tried a design which layered all the images in photoshop, but this started to look like an artwork, and maybe not a good one.
Inevitable and Smart
Of course the first thing I notice is that the cover of this book is blank. And then I notice that the book is filled with book covers, which makes the decision to keep the cover of this book blank inevitable and smart. And I notice that most of the subject matter is African-American. And then I notice that some of the pages inside are blank, but only on the left side, which leads me to realize that left-side images represent the back cover of a book.
And then I’m afraid to carry the book around because it’s white, and it’s going to get trashed, but now it already has a food stain on the back, which happens to every book that I like.
The covers inside remind me of how Ad Reinhardt organized his slide show. Apparently, Reinhardt used to shoot and organize slides according to visual motif: spirals with spirals, arches with arches, hands with hands, feet with feet. He showed these slides once a year, I think on April Fools.
And then I wonder how covers relate to the term “covers” as in a musician playing another musician’s song. And then I realize that I’ve never seen Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which devolves into feeling guilty about not having read enough of James Baldwin. And then I feel more guilty because this shouldn’t be about me.
Still, I notice that one of the covers is of a punching bag, which was my studio heavy bag, which Glenn and I turned into a “piece,” that is, a work of art, in response to a scene on an infamous balcony in a great movie we had just seen about Muhammad Ali.
And then I think about Black bodies and about how many Black bodies were brought to this land. And the first chapter especially reminds me how many minds happened to come along with those bodies. And I wonder if in fact a mind is a thing too, like a body is, in which case to waste one would in fact be a terrible thing.
And then I realize how beautiful this book is because my friend Glenn made it because he loves books and especially because it’s a book without a lot of words except some really choice words about Glenn’s history with words and with books and since it is mostly made of pictures of books and not a lot of words, it’s perfectly Glenn. What I mean by that is that we always talk about what works and what makes something better. And what we noticed is that if something is easier and just as good, then it’s better by being easier, usually much better, and things that just make themselves are the best. Things like that seem inevitable and smart like Glenn himself.